Hunger Connections

Weight Loss, Nutritional Balance, Weight Gain: What Roles for Medical Hypnosis and Meditation?

© 2017
by Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.



The field of nutritional metabolism is seeing a vertiginous accumulation of scientific data. Increasingly appreciated are the complex interactions that influence nutritional balance and weight set points, and that determine disorders of nutrition such as anorexia, bulimia and binging behaviors. Recently investigated are intricate hormonal factors in weight balance. Ghrelin, the hunger-stimulating hormone secreted by the gut is offset by leptin that induces satiation. And to those are added more than two-dozen digestion-related molecules such as bile acids, secretin, gastrin, and insulin-stimulating hormones called incretins.

There are intestinal receptors for muscle tension, and for thermal, osmotic, acid, glucose and amino acids constituents (Rubino 2017). Rich alimentary information is relayed to blood and lymph, and to higher nervous system centers by fast and slow nerve conduits, via, among others, the splanchnic and the king of abdominal nerves, the Vagus.

The intestinal tract is not only highly secretory, but also highly neuronal. Fine neuronal nets weave through all layers of the alimentary tract and its associated organs – liver, gallbladder, pancreas - constantly sending metabolic information to brain centers – mostly the hypothalamus, then to the cortex - and consequently to the mind.

While most gut signals travel in the mental underground that is the unconscious, raw hunger’s conscious sensations can be intensely intrusive. Taste receptors in the tongue come into the mix and add all manner of fine flavor nuances. The brain’s cortical areas integrate all, determining final experience, and individual eating behavior.

This ongoing intestinal tract-to-brain cross communication designed to keep the organism alive and fueled is a two-way pipeline. The brain sends out massive outflows of neural messages to its intestinal universe. At the sight of appealing food, for example, appetite gets kindled, and salivation occurs as do myriad visceral reflexes, all preparing for imminent food processing.

The highest dimensions of mind, however, have a say in all this, and medical hypnosis enhances their range of influence. Weaving far into nervous system networks, hypnosis, as an amplifier of mental influence, has the capacity to impact on many physiological processes such as intestinal motility, gastric acidity, and the very mechanisms of appetite.

These are the mind-to-body nervous system communications that medical hypnosis recruits for the attainment of nutritional harmony. But this would not be complete without addressing other factors that are intrinsically psychological. Indeed, emotional factors are immensely contributive to nutritional behaviors, and especially to eating disorders. Emotions derived from conflicts old and new have a lot to do with eating, including family life and history, childhood and adolescent trauma, and current social stresses, all bathed by the powerful and insidious messages on body image generated by society.

Hypnosis, Self-hypnosis, and Meditation

Hypnosis describes special states of awareness that embody intimate communication between mental functions and bodily processes. Awareness thus becomes able to touch bodily dimensions hitherto inaccessible. Developed is the ability to meld mind ever further into the workings of its physical self, thus increasing its capacity for therapeutic transformation.

Many believe that hypnosis is a state of increased suggestibility. Closer to fact is that hypnosis is a state of enhanced imagination (Sunnen: “What is Hypnosis?”) Hypnotic mental images assume vivid forms, as in dreams, making them potent in their ability to modify nervous system functions. Importantly, in hypnosis as in meditation, emotions and complex feelings can be highlighted and kindled. This is especially valuable because so-called positive emotions such as enthusiasm and joy, can be amplified to override negative ones, such as pessimism and anger.

Although many find themselves wondering about differences between hypnosis, self-hypnosis, and meditation, it turns out that there are many more similarities among them than there are differences. They all seek states of mind and body with close dynamic interaction, yielding unity and balance, and paving the way to enhanced neuroplasticity (Sunnen: Hypnosis and Meditation as States of Heightened Brain Plasticity 2016:

Developing self-hypnotic skills entails learning to reach the same states of awareness as experienced in hypnosis, except that it is done solo. To attain such states, mindful breathing accompanied by selected self-suggestions is preferred. Within this frame of mind, gentle persistent centering on the activation of mental imagery spurs progress. Speaking neurologically, hypnosis, self-hypnosis and meditation progressively reconfigure the nervous system so it assumes new realities.

Meditative practices vary widely in form and content. Those that resonate with medical hypnosis also aim to direct awareness to hitherto subliminal physiological networks. The objectives inherent in meditation often center on connecting awareness to the body’s energy centers. Medical meditation, as contrasted to hypnosis, is usually devoid of verbal suggestions because language can take away from directly focusing on the source of consciousness.

By now, everyone appreciates the powerful influence that the mind exerts on the nervous system, on the greater body, and on behavior. A matter of faith in the past, it is now established fact, providing confidence that mental techniques can lead to permanent self-change.


What follows are some ways in which hypnosis has successfully guided behavior toward optimal nutritional balance. In outline form, presented below are some strategies in hypnosis-based approaches to assuming healthy eating comportments.

Reinforcing dietary wisdom

Dietary plans are complex and vary significantly according to their underlying nutritional philosophies. Once a trusted dietary regimen is selected, a perennial problem is discipline: how to stick to a protocol so it easily meshes into daily routine, making infractions rare? A food regimen is best if it provides a feeling of flowing seamlessly into one’s life rhythm.

Reinforcing the importance of positive relationship to the dietary plan is one mainstay of hypnotic treatment. If the regimen is scientifically valid, reasonable and offers faith in providing a path to better health, hypnosis can encourage patterns of thought and behavior conducive to adaptation. Effective hypnotic approaches emphasize mental rewards for desired behaviors. Hypnotic treatment is ultimately successful when the plan is followed as if switched on automatic pilot.

Bolstering positive feelings and body image

Optimism is one of several positive feeling states providing perennial energy for success. Heightened positive feelings of self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence all give their blessings to healthful transformations. Medical hypnosis seeks to affirm perspectives that bolster not only dynamic images but also feelings of self-actualization and meaningful change.

Within the hypnotic experience, emotional imagery becomes more intense and transformative. This unique property of hypnosis allows positive feelings relative to self to assume sustained intensity. Once grasped clearly within the hypnotic experience, incremental transfer to reality becomes automatic.

Mental images that contain feelings of internal force repel discouragement, increase frustration tolerance, making nutritional goals clearer, closer, and more easily attainable.

Dispelling negative feelings

Pessimism is a covert enemy of many endeavors, including dietary resolve. All manner of negative feelings sabotage the best intentions for self-care.

Many will point out that the distressful feelings they experience relative to themselves are based on reality, thus justifying their self-criticisms. But what is “reality,” and who judges it? Which of our opinions of ourselves are truly ours, and which are reflections of what others have said of us over time? And where in all this are the ongoing pressures of societal messages concerning body image? Often, exploration of these issues is best approached through philosophical reframing aimed to gain higher perspectives toward self versus the world at large.

The heavy presence of negative feelings warrants their concerted reckoning. Inquiries center on family life, untoward childhood and adolescent experiences, and possible psychological and physical traumas. Only when these are reasonably understood in the context of the total persona can medical hypnosis properly proceed. Once in perspective, negative feelings may then be invited to lose their grip to desist in their contaminating quality of life.

Eating with the illumination of all senses

Fundamentally, the process of eating can be as conscious, or as unconscious as one decides. Conscious eating allows awareness to illuminate all incoming sensations, from gustatory experiences to those accompanying the course of digestion. Not only are awareness’ portals opened to tastes and aromas, but also to the passage of nutrients through visceral networks, from the oral cavity to the esophagus, the abdomen, and even far into pelvic areas. Time, coaxed to slow down, allows awareness to beam into those systems responsible for digestion’s ultimate goal: replenishing the reservoir of life’s vital energies. Meditative slowdown also allows digestion’s feedback loops to invite benevolent visceral rhythms.

Growing awareness of the digestive process is a meditative practice. In time, the rewards of this practice include improved food utilization and efficient energy extraction and, most important, derived experiences of visceral harmony and gastro-intestinal well-being.

Modifying the sensations of hunger and cravings

Medical hypnosis shapes sensations much as a sculptor modifies a block of clay. Nowhere is this more dramatically shown as in hypnotic anesthesia where pain sensations are so totally abolished as to permit major surgical interventions without any chemical soporific support.

Similar feats are achieved with hunger whose relentless calling often leads to unwise behavior. Hunger lends itself to hypnotic modification. Hypnotically displaced further away in awareness’ periphery, or imbued with softer tonalities, hunger becomes less disruptive, more tamable.

Far into the primitive nervous system, hunger is interpreted not only as an imperative to refuel, but often also as a warning, and even a dire emergency message. Remnants of our baby brain remain active in adult life. Hunger in infants strikes a deep cord, for then, hunger, if too prolonged and unrelieved, may lead to demise. Hunger may then be paired with feelings of impending doom.

Unaware of this universal phenomenon, some adults may interpret hunger as a bona fide danger signal. Hunger then becomes inexplicably associated with tension, progressing to anxiety and distress, and, in extreme cases, can herald the beginning of panic.

”You do not need to fear hunger, it will not harm you as such,” is a truism used in hypnosis to assuage this common hunger/anxiety syndrome.

Exercising as meditation

A crucial component of nutritional balance is exercise. Moving one’s body has multi-dimensional health benefits, but moving one’s body with awareness multiplies them. Beyond the beneficial energy expenditure derived from exercise, awareness-infused exercise makes for the activation of multiple body/mind systems, fostering their fluid entente. Exercise is much more than purely muscular, as it involves all organ systems. In the interest of attaining higher levels of health - for which there are no limits - motivation for meditative exercise is hypnotically enhanced, thus adding to nutritional harmony.

Contacting the wisdom self

Stored within the mind’s encyclopedic archives are not only all memory traces dating from birth - and even before - but also archetypal knowledge about what life best needs for its sustenance. Deep within, there are primal intuitions about what is fundamentally good for us, and about what we need to do to respect life’s best course.

Much of this knowledge is available to us. Science provides expanding guidance on what is nutritionally beneficial to our health (Thompson 2016; McGuire 2017). But a most important part is personal and proprietary because of our unique metabolic makeup and life history.

The hypnotic state offers opportunities for opening access to all manner of self-knowledge. “Please, now, ask all dimensions of your mind to grant you insights and revelations about what is best for you at this juncture of your life,” is one broad spectrum hypnotic directive designed to contact the wisdom self. Breakthroughs come in the form of significant emotional insights. Smokers, for example, who have full knowledge of the harm they do to themselves, suddenly break through their rationalizations when impacted, in emotional terms, by how truly destructive their habits are.

Indeed, the same can happen with corporeal balance. The enlightenment provided by hypnosis establishes new levels of function, in essence reprogramming nervous system circuitry to set points consonant with higher levels of wellness.


Increasingly appreciated is the fact that focused mental techniques have the capacity to change the very structure of the nervous system, taking advantage of a property called neural plasticity (Costandi 2016; Denes 2015). Brain structures change, and their circuitries correspondingly achieve higher functionality. In tandem, the mind transcends itself and its obstacles, and more adaptive states of awareness evolve.

Techniques proprietary to medical hypnosis and meditation guide therapeutic objectives for many imbalances implicating mind/body relationships. Presented herewith are approaches applied to the goal of optimizing nutritional balance, and to the therapy of eating disorders.

References and suggested readings

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Gérard V. Sunnen M.D.
200 East 33rd St.
New York, NY 10016
Tel. 212-6790679
FAX 212-6798008

Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology.
(Ret.) Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Bellevue-NYU Medical Center, New York