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Dopamine, the master switch of food addiction

As discussed in a previous Examiner article, our brain is the command center for regulating our appetite which includes a complex dance between hormones, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Hunger, fullness and the desire to start and stop eating is a complicated process controlled by this delicate balance and other body chemistry. One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine, referred to as the reward neurotransmitter, or the pleasure driving messenger.

Hunger, fullness and the desire to start and stop eating is a complicated process controlled by a  delicate balance in the brain and other body chemistry.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Dopamine is synthesized in the body and stored in the vesicles until some action occurs releasing the dopamine into the brain's synaptic cleft. When we do something that we enjoy the brain released the dopamine and the dopamine reinforces the properties of what we are engaged in at the time eating, exercising, sex, gambling, etc. Once in the synapse, dopamine binds with receptors and activates them ... we get that good feeling reward. The greater the release of dopamine, the greater the intensity of the reward. The greater the intensity of the reward, the greater the desire, trigger or urge to continue the or expand the behavior. Molecules of dopamine then quickly releases from the receptors, is absorbed back into the presynaopic cell (referred to as dopamine re-uptake), then it is repackaged back into vesicles for future release. Dopamine also interacts with other neurotransmitters like opioids and other brain chemicals to give us a sense of well being. It coordinates other aspects of brain body connection to seek out more rewards.

There are 4 processes that influence this dopamine system are:

  1. Anything that increases the release and transmission of dopamine, increases the experience of reward.
  2. Anything that clears the dopamine from receptors will stop the reward experience.
  3. Anything that interferes with dopamine uptake will shorten the reward experience or decrease the intensity.
  4. Anything that reduces the number of dopamine receptors or interferes with binding to receptors will lessen the reward.

An over production of dopamine can drive us to become obsessive, like overeating. A chronic overuse of any substance (drugs or food addiction) or activity (sex or gambling) will reduce the binding capacity of dopamine to receptors (the body down regulates, dulling the experience) and we will need to increase use of the substance or activity to get the same degree of reward. Certain medications are dopamine agonist that activates dopamine receptors in the absence of dopamine which can lead to overproduction either by choice or as a side effect. Other medications are uptake inhibitors that block the action of the dopamine transporters availability to receptors, either by design or as a side effect.

Key reasons for deficiencies in dopamine include but are not limited to :

  • Oxidation that creates free radical damage to the brain cells that produce dopamine.
  • Deficiency of tyrosine or phenylalanine ( a precursor of tyrosine).
  • Uncontrolled stress.
  • Lack of adequate exercise.
  • Vitamin deficiencies.
  • Inadequate sleep. Severe sleep deprivation can actually increase dopamine but you will not benefit much because you may end up groggy, fatigued, irritable and in a state of brain fog. This may also disrupt other hormones like cortisol and leptin.
  • Reduced production of dopamine in the brain.
  • Reduced density of dopamine receptors in the brain.
  • Medications that block the action of the dopamine transporters availability to receptors.

According to Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure, there are specific associated characteristics that can be assessed to determine if you have a dopamine deficiency.

Low levels of dopamine is associated with:

  • Feeling bored or apathetic (a form of depression).
  • Decreased physically or mentally energy.
  • Low motivation.
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating.
  • Chills or cold extremities.
  • Easily gain weight.
  • A need of a stimulant to get or keep going like caffeine, sugar or medications.

An additional source noted 3 additional related conditions associated with low dopamine levels either from low production or a low density of receptors in the brain to register the dopamine include:

  • Restless leg syndrome.
  • Highly creative people often produce sufficient dopamine; however, they have fewer dopamine receptors in the thalamus part of the brain. This reduced access to the dopamine allows more information to come from the thalamus. This allows these individuals to make highly unusual associations which is of benefit when problem solving ... they are creative problem solvers.
  • Schizophrenics also have a fewer dopamine receptors in the thalamus. The resulting additional information from the thalamus in these individuals "can result in a misinterpretation of other people's intentions."

The following suggested actions on increasing dopamine come from one published article suggesting various ways to increase dopamine and another published article focused just on the diet and conventional wisdom from other published research.

  • Diet rich in antioxidants including: Beta-carotene and carotenoids found in green and orange vegetables and fruits, asparagus, broccoli, and beets; Vitamin C found in peppers, oranges, strawberries, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts; and Vitamin E found in nuts and sunflower seeds, greens, broccoli and carrots.
  • Diet rich in tyrosine which is needed to make dopamine including: Almonds, avocados, bananas, low-fat dairy, meat and poultry, Lima beans, sesame and pumpkin, fave beans, ricotta cheese, oatmeal, mustard greens, edamame, dark chocolate, seaweed, and wheat germ.
  • Adequate dietary sources of Phenylalanine needed in the manufacture of tyrosine, found in soy products, fish, dairy, and meats.
  • Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood.
  • A reduction of the consumption refined carbohydrates and sugars, and processed highly palatable foods.
  • Regular exercise to increase blood calcium, which stimulates dopamine production and uptake in your brain. This also increases the release of endorphins, similar sensation as a dopamine high.
  • Getting plenty of uninterrupted sleep will make you feel energized, and reduce fatigue, grogginess and irritability.
  • If you feel you do not have any enjoyment in your life, find a hobby of do something that gives you enjoyment.
  • Set a SMART goal (specific, measurable, action oriented, reasonable ant time specific). When you reach your goal, the satisfaction will get will be through the production of dopamine. Make it an easy goal!
  • Try a supplement based on your care givers advise.
  • Reduce stress through guided imagery, meditation and yoga as a supplement to exercise.
  • Increase your exposure to bright light.

Food can be more addictive than drugs based on the title of research published on "Cocaine and Heroin are Less Addictive Than Oreos". Researcher and neuroscientist Joseph Schroeder stated “Our research supports the theory that high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do”. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”

Food addiction can come from food that is highly palatable which prompts us ... drives us ... to seek out and eat more, even when we're not physically hungry. So what makes food palatable? What makes foods so palatable that they can make us overeat to the point of feeling "Thanksgiving stuffed" at any time?

Palatability, as described in more detail in a previous Examiner article, is influenced by:

Once we start overindulging in highly palatable food the brain's reward system gets more and more dopamine the brain undergoes neuroadaptive changes that down regulate, (dull) the dopamine reward function. This in effect reduces the pleasurable feeling from the overindulging. This drive us to eat even more to increase the pleasurable levels. This overindulging of palatable food to get the pleasure from the release of dopamine is referred to the Gluttony hypothesis.

Food then becomes a focal point of delivering a pleasurable experience beyond just the satisfaction of food alone into other parts of our lives that are not pleasurable such as feeling depressed, lonely, sad of physically stressed. Even the sight of food, a photograph, commercial or a food show (all food porn) can drive us to want to experience the visual representations we see. We smack out lips, secrete saliva and digestive juices and wait with anticipation for that first bite.

To combat this drive of seeking pleasure from food, find and substitute other avenues of pleasure such as through a hobby or exercising (also increases our natural pain killers, endorphins) or set achievable goals that when met give a sense of satisfaction. Consume a clean diet of fresh unprocessed foods, and begin eliminating highly palatable processed and refined foods today. Seeking out support from others may also be necessary ... others that will not enable your obsession with food.

This information is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical/nutritional/fitness advice. Information presented is subject to change as additional discoveries are made or additional research is published.


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