Food is a drug Part I


Okay I have teased at this a few times in the past I know, but I am finally getting to discussing the concept of food addiction.  *Please note this major disclaimer: I am not in any way, shape, or form diagnosing anyone who reads this as being a food addict.  That determination is very individualized and should really be explored with a mental health/addiction professional that has experience in working with eating disorders.  Now with that out of the way let’s discuss it a bit with this as a foundation.
  • The treatment for over eating/binge eating, emotional eating, and food addiction is basically the same. 
  •  At this point the notion of food as an addiction is still technically being researched and debated; however research (mostly on rats at this point) does show signs of actual physical cravings.
  • There are several things that are looked at to see or understand how we would define addiction: loss of control(attempt to control the how much and can’t), withdrawals (think headaches from lack of caffeine or sugar), physical cravings, tolerance(more taken in to get same effect more salt or sugar for instance), continued use despite biological/psychological/social problems (diabetic but still eating sweets), used or taken for longer than intended or in larger amounts than intended (eating more of the cake than I thought), and a great deal of time/energy spent to obtain/use/recover from the substance (ate too much at dinner sleeping it off on the couch all night).
  • The information we have on the reactions in the brain to certain foods will sound extreme and possibly disheartening, please know if I didn’t believe in the concept of recovery I wouldn’t even bother with my current field.  I would probably still be 250lbs even if you want to get down to it.
There are certain chemicals in the body that help to influence the way we feel and how we function.  Among those are some that may sound familiar to you and as you will see surprisingly are influenced by food.
ENDORPHINS: Endorphins are a natural body chemical similar to morphine.  Sugar and starch intake stimulates endorphin secretion.  So as we take in sugar and starch continuously the result could be that we become addicted to our own endorphins.  So we eat to trigger a release, because when our endorphins are released, we feel better.  When we get stressed we release Dynorphin, which is an appetite stimulant so we believe we are hungry or empty.  So bottom line endorphins make us feel better.  If you are stressed you might not be getting the endorphins that are needed to deal with stress so we crave sweets as a relief.  Increased sweet eating increases the amount of receptors for endorphin thus perpetuating the compulsive desire to eat sweets/carbs.
DOPAMINE: research is starting to show that there is a correlation between certain food intake and an increase in dopamine receptors, very similar to the reaction produced by alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and other narcotics.  The act of chewing is thought to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases comfort levels.  Chewing is also a way that we send a message to our bodies that we are getting full, so this is an important bodily process.  Interestingly there are also some studies looking at the connection between dopamine deficiency and addiction.  In other words someone might be predisposed to addiction if you don’t naturally make enough dopamine.
SEROTONIN:  The website helps to explain how this chemical in the body interacts with food. 
Serotonin synapses in the brain signal the alleviation of physical and emotional pain, and someone without enough serotonin can be quite anxious or depressed. The highs become too high and the lows become too low. When refined carbohydrates (sugar, flour, alcohol) are ingested, serotonin is manufactured and released. This was first presented to the general public as a problem of addiction by Kay Sheppard in Food Addiction: the Body Knows. The current science on this is best summarized by Katherine in her more recently revised Anatomy of a Food Addiction: the Brain Chemistry of Overeating. Katherine explains:
So if your serotonin level is functioning poorly and your life becomes stressful, you can get some relief by eating sugar. We all learn pain relief very quickly. When something stops pain we repeat it. If sugar stops pain for you, you will eat it again.”
There is also evidence that serotonin decreases eating because we get a “feedback loop” that tells us we have had enough and to stop eating.  If there is a malfunction there we don’t receive the message then we will continue to eat.  So for instance someone with this issue may find themselves eating an entire loaf of bread because their body doesn’t tell them “STOP!”  After eating the whole loaf of bread they crash both physically and mentally.
How do I tell if I am a food addict or an emotional eater?  Look at the definition listed above to see if you have an addiction problem.  Right now to define whether you are physically addicted to food is somewhat difficult as the field is still emerging.  With physical addiction there does usually come physical craving (false starving), mental obsession (false thinking), often past trauma, and weight.  
Tomorrow I will post some suggestions on how to cope or manage the problems that come with food addiction.  Look for Food as a Drug Part II tomorrow…

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