In the 1900′s Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of experiments that resulted in him been awarded a Nobel Prize in 1904. He most famously showed that by coupling a food reward, with a ring of a bell, he was able to induce dogs to salivate when ringing the bell alone. In other words, the dogs were most excited at the anticipation of the reward than the actual reward itself. In subsequent experiments researchers have shown that this is mediated by dopamine, a major neurotransmitter in the brain, that is central to the rewarding aspects of environmental stimuli. It does this by increasing the feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. As a result animals will repeat behaviours that release dopamine. Humans are no different, and are essentially as much Pavlov’s apes than are Pavlov’s dogs.
Because dopamine is so central to producing repetitive behaviours it is key to addiction. Raised dopamine levels are found in all addictive patterns including drugs, alcohol, smoking, caffeine, gambling etc. This is a side effect of the role that dopamine was evolved for. Dopamine was evolved to reward and motivate behaviours that led to the proliferation of a species. Basically, dopamine’s role was to make us want to eat and have sex. Therefore, it is not surprising that the dopamine rich reward center known as the nucleus accumbens, a tiny structure in the mid brain, is the locus of activity for both addictive drugs and when we eat. It turns out that food also affects the brain’s dopamine systems and can be addictive. When brain images of methamphetamine users were compared with obese people, they found both groups had significantly fewer dopamine receptors than healthy people. Even more interesting: the higher the body mass index, the fewer the dopamine receptors. Thus food, the primary reward for the brain, is likely to be highly addictive to certain subsets of the population.
Today people eat foods that we never evolved to eat. Since the agricultural revolution 10000 years ago our diet began to heavily rely on grains and other refined carbohydrates. Prior to this time, in the age of the hunter gatherers, we never ate so much carbohydrates, and rather relied on a paleolithic diet of low starch vegetables, nuts, fruits, eggs and meat. Thus, the human body is not evolved to consume non-paleo foods, which are physiologically and mentally damaging. A number of blogs from the paleo diet community have looked at the impact of eating non-paleo foods on our physical health (see links). But carbohydrates may also effect our mental health.
Previous work has shown that mice deprived of food for several hours, and then allowed to binge on sugar water (with concentrations similar to that of soft drinks), soon developed addictive behaviors. After a month of sugar binging, and increased dopamine levels, the rats’ brains developed fewer dopamine receptors and more opioid receptors—changes similar to those observed in mice on cocaine and heroine. When their sugar supply was suddenly cut off, the mice exhibited signs of withdrawal, including teeth-chattering, anxiety, and refusing to leave their tunnels. The latest research showed that when these mice were offered sugar once again, they worked harder to attain it and consumed more than ever.
Is it possible that we live in a world of food addicts? Is it possible that todays society is the biggest drug pusher of them all? Pushing foods that cause massive dopamine hits resulting in a ‘high’. This is certainly the case for me. If I eat ‘normal’ foods I can’t stop eating. When I am not eating I can’t stop obsessing about food. When I have finished my last meal of the day I feel genuine depression that everything I had to look forward too for the day has gone. Tomorrow always seems so far away. When someone opens a bag of chocalates I cant think of anything else until that bag is finished. When I do try to abstain I always end up bingeing. These behaviours fulfill the three criteria of addiction: increased intake, withdrawal, and cravings that lead to relapse.
This blog is about my journey to break my addiction. It has taken me a long time to get here and to realise that my problems are more in my head than what I eat. Although eating is an essential part. Alcoholics must abstain from alcohol. Smokers must abstain from cigarettes. Cocaine addicts must abstain from cocaine. How do food addicts abstain from food? I believe the answer is simple. We stop eating foods that we never evolved to eat. We stop eating highly refined carbohydrates and other processed foods. We eat a paleolithic diet. This will enable you to go through withdrawal and still receive the essential nutrients during this time. The answer is simple, but the pathway is not. This blog is about my journey breaking free of food addiction, and I welcome you to join me as I write down my darkest and brightest moments. Hopefully, Ill see you at the happy end.