What we eat often reflects our culture, our family heritage, our self-esteem and our self-awareness.
Our diet can also be used to directly manipulate the state of our chemistry and hormones.
For example reducing our intake of certain foods will have a direct and positive impact on the severity of our PMS and menopausal symptoms.
Adding certain foods to our diet that balance specific hormones will also have a positive effect on a variety of hormone related human concerns such as depression, anxiety, and again menstrual or menopausal symptoms.
In other words, in addition to fuelling our body for growth and repair functions, certain foods influence the release of certain hormones which in turn have a direct and often immediate influence on our moods.
Chief among these mood inducing hormones is dopamine. Dopamine is the ultimate feel good chemical. It powers the brain’s pleasure centre creating sensations of happiness, calm, and soothing. So, it’s no coincidence that every drug that humans are drawn to abuse (including binge foods) triggers the release of dopamine.
In an ideal life, we have friends and family, a sense of purpose and belonging, and a general structure and routine to our lives that together provide a sense of overall balance and connection with ourselves and with others.
In such a life situation we naturally receive regular hits of dopamine throughout our day because overall we feel good about the people in our lives, the things we have and do, and about ourselves. Those positive interactions and thoughts trigger the pleasure centre in our brain to release a little Dr. Feel Good (dopamine) which serves to reinforce the sense of benefit and pleasure we get from being connected to those people / things and from our own self-care. It’s a lovely, natural, positive feedback loop for all the effort we put into being a decent person and creating a balanced life.
But, sometimes life gets us down. Sometimes our body is just depleted nutritionally because of poor diet or illness or stress. Sometimes we are lonely and dissatisfied with certain key aspects of our lives. This happens to all of us at certain times throughout our life, to varying degrees. It’s just the natural ebb and flow of relationship and of our own growth and development as humans. Even if the dopamine isn’t flowing so readily at these times, if these are not constant occurrences but rather attached to certain specific experiences (the loss of a loved one, a move to a new town) we can understand that there is a certain reason or cause for this low time and we know that things will turn around. In other words, we may feel down for a bit but we don’t lose hope.
But if these down times or times of loneliness, alienation, or boredom are not just blips on a radar otherwise filled with warmth and safety in our connection with others and with our community; if instead they are our ‘norm,’ we naturally start to experience sensations of chronic anxiety and ultimately moderate to severe depression.
No one likes to feel anxious or down. And if we aren’t able to clearly identify what has caused us to feel that way, or if we believe that it’s just how we are, or just our lot in life; in other words, if we believe there’s nothing we can do about how we’re feeling, we’re going to give up looking for a real and lasting solution and instead settle for a Band aid brand fix. Something that will work now and fast, and damn the consequences to my health or waistline!
Some common drugs that humans will abuse to get that quick fix are:
Opiates (Heroin, Morphine)
Amphetamines (Dexedrine, Speed, Meth, Ecstasy)
Likely you’ve heard of these drugs, maybe even tried one or two yourself…?
If so, you know that the lure of these drugs lies in how good they make you feel and how darn fast they do it! These drugs work by triggering a greatly exaggerated dopamine response in our brain which makes us feel good fast. This experience of rapid relief also quickly creates an association in our brain between the ingestion of these substances and feeling happy, calm and soothed. And so an ‘addiction’ is born.
Ultimately, no matter how good the feel good factor of the drug, if the other aspects of our life give us a solid sense of purpose and overall balance, we will appreciate that we can get our dopamine in more manageable and life-enhancing doses just by living our life; no drugs required.
But if we aren’t so lucky: If we doubt our worth in the eyes of others and thus often feel anxious and insecure, or if we have limited warmth and intimacy with others, we are going to be far more susceptible to the siren song of the speedy dose of happy feelings these drugs provide.
But let’s say we’ve lost our dealer’s phone number….or the liquor store is closed…and we need a hit fast! What are we going to do!!!?? Well, we’re in luck because there are a number of foods that are readily accessible at any corner market, gas station, and super store, that work just like those drugs mentioned above and with an added perk!: You are guaranteed not to get arrested for having them in your possession.
The fact is that any food that you like the taste of can trigger the brain’s pleasure centre and provide you with a hit of our beloved dopamine. But some foods have a more immediate and powerful effect than others.
I’ll bet if you stop and think about it for a minute you’ll be able to guess which they are. Which are the foods that you feel drawn to have when you are feeling sad, or lonely, or bored, or tired and you want to enhance how you’re feeling? What do you feel drawn to eat when you are looking to celebrate with others? Might they be things like, oh say…..sugary treats? Or maybe gluten based breads or potato chips? Or possibly cheese or ice cream? Or even, perhaps….chocolate?
These foods have the highest levels of opiates and other dopamine stimulating chemicals of any foods. So naturally if we’re feeling a little low or want to enhance an already good mood, our brain, which remembers all too well how well and quickly those foods worked to make us feel happy, sends us images and sensations of those foods and before you know it we’re off to the 7-11 for a junk food run.
Unfortunately our choice of those processed carbohydrates, or sugary foods, or chocolate or cheese often triggers self-judgement and a sense of being out of control or lacking willpower. This judgement typically triggers an increase our stress, anxiety and depression levels, which lowers our dopamine levels and makes our brain tell us to go and have more of those drug foods so we can feel better fast! And around and around and around we go!
We are drawn to dairy, particularly in concentrated forms like cheese, because it contains dozens of mild opiates including morphine which is a highly addictive opiate. These opiates are released upon ingestion and then even more are released through the process of digestion.
Dairy also includes certain amphetamine like chemicals such as Phenylethylamine (PEA). These amphetamines and opiates trigger an immediate and powerful rush of dopamine into your blood stream! Mmmmmm, good!
We like processed carbohydrates (bread, chips, crackers, pasta) because these carbohydrates rapidly disintegrate into millions of sugar molecules that rush the blood stream triggering an extreme opiate reaction. Which (as far as our brain is concerned) = Yum Yum! Also, it has been shown that when your body releases large stores of insulin a dopamine release is naturally triggered. Since processed carbs are really just sugar to the body, and the more refined the sugar the faster and greater the insulin response needs to be, we get a double dopamine hit from processed carbs which makes our brain remember them with great warmth and fondness!
And a special note about Gluten. Gluten is a wheat protein. Not only does gluten trigger the processed carb response as mentioned, it also breaks apart during digestion into compounds that have a variety of mild opiate effects. And it is currently speculated that wheat-derived opiates have their own direct pathway to the brain which makes them particularly appealing when we want to feel good fast.
Dear, sweet sugar. It is said that the best way to make a baby bond to you is to give her a little sugar. This will create a very strong and immediate recognition in the baby’s brain of you bringing good, happy, tasty feelings. The same is true of us at any age really. The immediate opiate release from processed sugar not only makes you feel good, it also triggers an immediate appetite driving effect and you feel compelled to have more.
And did you know that chocolate is a veritable drug store in and of itself?? It has opiates which trigger that ‘feel good’ dopamine. It has caffeine and Theobromine, both of which are strong stimulants. It contains the amphetamine Phenylethylamine (PEA). And the sneaky little bean also contains Anandamide which is the active ingredient in THC. On top of which it contains special compounds that delay the breakdown of Anandamide so it lasts longer in the body. In other words it makes us feel happy, energized and a little stoned all in one! Add some dairy and sugar as found in milk chocolate and is it any wonder we are madly in love with the stuff!!?
So, now you know a little bit about why you, or some of those folks you know, are so drawn to eat certain foods that you know aren’t the greatest choices for health and wellness.
If you feel frustrated by your dependence on any of these foods let me reassure you that there are lots of things you can do, that do not require you to restrict these foods, in order to find your happy place with them.
Think of it this way, if our needs for love, safety and connection are not met we will use food/alcohol/drugs to stimulate the dopamine release and get that warm, feel good feeling. We really need love and connection but if we don’t know what to do to get it, or it isn’t readily available, food will do in a pinch.
But, if we can replace love and connection with food then the reverse is also true!
Love, happiness, fun, and connection all trigger our brain’s pleasure centre and the subsequent release of dopamine. This means you can create lasting change to your relationship with food by addressing two areas simultaneously:
I welcome hearing from you with any questions and if you’d like to learn more about feeling comfortable in your own skin and being at peace with food and with the people in your life.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer, 2012 edition of Encompass Magazine. Visit their facebook page @ https://www.facebook.com/encompassmagazine for access to past issues, and updates on events and great articles for women over 50!
- Encourage yourself once each day, rather than having the old standby’s when you need a little lift or a little soothing, to choose foods that you truly enjoy but that are just a little less processed or that contain raw cane sugar rather than white for example. Or even better go for fruit! It’s got sugar but it’s got fibre to slow the insulin release so you get some dopamine but without the harm to your body that the foods above do. These will satisfy your body more fully and won’t trigger the extreme highs and lows. Don’t go all or nothing with this. Just invite yourself to make a change to one part of your day and when you’re consistent with that, add another one etc.
- And this really is the most important part of all: Learn simple tools to change the way you think about and relate to yourself and the key people and situations in your life. This will immediately and directly influence how you feel about yourself and your life and you will feel less anxious, insecure, depressed or stressed which naturally means more dopamine is flowing and your need for those doped up foods will naturally release. Truly! I see it every single day in my work and it happened for me too.