How we get addicted to food

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In this article, I will briefly review mechanisms that are discussed in more detail in the addiction section of this website. 

The basis of learning and reward in our brain is centered in an area of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens.  When we have a pleasurable experience, such as sex, using drugs,or eating a good meal,  there are several physiologic events.  Specifically, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released which is crucial for learning new behaviors.  In addition to dopamine, beta endorphin is released which results in our experiencing pleasure and being able to relax.   The result is that we will want to repeat the behavior in order to keep experiencing these effects.

When we use drugs, these neurotransmiteers are released in amounts much greater and for much longer periods, than is normally accomplished physiologically.  After the initial high, our brain adapts to these effects.  Changes in the brain develop including  a relative absence of dopamine and an insensitivity of the target cells to dopamine and endorphin.  These changes cause us to feel depressed, anxious and looking for ways to restore the dopamine and endorphin activity of our brain to normal.  We will want to repeat any activity that we have learned will increase these neurotransmitters.

What has become apparent over the last few years is that highly processed carbohydrates and fatty food also cause releases of these transmitters.   Certainly, they cause a greater release than naturally occurring food.  These foods  make us feel happy.   We learn to keep eating in order to regain this feeling.  

Therefore, there are two ways we may feel hungry.  The normal hunger occurs when the hypothalamus, after measuring what is happening in our body, tells us we need to eat by creating the feeling of hunger.  The abnormal hunger occurs when we are responding to imbalances in our nucleus accumbens; we crave and even obsess over food.  And of course, the food we crave for is the highly fatty and/or highly processed carbohydrates,  food that we have learned gives us the most pleasure.  This kind of eating continues to release high amounts of dopamine and endorphins, which leads to even more unhealthy eating.

In other words, unhealtthy eating is when we eat to satisfy our Nucleus Accumben not our hypothalamus.

When we are stressed and/or depressed, we want to feel better.  We know what makes us feel better.  When we are bored, our brain wants pleasurable stimulation.  Again, we know what will get us this feeling.  And when we are exposed to food triggers, like that plate of cookies at work, we are stimulated to want this food unless our natural appetite is at a minimum, our emotional state is optimal and we have other things going on to keep our mind occupied.    Remember too, some triggers can be quite subtle; we are barely aware of them but they will make us want to eat..

If we can change the way these transmitters behave in our brain, we can change the experience of eating.  Medications exist that can moderate the effects of the transmitter release.  This, hopefully, will allow us to be more immune to the craving and compulsions of food.  We can than begin the process of unlearning our unhealthy eating behaviors.

Unfortunately, intervening directly with dopamine levels, or its' targets, has not really been worthwhile; no good interventions exist.  However, we can reduce the effects of endorphin.  Additionally, there are indirect ways of affecting dopamine activity.  GABA, glutamate, seratonin and andamide are all transmitters that impact upon dopamine function. (andamide is the natural chemical that is imitated by marijuana).   Several medications exist that have an impact on these chemicals and reduce food cravings.

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