By Hayley Stobbs R.Ac, CNC
Food addiction is fairly common in Canada; A study in 2013 found that 1 in 20 Canadians struggle with this form of addiction, which includes disorders such as binge eating disorder, bullimia, anorexia, and obesity. The biochemical causes of food obsession, compulsion, and dependence involve interconnected networks of neurotransmitters and hormones as relayed between the brain and nervous system, endocrine system, and gastrointestinal system. Individuals struggling with food addiction experience gut-brain axis dysregulation and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal dysfunction (HPA-D). Both of these feedback systems have direct and indirect influences on hunger and satiety signals, and affect general physiological functioning when out of balance. Cognitive distortion and food elements such as amount, type, and frequency consumed, are a part of the behavioural cycle.
Food addiction involves brain circuitry and behavioural habits similar to other other forms of addiction:
1. Begins with physical cravings.
2. Becomes a mental-emotional obsession and illness.
3. Interferes with daily living, relationships, work or school, and spiritual life.
4. Involves chemical dependency of one or more foods in associated volumes.
5. Formation of tolerance (body becomes sensitized, more is needed to produce an effect) and withdrawal.
Research shows that food addicts have the same D2 dopamine gene marker that distinguished alcoholism and other drug addictions and that ‘palatable food’ created the same types of changes in dopamine receptors in the brain as other widely recognized addictive substances.
The evolution of food addiction started with the food industry revolution and natural selection:
Large cooperative food industries utilize a technique called achieving a ‘bliss point’ in consumers through creating hyper-palatable fast foods in 'portion distortion' processed forms. Think taste-bud pleasing FAT, SUGAR, and SALT (Ex’s: chips, chocolate, and soda pop). This package along with novel marketing, cues, and convenience causes cravings for more, and in return more profit (financial gain) for the company. Big pharmaceutical companies also benefit from nutrient-lacking diets as these, which result in illness and increased prescribed drugs to treat symptoms rather than root causes.
Refined sugars, salt, and fats increase endorphins (feel good chemicals), dopamine (do it again/reward), and serotonin (pleasure/happiness) in the brain through activation of taste, chemicals, and hunger hormones. Excess consumption of these types of foods over time causes adaptations in neuroendocrine pathways that lead to overeating these types of foods.
Food for thought: A France research study demonstrated that an intense sweet flavour, including non-caloric artificial sweeteners surpass cocaine as a reward in laboratory animals.
Throughout evolutionary history natural selection favoured genetic variations that:
Enable us to taste these nutrients. Our biological innate ‘earth existence’ introduced our palate to the sweet taste of our mother’s milk. Our primal instincts tell us to eat sweet, salty, and fatty foods when hungry or in survival mode in order to sustain ourselves longer.
Make our brains respond with a ‘reward’ AKA we like it, it tastes good. The reward center of our brain gives a jolt of endorphins for reward; morphine-like chemicals that work on same neuronal receptors as opiate drugs.
Make brains remember what we did to get reward and make us want to do it again.
“Compared to the few minutes of taste bud exhilaration, a healthy pain-free body is worth the minor sacrifice of your favourite junk-food snack. It comes down to long term happiness over short term pleasure. The fun begins when your brain and body are free of the reactions caused by your ailments. If we retrain our palates and taste buds and return to the diets of our ancestors, great rewards await.” – Julie Daniluk
Further evolved with repetitive availability, accessibility, and associations:
Friends, family, and grocery stores instil habits and biochemical alteration by what is served, available, and accessible (convenient to busy lifestyle).
Associated events and memories such as holidays, social events, rewards, and methods of suppressing or soothing emotions.
Strengthened by stress, emotional imbalance, and nutrient deficiencies:
Disrupted circadian rhythms, busy 'doing' schedules, yin depleting 'go-go-go' lifestyles, and increased expectations and demands result in stress, emotional imbalance, and the urge to soothe feelings and bust through fatigue with food.
Foods high in processed foods lacks nutrients that can over time result in nutrient deficiencies and cravings. Deficiency examples: fatty acids, amino acids, chromium, magnesium, B vitamins, selenium, and zinc. Processed foods can also create a debt of nutrients in the body by using up minerals such as magnesium and through disrupting gastrointestinal flora, which have an important role in producing neurotransmitter metabolites and the synthesis of certain B vitamins.
"It's not willpower, it's biochemistry. The amount and type of food you eat affects the balance of brain chemistry, hormones, and blood sugar levels. Your nutrient dense meals should contain enough essential fatty acids (good quality fats) and amino acids (via quality protein) to build sufficient serotonin (happy hormone) and dopamine both of which help you inhibit food cravings (particularly carbohydrates). Set yourself up to manage cravings by resetting your neurohormonal dashboard." - Dr. Sara Gottfried
Key contributers to food addiction:
Trauma, stress, and mental-emotional imbalance: A need for release in a life with too much control or vice versa, to take the edge off, to numb or suppress feelings, a misguided attempt to reverse loss, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, to fill inner 'emptiness', and/or boredom. Cognitive distortions involving inner narrative stories that make you believe that you can have more or need more. Mental emotional triggers are often due to suppressed or misunderstood feelings involving trauma, abuse, insecurities and lack of self worth.
Biochemical/brain chemistry: a physiological need to stimulate neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, GABA) or supplement nutrients and energy that are lacking, for example, due to poor diet and blood sugar imbalance, unrelenting stress, over-exercising, burnout, and caffeine dependence.
Hormone imbalances including insulin resistance, abnormally high or low cortisol levels, thyroid disorders, and sex hormone imbalances.
Inflammation of various causes, for example, food sensitivity’s, permeable gut, infection, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, environmental and chemical toxins, etc.
Lifestyle: Lack of exercise or over-exercising, over-working, drug use.
Chronic insomnia can cause dysregulation of neurotransmitters and hunger hormones.
The neuro-endocrine (brain-hormone) connection is tied to the gut-brain axis. Interestingly, digestive health is connected to the production of serotonin and dopamine. In fact, the gut is often referred to as 'the second brain', and as much as 90% of serotonin is made here!
Blood sugar imbalance: the vicious cycle example
Carbohydrate rich foods such as sugar (intense sweet flavor) stimulate taste buds, which sends nerve impulses to brain. Natural opiates in the brain’s pleasure and reward center, ‘feel good’ serotonin, and pleasure-reward dopamine are released. A rise in blood sugar and fat storage is signalled. Soon after consumption, blood sugar crashes or remains elevated, the stress hormone cortisol releases, gut microflora shifts, and other symptoms arise. Consumption of hyperpalatable foods builds permanent memory of where pleasure comes from despite symptoms. Desire for more of that flavour and associated good feelings are craved. This remains a cycle as the food addiction struggle is not getting the lasting food reward.
“When natural sugar is refined and concentrated, the life force is dispersed and the natural balance upset. Refined sugar passes quickly into the bloodstream in large amounts, giving the stomach and pancreas a shock. This leads to a blood sugar imbalance and to further cause cravings for sugar.” – Paul Pitchford, Healing With Whole Foods
The stress connection:
The behavioural and physiological response generated in the face of danger or perceived threat presses the on button for sympathetic nervous system, fight of flight activation, which signals adrenal glands to pump adrenaline and cortisol. Chronically elevated high cortisol causes inflammation and oxidative stress, blood sugar and hormone imbalance, and dopamine and serotonin dysregulation. Cravings become stronger with goals of increasing blood sugar and neurotransmitter release to make sure we are getting enough fuel during stress or perceived ‘famine’. Increased sympathetic tone and cortisol release facilitates fat storage (especially in belly area) due to increased insulin levels. Thus, weight gain and hormone imbalance sets in and leads to negative lifestyle changes, overeating, shame, and the food obsession cycle repeats.
“Just about every cell in our bodies is affected by insulin abuse, which also results in the production of excess inflammatory chemicals – the basis for all chronic disease, including headaches and insomnia!” – Christiane Northrup, M.D.
10 TIPS FOR FOOD ADDICTION, OVEREATING, + SUGAR CRAVINGS:
1. Avoid your external triggers while healing your internal world. As you move closer toward peace and self-acceptance, you may find that you can keep past triggers around you, for example chocolate (if this is an addiction for you), and even enjoy them in moderation without compulsion, obsession, or dependence. Until then, don't grocery shop while emotionally vulnerable, honour your buffers (things that calm cravings), and regularly check in with your SHMEC; are your sleep, hunger, energy, mood and cravings in check?
Note: Be mindful of foods rich in natural opioid peptides, which are naturally more addictive. Opioid peptides bind to opioid receptors in the brain and play an important role in attachment, stress response, and control of food intake. The following foods produce endogenous opioid (morphine-like) metabolic products:
* Casomorphin from casein found in mammal milk *cheese is most addictive since it contains the greatest amount of casein protein.
*Gluten exorphin in gluten-containing grains.
*Compounds found in chocolate and caffeine.
2. Get into the habit and routine of preparing and eating whole foods. Mindfully eat nature-made foods, and regular timed meals, re-discovering foods for their freshness and nourishment. The body-mind will crave less when it feels nourished with the nutrients it thrives on. Enjoy quality protein, fats, and fibre, which support neutrotransmitter and hormone balance. In addition, work with a holistic nutritionist or naturopathic physician to explore food sensitivities and to assess gastrointestinal health.
3. When cravings hit: Separate yourself from the cognitive narrative in your head saying that you need ___ to feel okay. Recognize the stories as 'old songs' or 'chatter', call them out, and get deliberate with mindful choices that are in tune to the place inside of you that is already whole. To understand this further, watch 'The Two Part Brain Concept' by Lydia Wente. Get out of your head and align with your body to shift your attention and focus. For example, drink 8 - 16 oz of filtered water or tea and set a timer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, practice breath-work meditation/prayer or free writing to let go of stress and emotions that are surfacing. Engage pen to paper and write whatever is on your mind for 10 minutes. Then, go for a 5 – 10 minute walk after to let it all out from mind to body. If still famished after 20 minutes eat a small protein and carbohydrate containing snack.
4. Food cravings can be information from the soul. Develop the capacity to question which opens up your intention and action to heal. Explore what changes in life you're craving, spiritual energy deficits, and work and feel through associated insecurities, past trauma and hurts that you may be subconsciously wanting to suppress, ignore, or soothe with food. If you are dealing with emotional or heart hunger, soothe with pleasurable non-food alternatives that release endorphins: a massage, flowers, a good book, massage, tea, game or puzzle, creative expression, a brisk walk, fresh air, a hot bath with Epsom salts, friend time, etc. Seek a somatic or cognitive behavioural counsellor, or hypnotherapist, to guide your way through.
5. Manage and feel stress and emotions that surface. To prime your 'rest and digest' stress response, meditate daily, starting with 2 minutes and working up to 5 - 20 minutes per day. Make a self care list that includes non-conventional ideas like 'saying no', practice gratitude daily, and make a joy list that includes things that make you smile (see non-food ideas in step 6). Lastly, accept that feeling your feelings won't destroy you and build up the courage to feel them fully without judgement and with curiosity, kindness, and gentleness. As you move through them you learn more about your true self and will feel lighter, empowered, and more at peace within present moments.
6. Believe in yourself, be patient and positive, and set realistic expectations (start with small steps :). Transitioning to a whole foods diet and swapping sugar for maple syrup, stevia, or monk fruit extract is a great start.
7. Take action and don't be hard on yourself if set-backs occur. Practice self-acceptance, forgiveness, and learn from the experience. Berating yourself is an unhelpful energy that can lead to feelings of lack of self-worth, failure, and giving up. Instead, know that relapses are a part of the process. Focus on how far you've come, trust where you're going, consistently remind why it's important, seek out accountability buddies, and be grateful for your ability to take action and get back on track. Every time you try and build upon your status quo the adaptation becomes easier.
‘Imperfect action trumps perfect inaction’ - Harry Truman.
8. Seek support. Registered acupuncturists, counsellors, nutritionists, ND's, and herbalists can all offer avenues for healing. Aside from diet, other avenues for balancing neurotransmitters and hormones include botanical medicine, supplementation, positive social or community connection, psychotherapy, exercise, restful sleep, and light therapy.
How Chinese Medicine Can Help
According to Chinese medicine food addiction is an imbalance and may be related to the following patterns: liver qi stagnation, liver overacting on spleen, spleen and stomach deficiency, stomach heat, heart and/or kidney deficiency, and blood/yin deficiency. A combination of acupuncture, diet and lifestyle suggestions can help balance and strengthen the body-mind's innate ability to heal.
Moving Through Food Addiction. .
Eating until satisfied and not full.
Not feeling hungry all of the time.
Not thinking about food all the time.
Leaving food on the plate.
Having one bite and being able to stop.
Food for Thought
“I will not feel deprived when I pass __ food. I will feel empowered that I made a nourishing choice.”
“Thanks (food) for giving me what I needed at the time but it’s time to say goodbye. I can do this. Next time I’ll call a friend when I feel the urge coming on.”
“I want ___ . I acknowledge and observe my desire with neutrality. This protocol doesn’t mean I have to give up ___ forever, however I find that I feel better with the changes I’ve made.”
“I love myself enough to eat the things I require to heal. I am worthy of love and I trust life.”
To explore whether a therapeutic diet such as a keto diet may be right for your blood sugar balancing goals, click here. Also, check out Mindful & Intuitive Eating Guidelines. To learn more about addiction, I highly recommend reading “The Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Mate.
I hope my post has given you insight today. If you’re interested in addiction, blood sugar, and neurotransmitter balancing as complimented by acupuncture I’d be happy to guide you along. Please visit www.vcaspa.com to book online or call 250-590-4341. To learn more about my acupuncture practice, follow @hayley_stobbs on Instagram.
In health & happiness,
Hayley Stobbs R.Ac, CNC
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Joneja, Janice Vickerstaff RD. The Health Professional’s Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerance. US: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013.
Ballantyne, Sarah PhD. The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing INC., 2013.
Sanfilippo, Diane. The 21 Day Sugar Detox: Bust Sugar & Carb Cravings Naturally. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing Inc., 2013.
Hicks, Angela; Hicks, John; Mole, Peter. Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture. Churchill Livingstone, 2011.
Lydia Wente. Lydiawente.com Lifestyle coach.https://gallery.mailchimp.com/1c89feb606f38adf2cb2a4f05/files/How_To_Stop_Binge_Eating.pdf