Paleo, food addiction, and dopamine

by (77338) Updated April 09, 2014 at 7:51 PM Created December 30, 2011 at 3:35 PM

First of all, I am looking for an answer to my question. NOT JUDGEMENT on my decisions/addiction issues. If you need to pass judgement, please go elsewhere. That is not helpful to anyone.

OK. Over the holiday season, I gave myself license to eat all manner of non-paleo stuff.

Fast food, cookies, fudge, buckeyes, etc. etc.

It was delicious but left me feeling kind of hollow because now I know what these foods do to my body. The cognitive dissonance was deafening.

To my question, I'm realizing the addictive component of refined flour (and wheat in general), sugar, sugar-substitutes (damn Cherry Diet Dr. Pepper!), etc. They say that obese people (I am currently in this category) have fewer dopamine receptors than "normal" people, and the more obese a person is, the fewer dopamine receptors they have. And the addictive component of food is usually driven by sweeteners and salt. I believe that a lower carb Paleo diet is ideal in my situation to help overcome these addictions. However, I would like to raise the number of dopamine receptors in my brain ASAP to help overcome this addiction.

One suggestion is exercise, which can raise dopamine receptors in the brain. Now, I do strength train 3 times per week, and I am going to add in a daily 10 minute rowing session. However, while I am converting back to Paleo, do you all have any suggestions as to how else (in addition to exercise) raise the number of dopamine receptors in my brain? Studies are great, but I'm also looking for anecdotal evidence from formerly obese people.

Thanks and Happy New Year!!!

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9 Replies

871 · December 30, 2011 at 5:58 PM

Hi Cody,

I truly understand exactly what you are going through. I have very similar experiences with regards to sugar/wheat/chemical ADDICTION. I also find it frustrating when people just chalk it up to (oh I just had a slip up) and ate sugar, but I'll get back on the horse etc.. because I think you understand that it is far more of a physical/psychological overtaking of ones whole being and isn't just (oops had some cake) I totally get it.

Having said that, here is what I had to do, might not work for you, but I'll share anyway.

I lost 30lbs by going cold turkey, I mean extremely cold turkey. I cut out everything, all sugar all starch all dairy anything. I ate lean proteins and green veggies for months straight. (I am not going to lie, it was the hardest thing I've ever done, and i did have absolute moments of mental insanity) i had two set backs, where I lost it, and started bingeing, but somehow mustered up enough strength to start again.

I am celebrating my 6 month Sugar-free Anniversary this month, and it is my greatest victory thus far in life ( I have achieved many other things that others would consider to be great successes, but to me, this is by far the greatest)

I want to mention this, I come from a long line of hereditary and environmental addictive blood/behaviour...my mother is a dysfunctional alcoholic etc so it did not surprise me at all when i realized that I was completely 100% no question in my mind, addicted to Sugar and sugar related foods (all junk type food)

Here is how I operate now (6 months in) ...first, everyday is always a challenge. Sugar and all foods that have sugar surround us 24hours a day. For an alcoholic when they get sober ...they avoid social parties, they avoid beer stores etc etc...for a sugar addict...well...its almost 100% impossible to avoid it, we will live side by side with our substance of choice for life...this took me a VERY VERY VERY long time to accept, and I don't think I have fully accepted it yet. (When my wonderful significant other, who can eat anything he wants) sits down next to me and eats a bag of M&Ms, I still want to scream, or cry or leave the room or something out of frustration that I can't jut be normal, have a couple of them and be done with it. But i know it will never happen, this takes a level of self-honesty that is above anything you will ever experience.

I create very intentional boundaries for myself, I know that if I am going somewhere where there will be desserts and things that I will be tempted by, I start my prepping myself mentally, out loud i talk myself through what I am committed to, ( I AM COMMITED TO NEVERGOING BACK TO BEING ADDICTED TO SUGAR) and having it take over my life...I very vividly recall the feelings I had when I was in that state and that is the first step to prepping myself to NOT go near the temptations. I also set up physical boundaries ( Christmas --> my father serving chocolates and cookies to everyone, me ---> excruciating mental pain because i want so much to share in the joy of my childhood Polish chocolates that were a part of my heritage and identity) I HAD TO LEAVE the room, I went a ran a relaxing epsom salts bath, with tea and candles and calmed down, because i wanted to cry in that moment.

I know these all seem logical and you may be thinking (Oh yeah right! the next time there is chocolates and deserts around, Im gonna go have a bath) But i promise you, that in time this will actually become your serenity.

Check out a book called Sugar Shock - She is 30 years Sugar Free ( my dream) She is a great author.

I hope this wasn't just a lot of over sharing...and perhaps you can find solace in some of this.

Keep pushing, every single day is another opportunity to beat it, to overcome it, to have the life you really want...it WILL be yours!

All the best....

675 · December 30, 2011 at 5:10 PM

Check out The Mood Cure by Julia Ross. It's fantastic. Totally blew my mind and changed the way I thought about food and moods. She writes all sorts of interesting things about food chemistry, supplementation, sleep etc.

1498 · December 31, 2011 at 8:53 AM

Willpower is great but I don't underestimate the power of physiology as a powerful influence on feelings and behaviour.

I don't know why some of us seem to have a naturally low dopaminergic tone. Nor do I know how to increase the number of dopamine receptors, or to increase their sensitivity. There seems to be a genetic component, as the body will down-regulate receptors if it determines that levels of dopamine are too high. To some degree, it looks as though some of us just have to put up with lower dopamine levels than other people.

Having said that, there are some things that I have found to help.

After a few initial weeks of eating low carb (less than 25g/day) and improving my blood glucose levels I stopped getting the dopamine buzz when I ate sugar/wheat.

Carb restriction and ketosis increase sympathetic activity generally and the levels of all catecholamines, including dopamine in particular. Unfortunately this effect is so strong in me that I have to eat some carbs (up to 50g/day, mostly in the evening) to get better sleep.

I cheated a bit over Christmas and found I quickly tire of sweet things as the buzz has not come back. (No doubt it would, if I abandoned the healthy diet).

B6 and magnesium can easily get depleted eating carbs. Supplementing with these helps me to increase dopamine synthesis (to a level that is perhaps normal for me).

Both ketosis and B6 have the highly desirable side-effect (via the dopamine) of reduced prolactin.

In me wheat/grains seem to increase prolactin (which in turn probably reduces or blocks the effect of dopamine).

I tried a tryosine experiment, only once, as the results weren't great - it seemed to turn straight to adrenalin.

Finally, don't underestimate the effect of uneven blood glucose levels on cravings. Carb restriction helps here, obviously, but if it persists don't forget that past refined-carb eating could have caused nutritional deficiencies. You may have problems with insulin sensitivity and your liver may also need support. Eating liver and kidney can help a lot. I supplement with alpha-lipoic acid and glucose tolerance factor, and between them they have hugely reduced carb cravings. In fact, if I get a craving I take the alpha-lipoic acid and chances are the hunger has gone within 30-60 minutes.

2902 · December 30, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Okay, I'm going to tell you what I think you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Downvote all you want.

You know the basics, stick to whole foods, exercise (cardio, sprints, and weights are all you need), get enough sleep, etc.

Dopamine be damned, there is absolutely no chemical reason you have to eat crap food. Yeah, maybe you have an addictive personality and dopamine plays a role. I've been there too, a lot of people have. But as of right now there aren't any good ways to help with addiction. 5-HTP, L-Tyrosine, St. John's Wort or other SSRI (some depression causes carbohydrate craving), bromocriptine, LSD, caffeine, ephedrine, amphetamines, wellbutrin, cocaine, nicotine.... all stuff that will kill the cravings.

But unless you plan on taking drugs for the rest of your life you need to re-evaluate, not to mention most of these drugs will lose their efficacy with time.

On the other hand, there's absolutely no reason you cannot eat fast food or other junk, just keep it to moderation. I know its hard, but I think with sufficient training the tendency to binge can be overcome. The key is to start slow. Have 1-2 meals per week where you allow yourself to eat moderate amounts of junk. Keep it towards the evening, junk in the morning increases tendency to binge all day.

So stop looking for external solutions and realize that the only problem is that person looking back at you in the mirror.

In my opinion, don't do a PSMF, read Lyle's Guide to Flexible Dieting. Far more useful in my opinion. Especially because being in a caloric deficit will make you hungry, and that will drive you to seek crap foods in excess.

Tl;dr yeah there are some things that can damn you hormonally, but that's not the case here. Try whatever over the counter stuff you want, just realize the main ingredient to your success or failure is always yourself. And my advice would be to restrict healthy non-trigger foods without dieting, at least for a couple weeks until you're in control. Then, if you ever want to have a normal life, start incorporating cheats if only as a way to test your willpower. Once a week is fine to start, keep it to the evening. Avoid an excessive diet as it appears you have food control issues.

543 · December 30, 2011 at 4:43 PM

Kathleen DesMaisons talks a lot about that, I think. She has a whole program to help people get off sugar and wheat and things like that, and to change their brain chemistry so they're not addicted anymore. i'm pretty sure she talks about dopamine, serotonin, all kinds of things like that. Radiant Recovery

4844 · December 30, 2011 at 3:53 PM

I would suggest supplementing with L-Tyrosine (1 - 3g a day) to increase the amount of dopamine available in the brain. Make sure you are limiting caffeine, to keep levels of neuromodulators such as adenosine steady, and I think this goes without saying: but you'll also want to limit your sugar intake, due to the up/down swing of serotonin caused by insulin spiking.

The amount of receptors tends to regulate up or down based on available amounts, as I understand it.

Anecdotally, I noticed a bit of increased clarity and ease in getting over cravings when I was using 100mg of 5-HTP at bedtime, 1g of L-Tyrosine upon waking, and another 1500mg of Tyrosine mid-afternoon, which is when my cravings were the worst.

I've also heard of chromium picolinate for regulating cravings and helping weight loss progress; I have no personal experience with that. Here's a study on chromium picolinate and carbohydrate cravings.

446 · December 30, 2011 at 9:16 PM

On a different note entirely (and completely off the wall), but have you thought about encouraging dopamine release by listening to music?

I find that there are pieces from all sorts of odd genres that lift psychologically me into the ether. It's rather nice to load them on an ipod and just go for a slow saunter or sit somewhere and just look at something.

Plus, if you experiment a little with music you may not automatically listen to as a rule, it will build new neural connections. My n=1 is that the more complex and richer the sound -- be it classic, some mad electronica, some really insane prog-rock, some unusual Ottoman or Russian folk (I listen to really odd things these days for the sake of experimentation with my brain :o) ) -- I seem to be able to make different connections and patterns of understanding in my everyday life, and my brain seems to work quicker. I think unusual sound combinations challenge your brain and it rises to the occasion.

Plus ... have you tried having a little sing now and again? That is said to release dopamine. And there are some great vocal exercises on youtube to get you started if you do not think you have a singing voice.

37013 · December 30, 2011 at 6:45 PM

I agree with your implied statement that recovery includes forgiveness. It's about what you're going to do next rather than what you just did.

I happen to be resuming my ancestral eating regime today after 6 weeks of "open eating season" so I can relate to where you are.

One area in which I might have slight disagreement with you is on the importance of your dopamine receptors vs. your state of mind. In my case, with no assumption that we're alike, the behavior of my dopamine receptors follows my state of mind vs. the opposite.

My state of mind and brain starts with serenity and a quiet belief that I can/will do better today. As an act of faith with myself, my menu for the day will include yogurt with fruit (flavor) a leafy salad (crunch and volume) and a meaty bone broth stew (flavor, satiety.) If I need more, I have a can of sardines sitting on the counter. I also have a bottle of water kefir chilled because (and I don't know why) it seems to kill afternoon carb cravings.

I hope your recovery goes smoothly and you have a very Happy New Year!

607 · December 30, 2011 at 4:09 PM

I suggest not giving yourself a license to eat all manner of non-paleo stuff. It's just senseless. Cheating is ok from time to time, but to be all out bad isn't the best thing for you. You need to exercise more. Strength training three times a week with a 10 minute rowing session isn't going to help you lose weight especially with your eating habits. If you're trying to lose weight on Paleo you need to be more strict about it. Are you doing any form of cardio?

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