Last post, we discussed the brain’s role in food addiction. As noted in Part I, there is a category of food which seems to be more addictive than others called hyperpalatables. Is sugar as addictive as heroin or cocaine? Animal studies say yes. And how do we withdraw from these foods? The key is something called “EPIGENETICS”.
The basis of epigenetics is environmental cues. For instance, if you live in a community where there is opportunity for consumption of fresh foods and people exercise, the genes that control your weight operate as they should, and you can enjoy a fit and healthy body. But let’s look at the opposite example: You start your day with a disagreement with someone, and then you run out the door without breakfast, you drive to your destination, arriving hungry. You sit down in front of your Gemorah or at your desk. At this point, levels of acetylcholine and cortisol, both stress hormones that trigger hunger, reach very high levels. To undo your “pain”, you go for a fix of some food that is generally fatty, sugary or salty. The more this cycle repeats itself, the more it reinforces itself. You can’t change the genes you are born with, but you can change the genetic expression. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, M.D., lifestyle choices powerfully influence genetic expression – and most important, they are passed on to children. We can use these principles to recover from food addiction by using an integrative Mind-Body approach.
Dr. Peeke recommends the “3 “Ms: Mind, Mouth, and Muscle”. As far as MIND goes, stress can have a significant impact on the pre-frontal cortex of your brain. Reducing stress returns the PFC to normal function. Reducing radical stress is a key element in this process, and is a top priority. This will regulate the amount of dopamine released in your brain. By using mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, we can increase the size of the regions of the brain that help us learn, remember, stay calm and understand other people’s perspectives. By engaging in these techniques, we can reclaim a hijacked reward system and sustain our recovery from food addiction. A strong and well-trained PFC has a better chance of helping us make the right choices, steer clear of hyperpalatables and select fresh, whole, life-promoting foods.
MOUTH: choose the right foods. In order to do that, our brain needs an abundance of omega-3s. These fatty acids ensure that cell membranes will be flexible enough to let in other nutrients. An animal study in 2010 by Davis et Al found that rats fed a diet low in omega-3s had reduced density of the dopamine receptors in the ventral striatal section of the brain, an area closely associated with impulsivity. Consuming more omega-3s will give you a stronger PFC. We recommend getting them from whole foods as much as possible such as salmon, tuna, walnuts and flax seed.
The final “M” is MUSCLE. Regular physical activity increases the body’s production of BDNF and this brings a higher functioning PFC. For someone trying to withdraw from food addiction, or any other addiction, this is the most important component. Even 5-minute walks or 30 jumping jacks reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms. Researchers now believe that exercise alters the reward circuits in the brain to the point that treadmill walking has been able to substitute for certain drugs. It also decreases craving, compulsiveness and emotional ups and downs. One study showed that after a year of taking 40-minute walks 3 times a week, the hippocampi, the part of the brain that converts short-term memory into long-term memory and controls spatial navigation in the brains of older adults grew by 2%, reversing their brains’ aging process by almost 2 years. Those who were sedentary experienced brain shrinkage by approximately the same percentage.
Food addiction is real, but it’s not an excuse for taking the basic actions needed for our health. The basic weight loss formula of fewer calories consumed and more calories expended still applies. The need for exercise goes beyond food addiction and is needed for our health in general as well as calorie usage. And our exercise needs to be both aerobic and muscle-building. The need to reduce and manage stress is vital to all aspects of our health and weight loss.
Overcoming food addictions is hard work. It will probably require help from the proper professionals. By eradicating and withdrawing from food addictions, you will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”