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Cravings and Addictions

I recently saw a TV news report that claimed we’re losing the War on Drugs. How tragic is that? How can it be? What motivates a normally sensible person to consume a substance that is bad for them and against the law? Science has found that substances in certain drugs give intense, even if only momentary, feelings of euphoria or bliss by activating certain parts of the brain. Over time the body becomes desensitized and requires more and more of the substance to elicit the same response; thus an expensive, life-altering addiction is born. But is the short term pleasure or thrill worth the long term cost?

food_craving_unhealthy_imageWould it shock you to find out that certain food cravings have been compared to drug addiction? It’s been discovered that both drugs and food can impact the same neural pathways. Researchers at Duke University found that when obese people even looked at pictures of food it activated the same regions of the brain as addicted smokers who viewed photos of people smoking.

Food cravings are different from real hunger. Hunger is controlled by the stomach and is the body signaling that it’s time to eat and provide the nutrition necessary for life and function. True hunger is not very specific about what it wants, just about anything will do. And the hungrier you are, the less specific it becomes. It’s about survival.

Food cravings are far more complex than hunger and controlled by the brain and hormones. These may have nothing to do with hunger, just the mind signaling that it wants its fix of “happy juice” fast. This obsession is often stronger than normal hunger. Unlike hunger, cravings tend to be very particular and focus in on a specific flavor of ice cream, Cheetos, pancakes with maple syrup, or maybe French fries.

Our cravings are often called “comfort foods” because they have little to do with nutrition or hunger, and more to do with flooding the brain with mood elevating “happy hormones.” We all know our fair share of chocoholics and Big Gulpoholics, but do you know any broccolioholics or carrotoholics? I don’t know anyone that craves celery, unless it’s filled with peanut butter or cheese spread.

Cravings aren’t the same universally. They seem to be influenced by gender, culture, and past experiences. Research revealed that virtually 100% of females experienced cravings which may be accounted for by monthly hormones and pregnancy. The majority of women are most enticed by sweets. Approximately 70% of males experience food cravings and desire savory and salty items. Experience is important too, since of course you can only crave what you’ve had before. Culture is also involved. For example, in Western culture a typical comfort food may be a chocolate donut, whereas in another culture it may be a fried, curry covered caterpillar.

food_cravings_caused_by_stress_imageFood cravings are often triggered by stress, anxiety, or boredom. It’s further intensified by modern marketing techniques that create mental imagery that ignites these emotions. Have you ever found yourself mindlessly staring into an open refrigerator at every commercial break during a TV program you were watching, not really hungry, but craving some comfort? Just looking for a little fix.

How can we deal with these emotional triggers? By going cold turkey (excuse the non-vegan expression)? Cold turkey is brutal and difficult, as any addict can attest to. Boredom is the easiest trigger to tackle first; all you have to do is get busy! Cognitive tasks, gardening, or interesting projects keep the mind engaged, crowding out the stray idle thoughts looking for comfort. Exercise and competition are great replacements in that they not only get you to focus on other things, but they also relieve stress and cause the body to secrete some of those same feel good hormones so you can ease off the bad stuff. Healthy food alternatives are helpful too, like substituting Stevia for sugar or hummus for pudding. If you’re really stressed or bored, instead of giving in to the food demon, meditate or take a nap.

There’s what I call a “craving cycle.” It starts off with a trigger, which leads to a desire for a “happy hormone” fix, which gives short term pleasure then leads to guilt and then to punishment which looks for a trigger and the cycle repeats. Each time we make this loop, we require more of a fix to get the same pleasure while also experiencing more guilt. The cycle must be broken.

Slay the crave dragon with healthy alternatives, exercise, meditation, and by staying busy.

Learn more about Dr. Steve Weston

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