Many people know about food addictions. They site these addictions as leading to conditions such as anorexia and bulimia, and certainly to obesity.
But are you aware that there is growing evidence to conclude that what a person eats is directly connected to psychological disorders, and especially the obsessive disorders that give rise to all sorts of addictions?
It is only fairly recently that scientists have turned their attention to the way food affects the brain.
In part, this was owing to the fact that we had very few methods of studying the brain. Most conclusions were actually drawn from observation of the behavioral effects that severe brain injuries had upon people. For example, a famous report produced by Harvard researchers documented the complete personality change in a man whose brain had been penetrated by a metal rod. Not many people are going to have such an experience or such a complete personality change…and we are fortunate that we are no longer limited to observation reports of those who have been brain injured. In recent decades, neuroscience (the study of the brain and nervous system) has become much more sophisticated because functional MRI and PET scanners allow scientists to watch the brain at work—in real time.
We have learned much about how food—as well as commonly prescribed medications—can result in devastating addictions.
The Neurotransmitters Linked to Addictions
There are three main brain mechanisms and neurotransmitters that play a critical role in addictions: glutamate, dopamine, and serotonin.
Glutamate regulates all the other neurotransmitters, controlling the amounts and timing of their release into the brain and body. Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter inside the brain—and it makes up 90 percent of the neurotransmitters in the cortex (the outer covering of the brain) as well.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that elevates mood and generates motivation. A lack of dopamine causes a person to feel depressed or “blue.”
Serotonin functions in a way similar to dopamine. Low amounts of serotonin can cause a person to feel deeply depressed and even suicidal. Low levels of serotonin have also been linked to anxiety, violent and aggressive behavior, and drug addiction. The SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) medications, such as Prozac, work by increasing serotonin levels. Unfortunately, this medication can also drive a person to suicide and in some cases, acts of homicide.
A Short Course in How the Brain Works.
Interactions between various parts of the brain create our sense of well-being. The “limbic system,” or the emotional part of the brain, includes special areas of the brain that regulate the emotions we call love, hate, fear, jealously, empathy, anxiety, compassion, excitement, and wonder.
The areas of the brain that control addiction are also known as: the nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, prefrontal cortex, ventral tegmental area, and locus coeruleus. Each of these areas plays a major role in cravings and addictive behavior. Each of these areas also has high levels of the three neurotransmitters glutamate, dopamine, and serotonin.
Addictive drugs—such as nicotine, morphine, methamphetamine and cocaine—activate these areas of the brain and raise the concentration of dopamine and glutamate to very high levels. Cocaine specifically causes a dramatic elevation in dopamine and glutamate levels. If the glutamate receptors are blocked, cocaine addiction and it’s accompany cravings are blocked. One of the key ways psychiatrists help people withdraw from addictive drugs is to block the neurotransmitters they trigger.
“But,” you may be asking, “if dopamine and serotonin create good feelings—elevated mood and greater motivation—how can stimulation of these areas be bad?” Because when it comes to these neurotransmitters, a little stimulation goes a long way!
Cocaine and methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) cause a massive increase in glutamate and dopamine, which not only causes drug cravings but also causes a slow degeneration of the brain itself.
Alcohol binges also cause glutamate receptors to be overactive, which can lead to serious memory loss and dementia.
When animals are given glutamate by injection into the limbic or prefrontal brain—even in very small quantities—cravings and addiction dramatically increase.
The Big 5 addiction agents to keep out of your body:
1) Large amounts of sugar. Foods that are high in sugar or high glycemic foods that easily convert to sugar can result in reactive hypoglycemia that gets progressively worse over time. Patients are often amazed that their heath issues are completely resolved when they begin to eat a hypoglycemic-controlling diet. Hypoglycemia causes large amounts of glutamate to be released in the brain—and this is a major cause of addictive behavior.
2) High glycemic foods (white breads, processed carbohydrates, potatoes, corn)
3) Omega-6 oils (now called N-6 oils), including corn, soybean, safflower, and other vegetable oils. These oils increase brain inflammation. Choose instead cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil and extra-virgin coconut oil.
4) All additives and food dyes—including MSG, hydrolyzed proteins, and other substances listed later in this report
The hard facts are these: first, alcohol is associated with 40 percent of all homicides, accidents, and suicides in the United States—not to mention rape, abusive behaviors, and other criminal acts that can cause either physical or psychological injury.
Alcohol, even in what may seem to be small or moderate amounts, can induce hypoglycemia—a drastic fall in blood sugar. Blood sugar fluctuations can not only lead to diabetes, but also to spells of severe weakness.
You may be arguing, “But I only drink a little. I’m not an alcoholic.”
Nobody knows how much alcohol is required to turn a person into an alcoholic—in other words, an alcohol addict. Not long ago I heard about a woman who was given several beers when she was just sixteen. Sadly, she was given these beers by her softball coach as a “reward” for her great play during a state championship game. She instantly became an alcoholic and is suffering from that “reward” 45 years later. She has had a lifetime of depression and other psychological problems associated with her alcoholism.
Alcohol is not the only substance, of course, that can create dietary hypoglycemia or reactive hypoglycemia. Meals laden with sugars and simple carbohydrates can flood the body with insulin and cause a severe drop in blood sugar.
Alcohol and Vitamin Deficiencies Most alcoholics have deficiencies of vitamin C, the B vitamins, and magnesium. All of these deficiencies increase over activity in areas of the brain that are known to control addiction and cravings.
Several clinical studies have shown that between 90 and 100 percent of alcoholics who suffer from reactive hypoglycemia also have multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies. It is interesting that correcting vitamin and mineral deficiencies greatly reduces the craving for alcohol. In making additional dietary adjustments that cure hypoglycemia, about 70 percent of alcoholics are also cured of their alcoholism!
Reactive Hypoglycemia This condition affects, to some degree, an estimated 50 percent of Americans. It is marked by a sudden and significant drop in blood sugar within minutes to hours of eating or drinking high-glycemic foods.
Processed sugar, many amino acids, potatoes, white breads, and alcohol can all trigger hypoglycemia. Some people react so severely that they lapse into a coma. Others have been known to suffer a seizure, stroke, or heart arrhythmia. Milder symptoms of hypoglycemia can include anxiety, shakiness, confusion, trembling, muscle spasms, sweating, and hallucinations. The condition often begins during childhood, but is frequently overlooked by pediatricians.
The Hidden Dangers of Prescription Drugs If I were to add a sixth item to avoid, it would be this: prescription drugs. I understand that some people may need chemical compounds produced by pharmaceutical companies. I also know that many people are taking prescription drugs that have a dark side to them.
Many antibiotics, SSRI and other psychiatric medications, and antifungal medications contain fluoride within their molecular makeup. Fluoride is one of the most dangerous toxins known to man! In addition, many prescription drugs severely deplete vitamin and minerals, including magnesium and CoQ10 that are vital to brain function. If these deficiencies are great enough, they can dramatically increase excitotoxity, which pushes glutamate over the limits of being helpful and puts glutamate into the category of being detrimental.
Vaccines, too, can worsen the effects of neurotoxins, such as mercury and pesticides.
Of all the medications that might be linked to addictions, perhaps the most insidious is Ritalin. Tens of thousands of children have been prescribed the drug Ritalin (methylphenidate) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). These prescriptions are often given at the insistence of school nurses and government agencies. Compelling studies have shown that methylphenidate significantly increases cravings for other drugs, and also creates compulsive behavior. The drug stimulates the orbit frontal lobe of the brain, the area critical to addictions and cravings. We should not be surprised when a high percentage of children who have taken Ritalin for a prolonged period become addicted to drugs later in life, and have greater difficulty in becoming drug-free than addicts who did not take Ritalin.
The Links Between Diet and General Health
I am always amazed at people who do not seem to see any link between what they eat and their health. They seem to think that all disease is the result of a virus or bacterium, or perhaps an injury or genetics. The truth is that almost all disease is impacted by what a person eat and drinks.
If you feed your cells those things that increase inflammation, damage DNA, or impair the function of a cell, you shouldn’t be surprised that you get sick!
Not only is this common sense, but it is backed up by a great deal of hard science and clinical research.
Diet effects behavior in a number of ways:
Foods we eat can trigger allergies or intolerances.
Foods can contain dyes that have toxic effects
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can impact brain function.
A growing number of studies have shown that nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy can cause children to have not only physical, but psychiatric, problems later in life.
Putting the Focus On Glutamate
Since glutamate is so important to brain function and the regulation of other brain systems, we are wise to focus on glutamate in a special way when it comes to addictions. Relatively new studies have confirmed that elevations of glutamate in the brain dramatically increase both cravings and addictive behavior. Likewise, drugs or substances that block glutamate receptors can significantly reduce addictions and cravings.
The brain has a special barrier to prevent the easy absorption of glutamate from food. This barrier is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The barrier has its limits. If we eat foods loaded with glutamate, some of it will seep into the brain. Indeed, some areas of the brain don’t have a blood-brain barrier.
A normal diet of whole foods, with plenty of the “right” foods, never produces enough glutamate to raise levels of this brain neurotransmitter to dangerous levels.
Processed foods, on the other hand, contain large amounts of concentrated glutamate additives. Their only purpose is to enhance taste. They have no other function…and they can do a great deal of damage. Some glutamate-laced foods can increase blood glutamate levels 20 to 50 times higher than normal. At these levels, the blood-brain barrier can’t hold back the floodtide.
Food additives are present in many forms, with many names, including:
MSG Natural flavorings Autolyzed yeast
Enzymes Soy protein concentrate Soy isolate
In addition to these additives there’s great danger in the sweetener aspartame, which not only has the excitotoxin amino acid aspartate but also toxic methanol. Studies have shown that combining aspartame and MSG greatly magnifies brain toxicity.
Foods that Increase Glutamate Levels. Although their effects are less severe, there are foods that are naturally high in glutamate. Too much of these foods can increase addictions and make them harder to overcome.
Here are several general foods to monitor:
• Diets high in meat increase blood and brain glutamate levels, as well as aspartate levels.
• Sugary foods, and foods that readily convert into sugar, can also raise glutamate levels to a harmful level
Does eating a good diet really help? Absolutely, in fact, one study involving 5,000 prisoners on probation saw significant improvement in both their health, their mood, AND their social behavior after they were given a healthful diet. Far fewer of them committed future crimes than those who returned to a junk-food diet after prison.