In Pursuit of Health, Serotonin and Dopamine

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I’d like to touch on the single most important reason the low carbohydrate community exists and why we advocate our chosen lifestyle - the pursuit of good health.

Good health is key to every other good thing we all wish for ourselves and our loved ones, including quality of life, meaningful relationships, career success, satisfying recreational pursuits, an active sex life, the ability to negotiate our busy days with a modicum of sanity and achievement.

Too many people view overweight and obesity as a cosmetic problem, even though we're bombarded by news stories about the health risks at every turn. Denial is at play, you bet.

Sedentary folks in the midst of a food addition, eating disorder such as binge eating, or simply in the habit of indulging their every junk food whim, don't want to hear about the health consequences of their actions. It's easier to believe your swollen belly and big butt are only a detriment to your otherwise gorgeous good looks.

And the level of denial many overweight people live in is mind boggling. A close look at the fat acceptance movement reveals how deep this denial can run.

Most of us can relate to the anguish of watching someone we love lose their health and even their lives to obesity and its devastating complications. And we feel the frustration of knowing they could have changed and avoided the negative outcome. Even more vexing to us, we succeeded where they failed, but we couldn't help them.

Many, many people use food to cope with emotional pain. Several studies indicate overeating in itself depletes brain serotonin levels after an initial rise in this 'feel good' hormone, triggering a vicious cycle of more overeating. According to researcher Karen McNulty-Walsh, the more people overeat, the more they want to eat, "because active overeating is decreasing their dopamine receptors so they're really setting themselves up for this cycle of needing to continue to eat larger amounts of food, to release more dopamine in order to get a pleasure signal." Eventually overeaters will fall victim to food addiction.

Dr. Rob Coleman of Brookhaven Rehabilitation Center of New York, specializes in treating morbid obesity and says food addiction is no different than alcohol or drug addiction. The same pleasure centers in the brain are stimulated.

Recently researchers came up with evidence that food can be addictive. Research subjects were starved then shown their favorite foods and were allowed to smell them. Their brain scans showed a release of dopamine in response, a chemical that gives us pleasure.

"Dopamine is a very strong system. We're hardwired to go out and seek food. And we see these really great foods and our brains are telling us to eat. But because there's so much of it around people are becoming obese," says Karen McNulty-Walsh, a US government laboratory researcher.

These brain scans also showed overweight subjects had fewer dopamine receptor sites in their brains than normal test subjects. It took more food for them to get the same pleasure as normal weight subjects. This phenomenon is similar in drug addicts, both have less receptors and are abusing substances to try and stimulate the pleasure centers in their brains.

Depletion of serotonin plays a role in feeling depressed or anxious. There are indications that stress, depression, or anxiety may also pre-exist and cause serotonin levels to drop. (My big weight gain odyssey began with the death of my beloved father and the grief that followed.)

This is where Perceived Hunger versus Body Hunger comes into play. Many people interpret and experience stress, negative emotions, and other unpleasant experiences as hunger. This perceived hunger is not physical hunger, it is misinterpreted emotional pain or psychological distress, something we all experience to one extent or another.

Who hasn't had a bad day, missed the bus, been kept waiting in line, had a fight with your best friend, missed that deadline, got chewed out by your boss, and overdosed on stress. You may rationalize you deserve to eat whatever tickles your fancy just this once. You are frustrated, tired, and hungry. And your brain chemistry is out of whack but you're not necessarily aware of this. You instinctively reach for something you know will make you feel better, ice cream, candy, chips, cake, cookies, pasta, mashed potatoes with gravy, croissants. Unfortunately this often leads to overeating the wrong kinds of food.

Imagine suffering long term emotional or psychological pain from childhood abuse, neglect, or serious loss. Left unresolved, this magnifies the problem and is bound to contribute to serious weight problems, low self esteem, or other addictive or destructive behaviors. Obese people may very well be wearing their pain on the outside for all to see. How heartbreaking to think their obesity garners them more abuse, social penalties, and ridicule from society.

Dieting and exercising are often perceived as unpleasant, punishing tasks. The actuality of perceiving your weight loss program as a negative experience can impact your brain chemistry and lower serotonin as well as other neurotransmitters produced by our bodies as "feel good" hormones. Is it any wonder so many people quit?

Finding ways to make your weight loss or maintenance program pleasurable will improve your chances of success. Now that's a subject for a whole blog.

Understanding why we overeat may help us defuse the process before it takes over. Knowing healthy ways to raise our serotonin levels and to get your dopamine fix are also valuable tools. Anything pleasurable to you will help stimulate your dopamine system and boost pleasurable brain chemistry. Music, art, sports, creative writing, shopping, reading, sex, and yes, a glass of wine, any activity you truly enjoy isn't just a distraction, they actually stimulate beneficial brain chemistry.

And get this, the researchers discovered regular exercise can raise your dopamine receptor levels and counter the negative effect of overeating, bringing your system back into balance. But don't use exercise as an excuse to overeat, which is destructive to more than your dopamine system, not to mention your bottom line.

Now that I'm done getting my writing fix, pardon me while I go pursue perfecting my dopamine system. I'm going to go workout while listening to The Stones, watch some baseball while drawing a caricature of Kotsay, buy something off the Home Shopping Channel, have a glass of wine, and get laid.

And I'll bet my glass of Bolla Chianti that prayer raises your serotonin levels as well.

About the Author: Carol Bardelli

I'm a wife, mother, writer, publisher, certified sports nutritionist, hold a Ph.D. in philosophy in religion, and I'm a semi-retired reverend of World Christian Ministries. When I'm not writing, I offer private counseling sessions in sports nutrition in a privately owned gym, and spiritual counseling sessions in my home office. My books include The Protein Edge, Weight Loss That Works and Easy Gourmet For Diabetics