Are you overeating to pump up depleted brain chemicals?

Do you experience strong cravings for modern “drug” foods artificially concentrated in fat, sugar and salt? Foods like cookies, ice cream, chocolate, pastries, chips and french fries trigger the release of powerful “feel good” chemicals in the brain. Do you feel the need for stimulants like coffee, tea and soda?  Stimulants trigger the release of energizing brain chemicals that help keep you alert and focused for longer periods of time.

In my clinical practice, I have found that a majority of overeaters experience compulsive cravings for these drug-like foods and stimulants. They are using foods, drugs and alcohol to “fix” their imbalanced brain chemicals: to rev up, focus, lift depression, calm down, reduce anxiety, numb out and tranquilize. When I ask them to consider releasing these substances from their diet, they tell me they know they should but find it hard to do so. They ususally feel it is a matter of willpower. They feel relieved when I suggest that they may have some kind of biochemical imbalance in their brain and that they are self-medicating with food and drink.

Some overeaters purge excess calories by vomiting and/or over-exercising. These two purging activities, commonly referred to as bulimia, also can release powerful soothing chemicals to a biochemically imbalanced brain. These activities can become quite addictive. Balancing brain chemistry is an important step in resolving your overeating.

Your brain chemicals can become too low or high from factors such as stress, season changes, drug and alcohol use, poor diet, low-cal dieting, food allergies, hormonal imbalances and genetically inherited conditions.   When your brain chemicals are out of balance, life can feel more difficult and complicated than it truly is.  You have difficulty coping, your confidence and self-esteem can be lowered and you have less psychological and physical energy and endurance.

An imbalance in any of the five main mood-releated brain chemicals can result in food cravings:

  • Dopamine/Norepinephrine
  • Glutamine
  • Serotonin
  • Endorphin
  • Gamma Aminobutyric acid (GABA)

Dopamine keeps your brain feeling energized, upbeat and alert.   It is your natural caffeine.  It also promotes a sense of satisfaction, pumps up your libido and drives you to be assertive.  A pleasurable game of golf or evening out with the girls tends to elevate Dopamine levels.  In your body Dopamine converts to another energizing brain chemical called Norepinephrine.  Caffeine and nicotine increase the release of these substances in your brain and keeps you feeling energized longer.  A deficiency in these brain chemicals may lead to cravings for starches, sweets and fatty foods as well as stimulants, including cocaine and amphetamines.   

Glutamine is another stimulating, excitatory brain chemical.  It plays an important role as brain fuel, boosting our mood and increasing alertness.  It also facilitates good digestion.  Many compulsive sweet-eaters and alcoholics are deficient in this important brain chemical.

Serotonin is another brain chemical that helps contribute to mind focus and keep our mood stabilized.  It is like our natural Prozac.  It provides us with a sense of well-being, calmness and helps promote sleep.  Sweet, starch and chocolate cravings may be indicative of a Serotonin deficiency. 

Endorphin, probably the most well known brain chemical, associated with “runner’s high” gives us euphoric-like states (sexual orgasm releases a flood of endorphins) and relief of pain. Researchers have identified over twenty different types of endorphins, morphine-like chemicals produced in the brain.   If you tend to use food for reward and pleasure, you may be low in these chemicals. 

And finally, GABA, which is probably the least know brain chemical, is our natural Valium, helping us feel relaxed.  We may overeat fatty rich foods, in addition to starches and sweets,  in an attempt to calm and sedate ourselves if our GABA levels are low. 

There are many natural treatments for low brain chemicals in addition to pharmaceutical, or drug approaches.  These natural approaches include organic compounds called amino acids, herbal formulas, vitamins, minerals and enzmyes.   It’s best to work with an alternative healthcare provider, such as a psychopharmacologist or naturopathic physician familiar with natural treatments. 

A medical examination must always be the first step in ruling out physical causes of imbalanced brain chemicals (such as low thyroid hormone) before you begin any supplement progam.  Do not stop using any prescription drugs or add any supplements without first consulting your physician.

A few steps you can take now, before you consult a healthcare practitioner regarding adding supplements include:

  • move your body–even small amounts of exercise increases the production of brain chemicals
  • reduce stress as much as possible (this is kind of a no-brainer, huh?)
  • get adequate amounts of sleep (your brain does lots of repair work during this time)
  • make sure you get enough calories; low-cal dieting depletes brain chemicals
  • reduce your intake of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine
  • reduce your alcohol intake and
  • keep a log of your mood/food connection–how you feel when you ingest certain foods and substances.

Resolving imbalanced brain chemistry is an important piece of the overeating puzzle.  It doesn’t involve will power or white knuckling it; just a little extra attention paid to the mood/food/substance connection.  Once your brain chemicals are balanced your outlook will improve.   Your compulsive food cravings should lessen or disappear and you’ll be better able to focus on any underlying emotional causes of your overeating.

Posted by Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT.  If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this blog, go to http: //www.overeatingrecovery.com.

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