From an evolutionary perspective, we have always eaten in order to live. But too many of us live to eat. Consequently more than one in five adults are overweight, and more than a third of them obese. And in some countries, including the United States, one in six children over the age of 2 are also obese. Today, with access to food twenty-four-seven, a biological drive to eat high-calorie fare is rapidly evolving into a health burden. The brain has developed a faulty anticipation of energy needs. Overriding evolution is a desire for the feel-good mood boost that many foods now bring us and which may be fostering an unconscious urge to overeat.
The human brain is easily tricked by pleasure foods as they confuse the brains regulating systems. In North America, it seems we get the most pleasure from refined carbohydrates, vegetable oil, and diet pop to name a few. Refined carbs – aka empty calorie foods – may make us feel good, but because the brain seeks micronutrients and empty calorie foods like white bread, pasta, cake, and cookies don`t provide these micronutrients, the `eat more` signal typically stays on. It also turns out that vegetable oils – found in most snack food – may be making us stoned! Vegetable oil promotes snacking because new research suggests that it plays on endocannibinoid receptors much the same way that marijuana causes the `munchies`. Sugar free soft drinks also confuse our brain. When studies are done on diet soda drinkers, there is a diminished activation of an area in the brain associated with the food motivation and reward system. Decreased activation of this brain region has been linked with elevated risk of obesity. But besides the very direct and often negative impact these and other foods are having on our cravings, it seems we desire to keep filling up on them because they surge a `feel good` hormone in the brain called Dopamine.
Complex interactions between the nervous system, hormonal pathways, and immune system are at play when it comes to overeating. In fact, it’s not just overeating. Can’t put your blackberry down? Feel bored when you’re not at work? Late night binge behaviour? Believe it or not, all these things have a lot to do with dopamine – the neurotransmitter that’s heavily involved in the pleasure centre within the brain. It’s released in high amounts during gratifying activities such as eating, sex, exercise, dancing, and other enjoyable experiences. The pathway between the brain-body is known as the neuro-endocrine-immune supersystem. Symptoms of this system breakdown can sometimes appear as a hormone issue when in actuality, they can be attributed to a neurotransmitter imbalance. Keep in mind, dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Common symptoms include mood changes, focus issues, insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, and in particular compulsive overeating resulting in weight gain. As a brain neurotransmitter, dopamine influences well-being, alertness, learning, creativity, attention and concentration. Dopamine also affects brain processes that control movement, emotional response and is the source of the brains power and energy.
While too little dopamine can leave us craving food, sex or stimulation, too much can cause addictive behaviours. In a December 2008 study in the journal “Nutrition & Metabolism,” J. Reinholz and colleagues suggest that your brain uses dopamine to tell your body when to stop eating. Low dopamine levels may also play a role in overeating for people with a genetic predisposition to low dopamine levels.
Parkinson’s patients take medications to support dopamine levels because their brain produces too little. What is interesting is that research shows a person with Parkinson`s disease on medication (levodopa) are more likely to become involved in gambling when their medications are increased. Also interesting, an August 2009 article in the “European Journal of Neurology,” C.G. Bachmann and colleagues showed that Parkinson’s sufferers who take medication to raise their dopamine levels tend to lose weight.
Paranoia or a suspicious personality may arise from too much dopamine, although more of this hormone in the frontal area of the brain relieves pain and boosts feelings of pleasure. Dopamine isn’t released only during pleasurable experiences, but also in the presence of high amounts of stress.
We`re a society who also consumes too much of the addictive stimulants: chocolate, caffeine (coffee, tea), sugar and cigarettes. Consequently, and not surprisingly, almost all abusive drugs and addictive substances influence dopamine production. Alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamines and even sugar can also mess with our dopamine balance. Many smokers eat more when they are trying to quit because both food and nicotine share similar dopamine reward pathways. When less dopamine is stimulated as nicotine is reduced, food and sugar cravings naturally kick in to compensate.
The natural tendency when experiencing a state of “feel-good” is to seek out more of it and work to sustain it. But, chronic dopamine surges over a long period of time (especially from overeating) will eventually cause a loss of dopamine activity in the brain and decrease the receptors in charge of satiety as well as the activity of those receptors. And so begins the cycle driving us to sustain our feelings of pleasure through the intake of food. Paradoxically, it appears that the same motivating force that keeps us alive, left unmonitored, can also lead to our own undoing, through obesity and its related illnesses.
The bottom line seems to be that over-eating eventually causes loss of dopamine in the brain and a decrease in receptors in charge of satiety – so ultimately you crave more and more and never feel satisfied.
If you pay close attention, your body will give you specific clues that let you know you’re low. If you make a late-night trips to the fridge or pantry at least twice weekly, find yourself eating even when you are really full, or feel irritable and tired when you try to cut down on your favorite foods, you might be low dopamine. But, the best way to know if your dopamine levels are imbalanced is to have your neurotransmitters tested. The way to do this is easy and uses cutting edge science. Urinary neurotransmitter testing – a simple pee-in-a-cup test – is reflective of total body neurotransmitter activity. It has been observed that urinary neurotransmitter measurements are correlated with neurotransmitter activity in the central nervous system.
You can easily check from the privacy and convenience of your own home. MyStatusTM is a new initiative I created to help people understand what they need more or less of in the way of supplementation to achieve everything from optimal weight loss and ideal antioxidant levels. It offers a simple and very accurate urine test that can help measure your current dopamine levels.
Since higher levels of dopamine may reduce your impulse to eat, the good news is that by eating healthy micronutrient rich foods high in tyrosine – the natural building block of dopamine – and supplementing with the amino acid L-Tyrosine, the temptation to overeat will diminish and slowly cause more of the dopamine receptors in the brain to reactivate, making it easier and easier as time goes on for that person to derive increased pleasure from smaller amounts of food.
Foods highest in L-Tyrosine include Fava beans, Duck, Chicken, Ricotta cheese, Oatmeal, Mustard greens, Edamame beans, Dark chocolate, Seaweed, and Wheat Germ are all foods that are rich in tyrosine. Eating more of them may help boost your dopamine in the brain.What you should do is make each of these foods the base of every meal you have throughout the day.
But if you really want to see results, adding L-tyrosine as a supplement can be the crucial step in the dopamine diet. As an amino acid and the building block of dopamine, taking l-tyrosine as a supplement boosts your dopamine levels.
What I normally recommend is to take 500-1,000 mg when you wake up in the morning (empty stomach) and then again between lunch and dinner. Be careful because it’s a stimulating supplement. It is always advisable to get tested as well as discuss anything with your health care provider before starting to supplement with it. People who have an abnormal heartbeat or those using agents that may treat heart disorders, who have hypertension, or those taking monoamine oxidase inhibitor drugs (MAOIs) should use L-Tyrosine only under the guidance of their doctor.
Taking L-tyrosine for 4-6 weeks should reach full effectiveness to cut cravings. You’ll notice that you are not reaching for that bag of potato chips anymore and you won’t be craving and visualizing every snack and meal throughout your day.
L-tyrosine is widely available at health food stores or vitamin stores at only about $15-20 per bottle.
While increasing intake of foods rich in the amino acid l-tyrosine as well as supplementing with l-tyrosine itself can upregulate dopamine production in the brain, there are still other dietary factors that can also influence dopamine levels. The omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood have a significant effect on dopamine levels so they too become part of the dopamine diet in a way you may not suspect.
One of the notable features of brain and nerve cells is the high percentage of the omega-3 fat DHA. In fact the brain is comprised of 60% fat with DHA being the most prevalent. Because of DHA’s unique structure it can bend and change shape rapidly. This “flip flop” action of DHA occurs up to a billion times per second in brain cells which facilitate the rapid transfer of electrical signals which in turn become our thoughts and emotions. Poor electrical transmission in brain cells has a direct effect on dopamine production. In fact virtually all disorders of the brain, including dopamine related disorders, are associated with reduced levels of DHA in brain tissue. Supporting the brain’s electrical signals is just one way DHA boosts dopamine. DHA also boosts dopamine levels by reducing the production of the enzyme that breaks down dopamine. More recently scientists have discovered that DHA is converted to a compound called neuroprotectin D-1 which protects brain and nerve cells from all forms of stress and toxins. Neurprotectin D-1 therefore helps maintain the integrity of the dopamine producing cells as well as the receptor cells. Omega-3 supplementation trials have shown up to a 40% increase in dopamine!
Dietary sources of DHA come almost exclusively from seafood. While fish and fish oil are the most common sources of DHA one of the richest natural sources of DHA is squid. As an interesting side note, squid ink – also used in some exotic foods – is very high in dopamine! Most places around the world enjoy squid in the form of calamari (squid tentacles and mantle) but unfortunately this part of the squid is low in fat and therefore low in DHA. Some cultures, primarily in Asia, consume the entire squid and reap the benefits of its rich DHA content. While most of us are not brave enough to consume squid eyes and viscera, you can get the same DHA goodness from a squid oil supplement which is becoming more and more common on the shelves of health food stores. As part of my dopamine diet protocol I encourage the consumption of 1-2 tsp of squid oil daily. Surprisingly some brands of squid oil actually taste very good and can be easily mixed with food. One of my favourites is the Ascenta brand due to their purity, transperancy, quality, and love of the planet.
Yield : Makes 12 crostini
Prep Time : 10 mins
Cooking Time : 15 mins
12 brown rice crackers
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fava beans, shelled
1/2 small spanish onion
1 organic garlic clove
1 tablespoon finely diced red pepper
10 black olives (pitted)
6 sprigs tarragon, leaves only
1. Cook the fava beans in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Puré the beans in a food processor with the onion, garlic, olives, the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil, and the tarragon leaves. Season to with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Just before serving, spread the fava bean paste onto the rice crackers. Garnish with the diced red pepper and a sprinkling of black pepper.