How many of you have sat down at night, tired after a working day, a cup of tea in one hand and a packet of biscuits in the other. You know how it goes as you promise yourself one or two delicious organic real butter biscuits. One biscuit is dunked into the tea and seeing as it’s half melted it doesn’t count. The second one is eaten straight away to follow in the wake of its half drowned brother. The crunch triggers the brain to recall the pleasure, the joy of other past crunchy chews and the hand guided by the brain reaches out for the third and maybe the fourth biscuit. Before you know it the packet is almost eaten and you are left feeling bereft, not because there are only a few left but because you felt so out of control in biscuit presence.
In swoops guilt and triggers stress hormones (cortisol) that steer energy away from digestion and lay down fat in the abdominal area. Feeling stressed with the release of cortisol you reach out for the remaining biscuits and devour them. The thought of biscuits in the house for a minute more is enough to give you heart palpitations and sure once they’re gone so is the temptation. Or so you reason. You promise yourself you will never again look at, let alone buy those organic utterly butterly addictive cookies. Never ever…
Dopamine and appetite
Every love story in history begins with dopamine. Dopamine, one of our neurotransmitters, prompts us to love our food thereby ensuring our survival. Nature has designed an inbuilt reward system so when we eat our brain recognises we’re doing something right and releases dopamine in response. We interpret this response as pleasure which prompts us to eat again and again.
The amount of dopamine produced in response to food all depends on what we eat. If we eat a meal with steak and broccoli for instance we produce moderate amounts of this chemical but if we eat a bowl of ice cream with high levels of fat and sugar we produce high levels of dopamine- hence the wonderful feel good feeling we get with ice cream and the temptation to eat more. Insulin regulates the release of dopamine so if we eat a diet that is high in carbohydrates and sugar we experience peak dopamine levels.
The problem with this is once we experience rapid dopamine release our brain is flooded with it. When this happens, the brain tries to balance itself by reducing dopamine receptor cells. This means that with less receptor cells we become less sensitive to the neurotransmitter and dopamine levels drop. So in order to regain the high we get from food there is a tendency to eat more which then becomes a vicious cycle. This is why one biscuit becomes two and three and four as the brain tries to increase its happy chemicals.
What can I do to boost dopamine levels and reduce cravings?
- Eat foods that are naturally high in the amino acid L- Tyrosine such as eggs, fish, chicken, red meat, dairy products, nuts and seeds, green vegetables, avocados, apples, oatmeal, turmeric, green tea and bananas. L-Tyrosine is a major building block of dopamine.
- Reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol and sugar as these trigger rapid dopamine release and reduce dopamine receptors.
- Include foods high in natural probiotics such as kefir, Sauerkraut, and natural yoghurts that favour dopamine production. Unhealthy gut bacteria lower dopamine.
- Correct a magnesium deficiency as magnesium is a co factor for the biosynthesis of dopamine. Common symptoms of a magnesium deficiency are craving for carbohydrates and salt and conditions such as constipation, high blood pressure, fatigue, irritability and mood swings
- Ensure you have adequate omega 3 oils, zinc, iron, vitamin B6 and vitamin D to raise dopamine levels
- Exercise raises the baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors so go walking, jogging, or swimming to boost this motivational chemical.
- Take action to reduce stress levels as stress interferes with the production of dopamine. Meditate, take a walk, practice reframing negative situations. Boost dopamine by engaging in hobbies that give you pleasure.
- When we accomplish anything in our life we get a dopamine hit as a reward so take steps towards reaching your goals. Begin with short term goals and when each one is ticked off you feel so much better. Some people enjoy making lists and ticking off their tasks as they are completed.
- Dopamine helps us to get into the flow so lose yourself in a creative endeavour of your choice. It could be writing, composing, painting your home. Or it could be sorting out that cupboard under the stairs and upcycling its contents. I enjoy writing and researching and hours have flown by while I work.
- Listening to your favourite music rises dopamine. I like to listen to Richie Ros's music to relax.
- Keeping a healthy weight is important for normal dopamine receptor sites. Obesity leads to blunted dopamine pathways due to exposure to highly palatable foods. This leads to overeating to stimulate the pleasure circuits in the brain.
- Sleep is vital to keeping dopamine receptors high. Dopamine is crucial for our REM sleep cycle and is also linked to melatonin production which helps us switch off and go to sleep. So try to establish a regular bedtime ritual making sure you get between 7-9 hours sleep. Any more or less than that can interfere with dopamine production.
Ratey, J, 2013, Spark. The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little Brown and Company USA.