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September 8, 2011

The Science of Cravings

By Jill Coleman and Jade Teta

In an effort to begin to curb and prevent cravings, it is important to first understand the pathology of how cravings develop.  They manifest differently for everyone, from preferential foods to specific tastes or textures and even times of day. Some people grab salty, crunchy options while others crave fatty foods, while still others pine for sweets, chocolate, alcohol or stimulants like coffee.

The differences in what people crave is not coincidence, it is based on chemical messengers and brain neurohormones, or neurotransmitters. Frequently, physicians will give these chemicals to patients for depression, anxiety, mood disorders, etc, either directly or though a manipulation such as an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor).

At any one time, there can be sufficiency, deficiency or dominancy of each neurotransmitter unique to the individual, and often, specific cravings can denote neurotransmitter status.

Four Neurotransmitters

The four neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, GABA and acetylcholine interact constantly to produce outward effects such as a mood, personality, energy status and even the ability (or not) to burn fat.  As part of the autonomic nervous system, the neurotransmitters act to regulate both the stimulating (dopamine and acetylcholine) and relaxing (serotonin and GABA) sides of the sympathic and parasympathic nervous system, respectively.

For fat loss, it is important to understand that status of each of the four brain chemicals can impact your fat burning ability and likelihood of indulging in strong cravings.

Dopamine.  One of the stimulating neurotransmitters, dopamine energizes, motivates, helps us focus and allows us to experience pleasure.  People with healthy dopamine status tend to be focused, hardworking overachievers who can seemingly to eat whatever they want and not put on much weight. However, dopamine insufficiency or dominancy may lead to excessive cravings. Low status is usually indicated by an inability to focus, low energy and general apathy. People who have low dopamine signaling may crave foods that help bring their energy up and stimulate them. Thus, common cravings include sweets, coffee, soda, chocolate and alcohol to facilitate brain stimulation. On the other hand, people will excessive dopamine signaling will crave similar foods to augment their already heightened mental stimulation. The danger comes in when the use of these stimulants is short-lived, overindulged and may eventually lead to excessive stimulation of dopamine signaling that over time can weaken, creating a cycle of increased cravings to get the same effect.

Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine, also a stimulating chemical, is involved in the brain’s speed with which it processes information, like recalling memories, times, places, people and numbers as well as problem solving and the ability to resist brain fatigue. Low acetylcholine output may manifest in forgetfulness, brain fog and slow mental processing. People with low acetylcholine signaling will often crave fatty foods since fat is a rich source of choline, one of the building blocks of acetylcholine.  Common cravings can be junk foods like fried foods, pizza, burgers, cheesecake and ice cream, or even healthier fats contained in nuts, avocado and eggs.

Serotonin. One of the relaxing chemicals in the brain, serotonin is considered a neurotransmitter that impacts how we feel about the world and ourselves.  People with sufficient serotonin levels experience happiness with themselves and their surroundings, appreciation, confidence and a general sense of wellbeing and contentment. Low serotonin may disrupt self-perception and happiness, leading to depression, low self-esteem and sleep disturbances. People with low serotonin often crave starchy, salty foods like bread, pasta, chips, and pretzels. They often feel unsatisfied if starch is not part of the meal and struggle more than others if they attempt a low carbohydrate diet. The depression that can manifest may result in becoming overweight, having insatiable cravings for carbs and many times a general pessimistic attitude.

GABA. The final neurotransmitter, GABA is another relaxing brain chemical, giving us the ability to unwind, relax, de-stress and sleep soundly.  Sufficient GABA types rarely feel anxious and usually feel little need to overindulge in general. Low GABA signaling manifests in an inability to relax.  These people may often suffer from anxiety, stress, sleep disturbances, irritable bowel syndrome and headaches. In terms of cravings, low GABA individuals don’t tend to crave a specific taste, but instead desire a high volume of food that they will tend to eat quickly. People low in GABA frequently seek out starch but are mostly content eating anything as long as there is a lot of it to fill them up. Low GABA people are emotional eaters in the truest sense of the word.

Addressing brain chemistry to curb cravings

Once a potential deficiency is identified, usually through the use of questionnaires or personality and behavioral evaluations, it is possible to use food and supplementation safely to augment the biosynthesis of specific neurotransmitters.

The key is to naturally increase the amount of neurotransmitter being produced, rather than give them synthetically, which can eventually down-regulate natural synthesis.  All neurotransmitters are synthesized via amino acid precursor molecules; many of which can be given in supplemental form or found naturally in foods.

For low dopamine, the amino acid tyrosine in supplemental form works well, as does an adequate intake of protein from lean meats. Unsweetened or raw cocoa powder boosts dopamine production too.  Try 1-2 TB unsweetened cocoa powder (baking cocoa) in hot water, using a natural sweetener like stevia to sweeten.

For low acetycholine, supplementation with its precursor lecithin (phospatidylcholine) has shown promise, as does making sure the diet is full of healthy fats like fish oil, egg yolks, olives, nuts and avocado to prevent cravings for fatty junk foods.

For low serotonin, its amino acid precursors tryptophan, 5-HTP or SAM-e are good options.  Consume foods rich in tryptophan like cocoa as well as animal proteins like turkey, pork, duck and chicken.

For low GABA, amino acids L-glutamine, theanine, leucine, and taurine work on GABA biosynthesis.  Foods like shell fish, broccoli, brown rice and bananas contain high amounts of these amino acids too.

Final thoughts

Your brain chemistry profile is not fixed; it is always changing. Neurohormone synthesis can be up-regulated or down-regulated based on nutrition and behaviors. Coffee, sugar, salt, environmental toxins can all impact your neurotransmitter function. As can stress, intense exercise, emotional trauma, and genetic predispositions.

However, a little introspection about how you function in the world and how you interact with food reveals potential brain chemistry insufficiencies.  But now you know how to manipulate diet, supplementation and behavioral changes to address and eventually correct them.

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