Consistent and sufficient parental nurturing in infancy and childhood plays a major role not only in the normal development of the structure of the brain regions and circuits, but in the brain’s chemical communication systems as well.
Brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, allow messages to pass from one cell to the next and are essential for communication between brain cells. Brain chemicals regulate our mood and mental energy, alertness, focus and calmness. The quality of our lives is highly determined by our brain chemistry.
There’s a specific area of the upstairs brain, called the orbitofrontal cortex, that’s heavily involved in our ability to regulate our emotions, impulses and behaviours. This area has a dense network of connections to the lower brain structures, where our most primitive emotions like rage and fear are generated, and the brain stem, where our physiological body states are managed.
This area of the brain is at the centre of our reward and motivation system, and it contains a large supply of the reward chemicals—endorphins and dopamine—associated with soothing, calm, joy and pleasure.
Endorphins: Molecules of emotion
Endorphins alleviate physical and emotional pain and facilitate emotional bonding. If you’ve ever had a serious injury and didn’t feel pain immediately, you can thank your endorphins for that—and for the deeply relaxed and calm feeling that comes after lovemaking, because a flood of endorphins is released during orgasm. (Leave it to nature to make sure the propagation of the species is an enjoyable process!)
Endorphins are also the brain chemicals responsible for “runner’s high,” the euphoric state some runners describe after an extended period of aerobic exercise. Some overeaters are also over-exercisers, and this tendency may be due in part to a subconscious effort to boost low endorphin levels.
Researchers have identified more than 20 different types of endorphins. In addition to alleviating emotional and physical pain, these chemicals are involved in the regulation of blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and body temperature.
We have endorphin receptors (think of these as the loading docks of your cells) in different types of cells throughout our bodies, playing different roles. For example, in the nervous system, endorphins act as painkillers and tranquilizers, whereas in our mouths, they diminish secretions and lead to the familiar “cotton-mouth” sensation.
Endorphins also govern our attachment instinct. A mother’s attention and loving presence trigger an endorphin release in an infant’s brain. Nature didn’t forget the brains of mothers, either: mothers experience huge endorphin surges when they nurture their babies.
Conversely, if a mother or other caregiver fails to respond adequately to an infant’s needs on a consistent basis, endorphins aren’t released in the baby’s brain. He or she is left to self-soothe with alternative coping mechanisms like thumb sucking, rocking or shutting down and tuning out.
When our levels of this natural pain reliever (named for its resemblance to morphine) are low, we may find that we’re highly sensitive to both emotional and physical pain. We seem to feel pain more than others do. Perhaps we cry at the drop of a hat. Stress can deplete our scanty levels of endorphins even further.
Alcohol and drugs (especially opiates), as well as drug-like components in foods such as refined flours and sugars, can attach to our brain-cell receptor sites and take the place of our natural brain chemicals. As our brain perceives these receptor sites as full, it produces less of our natural chemicals. This partly explains the vicious cycle many overeaters know so well: cravings, indulgence, relief and more cravings.
Dopamine: Energy and focus
Dopamine keeps us feeling energized, upbeat and alert. By helping us focus and concentrate, it plays a role in the learning of new behaviours. Pleasurable experiences such as dinner with a dear friend, a good tennis match or the anticipation of a vacation tend to elevate dopamine levels.
Joyful, nurturing interactions with primary caregivers stimulate the development of dopamine receptors in the infant’s brain. Early separations, insufficient emotional and physical attention or regular stressed interactions with caregivers can cause significant alterations in the dopamine system, including reduced dopamine production as well as a diminished number of dopamine receptors.
If you’re low in this important brain chemical, you may experience low or flat moods, including depression. You may have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning or tend to sleep long hours. You may find it challenging to concentrate and focus on tasks. Your motivation, drive and enthusiasm for life may be low, and you may have difficulty activating yourself. You may experience boredom or apathy more often than you’d like. You may feel easily overwhelmed and inclined to procrastinate. Your brain and your life may feel cluttered.
Studies have demonstrated that 12 to 40 percent of adults in the United States are born with a gene that reduces the number of dopamine receptors. A diminished number of dopamine receptors in the brain appears to play a role in the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder.
People with fewer dopamine receptors are at greater risk of engaging in substance abuse, compulsive gambling, internet and sex addiction, and compulsive overeating. Some overeaters have been born with an altered gene that also results in lower production of dopamine.
When your dopamine levels are low, you may be attracted to stimulating substances like coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, tobacco and street drugs like amphetamines and cocaine. You may also have cravings for sweets, starches, alcohol, marijuana and foods and drinks sweetened with aspartame.
Foods high in fat, like fried foods, chocolate, cheese and meat also increase dopamine levels, so if these are your go-to comfort foods, low levels of this chemical may be playing a role. And, as with endorphins, when our brains perceive our dopamine receptor sites as full, whether from drug-like foods or beverages or from actual brain chemicals, our natural production declines. We’re back to that vicious cycle.
Serotonin: A sense of well-being
Another key brain chemical is serotonin. When you have enough of this important chemical, your mood tends to be stable (assuming your other brain chemicals are in balance). Animal studies have demonstrated that parental nurturing determines the production of serotonin. Even minor imbalances in the availability of this chemical can manifest in behaviours such as fearfulness and hyperactivity.
Low serotonin levels can make you feel anxious, panicky, irritable, agitated, cranky, constantly worried or depressed.
Serotonin deficiency is by far the most common cause of mood problems in the United States. Low serotonin levels can make you feel anxious, panicky, irritable, agitated, cranky, constantly worried or depressed.
You may act impulsively, obsessively and perfectionistically. Your thoughts are likely to be negative, fearful, and critical. You may experience phobias, fibromyalgia, migraines, PMS and tension in your jaw. You may suffer digestive difficulties, since a large percentage of the serotonin in your body is in your gut (which has been called the second brain). You might find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, as serotonin is converted to melatonin, the so-called sleep hormone. Your mood may worsen with season and daylight changes, a condition called seasonal affective disorder.
Low serotonin levels play a role in food obsession, compulsive binge eating and exercise addiction. If you find that you’re drawn to high-carbohydrate snacks in the late afternoon and evening, it may be because your serotonin production is dropping.
Daylight, physical exercise, and foods containing the amino acid L-tryptophan increase serotonin levels in the brain and the body. You may crave dairy products high in this substance, like ice cream, hot chocolate, pudding or a warm glass of milk.
Marijuana and alcohol can enhance serotonin levels, and this explains why you might find yourself wanting to unwind, as the sun goes down, by smoking pot or drinking wine, beer or your favorite cocktail. Unfortunately, overuse of marijuana and alcohol can lead to addiction and end up inhibiting serotonin production.
GABA: Soothing emotional eruptions
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is probably the least-known brain chemical. It’s our natural Valium, and it helps us feel relaxed. It’s called an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it turns off certain kinds of brain reactions, such as the production of excitatory chemicals like adrenaline.
GABA helps to calm our emotional storms without recruiting our brain-stem areas into the all-too-familiar fight, flight or freeze reactions. If the integrative fibers that connect our upstairs and downstairs brains are working properly, this brain chemical is released when we experience stress.
When GABA levels are low, we may experience mood disturbances and cravings for alcohol, drugs and comfort food—particularly substances that calm us down, such as alcohol, marijuana, sedatives, sweets and fatty foods.
Glutamine: Sweet cravings and good digestion
There’s one final key player worth mentioning that affects mood and food cravings. Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins. Glutamine, the most abundant amino acid in the muscle and plasma of humans, is a stimulating, excitatory organic substance that acts like a brain chemical.
Traditionally considered a nonessential amino acid, it now appears to be an essential nutrient in the body’s response to stress, injury or illness. It’s critical for optimal brain function, boosting mood, increasing alertness and enhancing memory. It also increases libido and facilitates digestion.
Our brains can use glutamine as an emergency substitute fuel, in place of glucose, when we haven’t eaten or when our blood sugar levels are low. If we have enough of this important amino acid, we’re less likely to hit the candy machine when our blood-sugar levels drop.
When we’re under stress, the right amount of glutamine can stop our sugar cravings and save our adrenal glands from overworking. The brains of sugar addicts and alcoholics tend to be low in this important organic substance.
Circuits, synapses, chemicals and environment
Whether because of insufficient early nurturance, inherited deficiencies or lifestyle factors, many overeaters have brain chemistry imbalances that make them more susceptible to the energizing, soothing and calming effects of particular foods and more prone to overeating them.
For some overeaters, a few simple lifestyle changes can help correct these imbalances. I discuss these in further detail in The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for Putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. Eating more unprocessed, whole plant foods (especially raw vegetables and foods high in amino acids and essential fatty acids) and reducing your intake of processed foods, alcohol and stimulants like caffeine are a good start.
Exercise is critical to good health, and aerobic exercise, in particular, releases mood-enhancing chemicals and promotes the growth of brain cells.
Good sleep is important, as is good sleep hygiene—habits conducive to getting the right amount and quality of sleep. These include exercising early in the day, refraining from stimulating activity and avoiding bright lights in the evening, and preparing for bed by calming down and dimming the lights. If you’re having trouble getting yourself to make any of these lifestyle adjustments, your brain chemistry may be holding you back.
A medical examination must always be the first step in ruling out physical causes of brain chemical imbalances and any associated symptoms.
If you feel that the symptoms you’re experiencing and the substances you’re craving suggest a deficiency or imbalance in any of these chemicals, an adjustment to your brain chemicals may be warranted. There’s a good chance you could benefit from a trial of natural supplements prescribed by an informed health-care provider. These include amino acids, essential fatty acids, enzymes, herbs, vitamins and minerals.
Medications also have a place in restoring brain chemistry. Once a prescribed medication has accomplished the initial restoration, the gentler natural supplements can often sustain it.
A medical examination must always be the first step in ruling out physical causes of brain chemical imbalances and any associated symptoms. Don’t stop using any prescription drugs or begin taking any supplements without consulting your physician. Chemical imbalances are caused not simply by an absence or decreased amount of any particular brain chemical but rather by the complex interplay of brain function and chemistry with environmental factors.
All overeating behaviors are the result of a complex set of mechanisms that may include inherited deficiencies as well as faulty neurological programming from insufficient early nurturing and traumatic experiences. These, as well as our internal psychological state and our adult interpersonal connections, must be taken into consideration to facilitate recovery.