Hands up who has cravings? Those all encompassing thoughts that consume you until you go out of your way to please them.
Cravings can be smaller, such as not starting work until you’ve had a coffee.
Or larger. When you drive half way across town to find a specific food.
Either way, cravings are addictions. Our brains are addicted to the dopamine rush we get when we satisfy the craving.
For me, caffeine is my weakness. My brain is addicted to the rush of caffeine I get when I drink my daily coffee.
Our brains love efficiency and create habits so we don’t have to think. We do things on autopilot. This autopilot is another way of describing habits. Habits are things we do without having to think about it. Such as brushing our teeth, driving to work, drinking coffee.
Habits are driven by a neurotransmitter called dopamine. That’s the “reward” we get. Dopamine makes us feel good. Dopamine is great because it drives us to do things. Without dopamine, we’d starve to death. We wouldn’t have an urge to go and eat. We’d sit around thinking “isn’t life great. Who needs food?”
When we’re in a habit, we don’t notice the “craving” bit but it’s still there. We brush our teeth because we know we’ll get a dopamine reward. Have you ever tried to not brush your teeth? Do you feel uncomfortable going to bed? That’s because your body hasn’t had it’s dopamine reward and is looking for it!
In modern days, it’s easy to get large amounts of dopamine. Take sugar. A rise in glucose levels will lead to a dopamine surge. Before we got our sugar from fruit and berries. If we were lucky we had access to honey. But not a limitless supply of honey.
Eating fruit and berries, raised our glucose levels and gave us a dopamine surge.
Now we can eat refined sugar and flour and get a much bigger glucose rush. Which comes with a bigger dopamine surge.
We can also get large dopamine surges from pretty much anything we enjoy doing. Online shopping, pornography, playing computer games. (Everyone is different but you get the idea. We live in a world full of excitement!)
When we do that thing over and over, it becomes a habit. When it consumes our thoughts, it becomes an addiction.
Our bodies can’t cope with so much dopamine over a long period of time. So our brains down regulate our dopamine receptors. Our brain gets rid of some of the receptors so that the feeling isn’t so intense.
This means as you continue to eat lots of sugar, you get get such a reward. Your brain releases the same amount of dopamine. As there are less receptors, you don’t get such a rush.
You need to eat more sugar to get the same level of reward as before.
Mostly it’s glucose that gives our bodies a huge dopamine surge. We get glucose from lots of foods. Sugar is an obvious source of glucose. Flour is also converted into glucose in our bodies.
Other foods such as vegetables will also provide our bodies with glucose. But they release their sugar over a period of time so we don’t get that “rush”. I’ve never met anyone who was addicted to vegetables!
There is a genetic component. Some people are genetically more susceptible to addictive behaviour than others. But everyone is susceptible on some level. Everyone has their own “threshold”. If you go over that threshold, your dopamine receptors will down regulate. And you’ll start to have cravings.
If you’re hungry for a specific food, you’re looking at a craving.
“There’s no such thing as only hungry for chocolate!”
True hunger is satisfied with anything. Do the celery test! If you’re prepared to eat celery, it’s true hunger. If you’re only interested in chocolate, it’s a craving!
The good news is that you can retrain your brain. If you have cravings, this will sound scary.
You need to give up sugar and flour for a period of time.
If you eat lots of flour and sugar, your brain is probably flipping out! But, once you’ve given up sugar and flour, your brain adapts. You can love life and get smaller dopamine surges from fruit. (It will feel the same. Your brain doesn’t have a different dopamine surge for “glucose from fruit” or “glucose from a donut”. The difference is in the speed and quantity of glucose. Once your dopamine receptors are back to normal, you won’t feel like food controls you and you can still enjoy it.)
Remember your taste buds will also change. As you eat less sugary foods, your taste buds will be able to taste the natural sugars in fruit and vegetables.
If you’d like help retaining your brain and learning to love healthy foods, I invite you to do Dr Orlena’s Healthy Eating Reboot. Find out more here: https://www.drorlena.com/dr-orlena-s-2-weekhealthy-reboot-1
I don’t recommend artificial sweeteners. They trick your body into thinking it’s had a sugar hit. Studies have shown that people who eat artificial sweeteners, actually eat more food.
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Dr Orlena is a health coach. She helps busy mums go from "I can't lose weight" to feeling fit and fabulous. Find out more about her here.