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Why Food Addictions Can be as Strong as Drug Addictions

food addictionIn a study, extracts of wheat grains and potato tubers were found to contain a series of pharmacologically active benzodiazepines -- compounds displaying a high affinity to the central type benzodiazepine receptor (BZR) in the mammalian brain.

The chemicals are most likely biosynthesized within the plant tissue. This points to a possible source for the previously reported presence of benzodiazepine in the brains and peripheral tissues of several animal species and man. Its effects within the brain may be one reason why intense food addictions can be as strong as drug addictions.

According to the study:

"Further analysis ... lead to the identification of compounds belonging to the classical 5-phenyl-1,4-benzodiazepinones. In wheat grains diazepam, N-desmethyldiazepam, delorazepam, deschloro-diazepam, delormetazepam, lormetazepam and isodiazepam were identified, while potato tuber contained diazepam, N-desmethyldiazepam, delorazepam, lorazepam and delormetazepam."

Research on rats has also shown that food, in particular sugar, may be more addictive than cocaine. In the study, when rats were allowed to choose either sweetened water or cocaine, an astonishing 94 percent of rats chose the sweet water.

Interestingly, separate research revealed that limiting carbs in your diet helps to lessen cravings for carb-heavy and starchy foods.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Scaling back or completely eliminating grains (as well as potatoes and sugar) is an important component of my nutrition plan, as these types of carbohydrates can wreak havoc on your insulin and leptin levels. Many people struggle with this step initially because giving up bread, pasta, pizza, pancakes, other wheat grains, sweets and potatoes can be a challenge -- and this is not necessarily due to a lack of willpower.

What Do Wheat and Potatoes Have in Common With Psychoactive Drugs?

As this study in Biochemical Pharmacology showed, extracts of wheat grains and potato tubers contain a series of pharmacologically active benzodiazepines. If you've heard the term benzodiazepine before, it's likely because of the so-called benzodiazepine drugs, which include Ativan, Xanax and Valium.

These highly addictive drugs exert a calming effect by boosting the action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the same way as opioids (heroin) and cannabinoids (cannabis) do. This in turn activates the gratification hormone, dopamine, in your brain.

Since the identical brain "reward pathways" are used by these psychoactive drugs and wheat and potatoes, they may be equally addictive -- and certain people may be more impacted than others.

Another study found that people with higher levels of dopamine in their brain tend to be more prone to addictive behavior, which may explain why some people fall into addiction more easily than others, whether the substance of choice is a prescription or illicit drug or a food, like pizza.

At any rate, this connection likely explains why so many people keep reaching for so-called "comfort" foods like potatoes and bread -- they can exert a soothing, calming effect on your brain while also triggering feelings of gratification, which is a recipe for addiction if I've ever heard one. The cravings for foods like these can be incredibly strong, and may even rival cravings for prescription and illicit drugs, including heroin.

Sugar is Highly Addictive Too

Aside from carbs like bread and potatoes, the other major food craving that people struggle with is sugar, which also happens to be one of the most addictive food ingredients. Like wheat and potatoes, sugar triggers production of your brain's natural opioids -- a key to the addiction process. Your brain essentially becomes addicted to its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin.

Refined sugar may be even more addictive than cocaine -- one of the most addictive substances currently known.

In one study, when rats were allowed to choose either sweetened water or cocaine, an astonishing 94 percent of rats chose the sweet water. Even rats that were addicted to cocaine quickly switched their preference to sugar once it was offered as a choice.

The researchers speculated that the sweet receptors (two protein receptors located on your tongue), which evolved in ancestral times when the diet was very low in sugar, have not adapted to modern times' high-sugar consumption. Therefore, the abnormally high stimulation of these receptors by our sugar-rich diets generates excessive reward signals in your brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, and thus lead to addiction.

As the researchers noted:

" … these findings extend previous research by showing that an intense sensation of sweetness surpasses maximal cocaine stimulation, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted users. The absolute preference for taste sweetness may lead to a re-ordering in the hierarchy of potentially addictive stimuli, with sweetened diets (i.e., containing natural sugars or artificial sweeteners) taking precedence over cocaine and possibly other drugs of abuse."

Cravings May Disappear When You Stop Eating the Food

Strong food cravings, and particularly sweet cravings, are often the result of a complex hormonal reaction, one that is often triggered by the very same foods you crave. Here's how this works: The hormone leptin has been shown to target taste receptors on your tongue, thereby increasing or reducing cravings for sweet foods. It is believed that leptin is a sweet-sensing modulator (suppressor), and therefore a contributor to the process that regulates food intake.

It is likely that either a lack of leptin, or your body's failure to respond to the hormone due to defects in your leptin receptors, contributes to the so-called 'sweet tooth' or sweets addiction that affects so many people.

It's already been discovered that animals and humans with low leptin levels, or with defective leptin receptors, tend to become obese. Leptin -- a hormone produced by your fat cells -- is directly involved in weight regulation by signaling your brain when your fat cells are full -- instructing your body to reduce hunger, increase fat burning, and reduce fat storage.

So, in addition to increasing cravings for sweets, low leptin levels (or conversely, excessive leptin levels due to leptin resistance) also diminish your feelings of satiety, leading to continued intake of sweet foods. How do you get past the cravings?

One of the Most Effective Ways to Eliminate Food Cravings …

Stop eating the offending food.

A study in the journal Obesity found that people following a low-carb diet -- who limited carbs and ate foods high in fat and protein -- had larger drops in cravings and preferences for carbs and starches than people eating a low-fat diet, which included more carbs. The researchers stated:

"Prescription of diets that promoted restriction of specific types of foods resulted in decreased cravings and preferences for the foods that were targeted for restriction. The results also indicate that the LCD [low-carbohydrate diet] group was less bothered by hunger compared to the LFD [low-fat diet] group and that men had larger reductions in appetite compared to women."

This finding makes sense, as when you eat a diet that is high in sugar and grains, the sugar gets metabolized to fat (and is stored as fat in your fat cells), which in turn releases surges in leptin. Over time, if your body is exposed to too much leptin, it will become resistant to it (just as your body can become resistant to insulin).

And when you become leptin-resistant, your body can no longer "hear" the messages telling it to stop eating, burn fat, and maintain good sensitivity to sweet tastes in your taste buds -- so you remain hungry, you crave sweets, and your body stores more fat. So "cleaning" your palate of grains and sugar to eliminate your body's learned response to these foods is important to break the addiction.

Two More Tips for Breaking Food Addictions

Food addictions clearly have a biochemical root, but there's often an emotional component as well.  Research suggests about half of adults turn to food in times of boredom, stress and loneliness. And for people who said stress often drove them to eat, the comfort food of choice tended to be greasy, salty or sweet. Not surprisingly, such "stress-driven" eaters, particularly women, weighed more on average, and among women those who felt a lack of emotional support in their lives had a greater tendency to eat to cope with stress.

If you're an emotional eater, and you find that your food addiction flares up in times of stress, I highly recommend the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which helps eliminate your food cravings naturally.

When your body's energy system is disrupted, you are more likely to experience distractions and discomforts related to food, and more likely to engage in emotional eating. Instead, if you engage your body's subtle energy system with EFT, the distracting discomforts like food cravings and hunger pangs often subside.

Another trick to help you beat food cravings, which is especially useful when you're first trying to cut back, is cardiovascular exercise. It always amazes me how my appetite, especially for sweets, dramatically decreases after a good workout.

I believe the mechanism is related to the dramatic reduction in insulin levels that occurs after a good workout. Elevated insulin levels are another primary contributing factor to food cravings, and if insulin levels are reduced many of these cravings will simply fade away.

You can even use exercise therapeutically if you're hit with a strong craving for sweets. For instance, a session of Sprint 8 exercises, which takes just 20 minutes, will likely make the craving disappear.

If you've tried all of the above and you're still struggling with a food addiction, seek help from a knowledgeable health care practitioner who can help you explore some other potential causative factors. Chronic exhaustion, adrenal fatigue, yeast/Candida overgrowth and hormonal imbalances can also lead to cravings, especially for sugary foods.