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What Happens in Your Brain When You Experience Pleasure?

pleasure effects on brain

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pleasure — the good feeling you get in response to drugs, food, sex and other stimulants — is driven by the release of various neurotransmitters throughout your brain, including dopamine, the so-called “pleasure chemical”
  • Certain food products, notably refined and processed “hyperpalatable” foods containing high amounts of sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, hijack your brain’s reward center, causing changes identical to those found in alcohol and drug abusers
  • Addiction also affects your frontal cortex, impairing your ability to control impatience, impulsivity, irritability and other mood states associated with addiction and withdrawal
  • Abuse, neglect and other trauma during your formative years can profoundly affect your frontal cortex and deliver epigenetic influences that make you more susceptible to addictions

By Dr. Mercola

Your brain is a powerful instrument that often seems to have "a mind of its own." This is certainly the case when it comes to how it handles pleasure, which has been shown to affect both the nucleus accumbens, or reward center, and frontal cortex regions of your brain.

If you've ever wondered about the roots of addiction and the role played by your brain, you should know that all addictions — whether it be food, sex, drugs or alcohol — have a similar hijacking effect on your brain. Fortunately, most addictive patterns are completely reversible and there is hope for a better brain and life.

What's Going on in Your Brain When You Experience Pleasure?

Pleasure — the good feeling you get in response to drugs, food, sex and other stimulants, including the simple act of doodling1,2 — is driven by the release of various neurotransmitters throughout your brain, including dopamine.3 As you probably know, dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward. When dopamine is released, it tells your brain to expect something rewarding. It also drives you to seek rewards and modulates how rewarding each one will be.

Furthermore, dopamine plays a role in supporting cognition and voluntary movement. Neuroscientist Dean Burnett, Ph.D., lecturer and tutor at the U.K.'s Cardiff University Center for Medical Education, and creative genius behind The Guardian's popular "Brain Flapping" column, says:4

"Anything that causes us to experience pleasure, in any context, invariably involves activity in the brain's mesolimbic reward pathway. It's a deeply embedded area of the brain, made up of many links between the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area.

It's very complex, but basically these regions are responsible for reviewing what we're experiencing and deciding whether it warrants the sensation of pleasure, and supplying this pleasure, or 'reward,' if the answer is yes. The neurological processes that govern this area use dopamine, hence dopamine's frequent labelling as the 'pleasure chemical.'"

The Conversation states all drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and heroin, release dopamine, as do other rewarding experiences like eating, gambling and having sex. On the other hand, they note, "decreases in dopamine within reward systems are associated with depression, a lack of pleasure or motivation and withdrawal."5

It follows then that mental illnesses like schizophrenia are characterized by too much dopamine release, thereby resulting in psychotic symptoms. In contrast, neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's disease are thought to be tied to the premature death of dopamine cells responsible for motor coordination.6 Burnett believes your reward pathway is influenced by the reality that there are an unlimited number of things you can experience as well as countless connections and links to each one of those experiences.

It's as if your brain's reward system, Burnett says, is like one huge computer server that houses all the digital records pertaining to the entire world's supply of money. It would be difficult to imagine all the people and things that would be attached to this one server, not to mention all the ways and occasions it would be activated.7 Your brain's reward center is just like that — handling nonstop "transactions."

Unfortunately, anytime there are breakdowns in your decision-making process, you become vulnerable to pathological behavior, which is associated with most addictions. When you are addicted to a particular substance or experience, you adopt a type of "I'll do whatever it takes" attitude to achieve your desired outcome.

Over time, as the addictive attachment grows, it matters very little whether you still find the activity or experience to be pleasurable. No matter what you want to do, it becomes nearly impossible to stop the behavior or habit.

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The Role of Dopamine in Food and Other Substance Addiction

The correlation between food addiction and recreational drug addiction is striking, and likely stronger than you may suspect. As mentioned, dopamine plays a critical role in all forms of addiction.

Two big ones to discuss are addictions involving food and drugs, topics discussed in my video interview above featuring Dr. Pamela Peeke, an internationally recognized expert in integrative medicine, nutrition and fitness, and the author of The New York Times best-seller book "The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction."

The groundwork for the revelations about the role of dopamine in addictions was provided by Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, an addiction psychiatrist who has admitted to nursing her own compulsive attachment to chocolate. Her breakthrough came with the introduction of high-detail brain imaging devices like functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, which offered high quality views of the brain.8

By studying the brain's reward center, Volkow realized you only feel pleasure or reward when dopamine binds with its receptor, called the D2 receptor. D2 receptors are located throughout the reward center in your brain. When dopamine links to this receptor, immediate changes take place in your brain cells, resulting in a "hit" of pleasure and reward. Peeke suggests some brains are more susceptible to addiction than others. She states:

"People who are vulnerable — who have an early history of any kind of abuse or trauma, mood issues or a history of addiction themselves and/or genetically in their family — these people are at much higher risk to develop an addictive-like eating behavior. This is especially true when they regularly consume what we now call 'the hyperpalatables' — refined, processed sugars, unhealthy fats and salt."

While it is difficult to estimate accurately just how many people struggle with addictive eating, we know it affects both men and women and involves a wide spectrum of problematic behaviors.

Addictive eating ranges from the mildly affected who are able to control the addiction through modified lifestyle habits like calorie counting, to seriously compulsive overeaters who live daily with the significant health consequences caused by obesity. While most people think addictive eating is a problem only for overweight people, it actually affects people of all sizes.

"It's not just about weight because some of my toughest addictive-eating behavior people are very small people," Peeke says. "They struggle every day. Addictive-like eating actually covers the entire gamut of the weight spectrum."

How Addictions Develop

The primary directive of your body (and mind) is survival, and it will go through all sorts of adaptations to achieve this goal. When you overindulge in hyper-stimulators like alcohol, sex, street drugs or sugar your brain's reward center takes note that you've become overstimulated. Because your brain perceives this state to not be good for your survival, it compensates by decreasing your sense of pleasure and reward. The first step it takes is to downregulate your D2 receptors, basically eliminating some of them.

Although this is a survival strategy, it creates another problem because now you don't feel nearly the same pleasure and reward you had when the addiction began. This is true regardless of whether your addiction was to food or drugs. As a result, you develop tolerance, meaning you crave more and more of your fix but are unable to achieve the same "high" you once enjoyed. Eventually, says Peeke, you are compelled to continue feeding the addiction not solely for the pleasure or reward outcomes.

Instead, the primary reason you keep feeding the addiction is to avoid the pain and angst of withdrawal, which you do not want and cannot tolerate. Interestingly, Volkow's work revealed the changes taking place in the brains of drug addicts and food addicts are identical.

Regardless of the addictive substance, she noted very little dopamine bonding with its D2 receptors in addicted brains, mainly because the number of receptors had been drastically reduced due to continual exposure to the addictive substance. About this finding, Peeke said:

"In the normal brain's PET scan of the reward center, you see a beautiful red-orange because it's all lit up where the dopamine is bonding with the D2 receptors. You show the person a sunset or something pleasurable, and you can see beautiful binding going on.

What do you see in the addictive brain? Not a whole lot; almost no orange there. For that matter, those D2 receptors are so low in number these people are in angst. They crave more and more and more of whatever their fix is."

Overall, Volkow's study was able to show:

  1. Food addiction is real
  2. Changes that take place in your brain's reward center are identical for all addictions
  3. Your brain's reward center is just one of the affected regions; your frontal cortex is also impacted

About the impact addiction has on your frontal cortex, Peeke stated:

"This means you have an impairment of the 'CEO of the brain' in its ability to rein in impulsivity, irritability, impatience and all of the things associated with withdrawal and addiction. In this condition, you can't stay vigilant. It's hard to pay attention. You can't be mindful. You're unable to plan, organize or strategize. Basically, you're out of control. Now, you have an out-of-control CEO of the brain and you've got a hijacked reward center. What you have is a full-on addiction."

Early Trauma Sets the Stage for Future Addiction

As alluded to above, Peeke notes you may be particularly susceptible to addiction if you've experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect or other trauma during your formative years. Trauma during childhood, adolescence and/or young adulthood can significantly affect your frontal cortex, thereby setting the stage for addiction.

Assistant professor Susan Mason, Ph.D., division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis, working with the Nurses' Health Study II, showed women who had the highest levels of abuse during childhood had a 90 percent increased incidence of food addiction.9

In her book, Peeke also talks about the role of epigenetics, noting there's a "sweet spot" between the ages of 8 and 13 when your genome is particularly vulnerable to epigenetic influence.

This means your genes are being turned on or off, leaving molecular markers based on what is happening to you. The influences of your experiences, she says, go on to shape how you self-soothe and whether or not you become self-destructive. If not addressed, these issues will follow you into adulthood and set the tone for many aspects of your life.

Even if you do not have a history of abuse or trauma, Peeke suggests you may still be set up to act in either a self-soothing or self-destructive manner with respect to addictive behaviors. For example, you repeatedly may give into cravings when you are sleep-deprived or stressed, which could also set the stage for future addiction.

Beyond that, it may not be the actual addictive food or drug setting off the highest levels of dopamine release in your brain. Instead, it is likely the cues and triggers associated with them. Says Peeke:

"Just by showing people pictures or getting them triggered, they have very high levels of dopamine secretion … when they actually consume, especially if they're addictive, they're not experiencing the same level of reward that merely anticipating the fix provides."

Exercise and Mindfulness Can Help You on the Road to Recovery

If you are feeling trapped in an addiction and are wondering what steps you can take to find relief, in addition to seeking professional help, you may want to try exercise and mindfulness meditation. With respect to exercise, physical activity prompts neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, which contributes to healing in your brain's frontal cortex and reward center.

Similarly, meditation has been shown to epigenetically turn off inflammatory gene groups, while turning on genes responsible for increasing neurogenesis. As such, both activities are important with respect to long-term recovery from addictions of any kind. Adds Peeke:

"With physical activity, with every step you take you're able to change gene expression along the entire spectrum of the metabolic syndrome to be able to augment brain health and brain healing from the entire addictive process ...

Now, with nutrition, there's no question, you absolutely can't keep hammering yourself with addictive products for which you say yes to loss of control and yes to feeling shame, blame and guilt. Instead, you're going to substitute what I call false addictive fixes with healthy fixes.

In the mind, it's checking in with one's self, being able to augment the mental capacity to be able to say yay or nay. You must organize and strategize to be able to decrease impulsivity, irritability and impatience …

You must heighten your vigilance and mindfulness, which is king here. When you're mindful, you take it hour by hour, moment by moment, so you're able to stay on track. People who have addictive-like habits tend to want to speed along. Instead, slow down and take a breath. Relax. Remind yourself you can do this."

In terms of healthy fixes, Peeke suggests if you're addicted to sugary soda, for example, you can clear out all sodas and replace them with beautiful glass decanters filled with pure water to which you can add berries, slices of citrus or cucumbers and mint leaves. Peeke's book is filled with many more options and substitutes she has developed through years of experimentation in addiction centers.

You can also experiment with imagery, which can be very powerful and engaging to the mind, whether positive or negative. Some do well with negative imagery, such as picturing a skull and crossbones on an addictive food. Others respond to positive imagery, such as pictures of healthier food choices like salads and fresh fruits and vegetables. Below is another helpful exercise provided by Peeke:

"I ask every person to sit down and develop something I call 'The Power Why.' Why do you want to do this at all? Why not just continue whatever addictive behavior you've got going? Why do you want to change? You've got to dig deep. You can't just say, 'Well, I want to be healthy.' What else is important in your life? You want to be here to do what? Close your eyes and go deep into your why."

One of Peeke's examples is the story of a nearly 300-pound woman who struggled with figuring out her why until she was told she was going to receive a national award for the work she had done in her community. The award would be presented a year later on stage with her entire family in attendance. At that point, says Peeke:

"Something clicked in her brain for her why. She said, 'I want to be proud of myself. I want to walk the talk. If I'm promoting health and well-being, I've got to live it.' And that's what did it. One year and 150 pounds later … she stood proudly before the audience and accepted her award … That was 12 years ago and she's still living the recovery lifestyle."

Next Steps You Can Take to Fight Food Addiction

If you suffer with weight issues and suspect food addiction might be an issue, I highly recommend reading Peeke's book. It is a great resource to get educated about what's going on inside your body and brain with respect to the addiction. You'll also find tools to help you explore the roots of your addictive eating and create a recovery lifestyle you can feel good about and live long term. Peeke provides practical strategies you can apply to break the addictive cycle once and for all.

In this way, you can begin to take control of your health. Find more information on her website and check out her TedxWallStreet talk in the video above. In addition, the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is another simple, effective and highly recommended tool that can rapidly help you eliminate your food cravings naturally.