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Do You Have Excessive Food Cravings? Low-Levels of Dopamine may be the Problem

Do You Have Food Cravings? Or Could it be Dopamine Deficiency?

What causes cravings? Research often suggested that cravings were a result of some sort of nutritional deficiency. Women’s Health Magazine published an article suggesting that when we have food cravings, it may be our body’s way of letting us know we’re missing valuable nutrients.

For example, the article points out that if we crave chocolate, our bodies are lacking in magnesium; if we crave red meat, our bodies are lacking in iron, etc.  While nutrient deficiency could be a factor, many researchers point out that it is highly unlikely. A recent article from CBS Minnesota explains,

…people in other countries don’t crave the same foods, which indicates a cultural aspect to cravings inconsistent with a simple body nutrient deficiency explanation. Also, it would be much easier to get iron and magnesium from vegetables and fruits, yet most people don’t report craving those things.

Marcia Pelchat, PhD a food researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, also thinks that nutritional deficiency isn’t to blame:

But really, how many of us — aside from runners in hot weather — are deficient in salt? And then how do you explain cravings for sweets in terms of deficiency?…..humans rely less on instincts and more on culture to determine what they eat — or on individual experience.

Some of her research has also shown that people have cravings even when they’re fed a diet that’s completely adequate in calories and nutrients.

Natural health enthusiasts would argue that there is differences in the soil ergonomics between different countries and areas; if the soil is depleted of nutrients and minerals, so will the food–which may explain why there is craving differences between areas and countries. Nutritionists have also pointed out that it’s not easier to get iron from fruits and vegetables–and that the easiest source of iron comes from heme, which is found animal protein—something that men (i.e. Steaks) have reported craving.

Other research suggests that cravings are more complex and involve a mix of social, cultural, physiological and psychological factors. An article in the Huffington Post, “Do Food Cravings Indicate Nutritional Deficiency,”  states that:

What you crave may be steeped in the culture — such as old tropes, like women crave chocolate, or advertising/marketing visuals that command you to “crave” — or it may be based in childhood [and memory]. Very often, people crave the things that soothed them growing up.  When we eat the foods we crave, we remember that it worked and we may return to that same food the next time we need a fix.

While social and cultural factors certainly play a role in food cravings, new research believes that the root cravings are more psychological, and heavily connected with the interaction of brain neurotransmitters, specifically involved around low-dopamine levels.

Dopamine and the Connection between Cravings

What is dopamine? According to Psychology Today,

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one of those chemicals that is responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain.It is the primary neurotransmitter found in the brain that is responsible for happiness and other emotions.

While dopamine plays a role in many other important bodily/emotional functions, including mood, sleep, and cognition, dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter found in the brain that is responsible for happiness, pleasure, and reward.  Brain scans show that when we are craving something, we are activating our brain’s pleasure center; and thus, dopamine is released.  Our brains are wired in a way that makes us seek out pleasure (whether we realize it or not), and when we eat things like sugar or salty foods, it stimulates the release of dopamine in our brain, which makes us feel pleasure. Our brain recognizes this feeling and likes it, and begins to crave more!

When we experience the release of dopamine, our nature is to seek out more of it and sustain it–and so begins this unconscious drive for pleasure, which tends to lead to excessive cravings and sometimes addiction. It may shock you to know that many drugs like heroin and morphine, trigger and stimulate the same receptors in the brain like fatty foods and sugars do–which may explain why many of us crave and are addicted to different things.

The level and amount of cravings is really based on the amount of dopamine you have in your system. Renowned neuroscience researcher Kenneth  Blum, PHD, believes that:

Individuals with an excessive craving for food and other pleasure satisfying substances and activities, dopamine deficiency is usually the culprit and due to an association with the dopamine D2 receptor gene (DRD2) A1 allele and other polymorphisms (gene variations) involved in the brain reward cascade.

When dopamine and other “feel good” neurotransmitter chemicals are low or blocked from the brain’s receptors by genetic or environmental influences; stress, pain, discomfort and agitation are the result–which people often associate with dopamine and serotonin deficiency. Dr. Kenneth Blum has published many studies on Reward Deficiency Syndrome, which is what he’s referencing about with the dopamine D2 receptor gene in the quotes above. While I will not dig further into the scientific explanation of things, his research offers some great insight on the psychological science of the brain when it comes to cravings and addiction.

Dopamine Deficiency and Weight Gain

Studies are also pointing out that these cravings, and our constant drive to feel pleasure contributes to the depletion of dopamine receptors in our brain. An article from the Wall Street Journal points out:

Brain researchers have documented that when people continually bombard their reward circuits with drugs, alcohol or high-fat, high-sugar foods, many of the dopamine receptors in the system shut down to prevent overload. And with fewer dopamine receptors at work, the system craves more and more, insatiably.

So in short, if you continually stuff your face with the fatty foods and sugars, you’ll tend to overeat, and it’ll take more and more food for you to feel satisfied–thus leading to weight gain. This dopamine depletion leads to an increase in the very same feelings that caused the overeating in the first place! A study conducted in 2009 by the Oregon Research Institute and University of Oregon, also showed that women with low-dopamine levels had an increased risk for weight gain, than those who had normal dopamine levels.

Natural Ways to Increase Dopamine

Research suggests that there are certain amino acids and other nutraceuticals that can be used to boost the brain’s ability to increase or decrease certain neurotransmitters–like dopamine. So the whole argument that nutrition is not linked to cravings is not entirely true, especially when many foods and nutrients contribute to the production of chemicals(like dopamine) that stimulate the brain and its receptors–which most likely influences our cravings. Natural News suggests eating foods such as red beets, apples, bananas, green vegetables, cauliflower, poultry and more to help maintain proper levels of dopamine:

· Proteins are high in amino acids which contribute to the production of chemicals that stimulate dopamine in the brain. Foods such as eggs, fish, poultry and red meats are all high in protein and great for increasing metabolism. Fish in particular, is high in protein and contains healthy Omega 3 fatty acids, which contribute to increased brain function. The best proteins are those that are organic and do not contain antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.

· Red beets restore dopamine levels and produce a sense of well being. Beets contain the amino acid betaine, which acts like an antidepressant, creating feelings of pleasure and joy.

· Apples boost brain power and help with weight loss. Apples are high in quercitin, a potent antioxidant, and may help prevent neurodegenerative diseases and stimulate dopamine production.

· Drink a daily dose of watermelon juice, which is high in vitamin B-6, an important nutrient for dopamine production

· Foods containing folate help the brain produce more dopamine. Good sources of folate are found in most leafy green vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, lentils, garbanzo beans, black beans, and papaya. Plant sources of folate must be eaten raw to provide enough folate as a nutrient source.

There are also many natural substances that help support the release of dopamine and dopamine synthesis including L-Phenylalanine, N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine, and vitaminB-6. Some of our top selling supplements that may help support healthy dopamine levels include:

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The Science of Cravings