A stigma surrounds food and other process addictions – that they aren’t real. Many people don’t understand food addiction and so don’t associate it with the same effects as a substance addiction. However, food has the same effects on the brain’s dopamine receptors as chemicals do, making process addictions very real. Understanding dopamine signaling and addiction is the first step toward stemming a food addiction, just as it is for a substance addiction.
Understanding Addiction And The Brain
Addiction takes place within the brain’s reward center, involving dopamine release levels and receptor binding. Dopamine receptors, classified as D1 and D2 receptors, are in charge of changing a person’s behaviors and impulses. Low D2 receptor levels and dopamine release directly correlate to higher levels of impulsivity and the desire for short-term rewards – two major precursors for addiction.
Substance addiction alters the brain’s D2 receptor and dopamine release levels, literally changing the way an addict thinks, feels, and behaves. Studies prove that drugs and alcohol affect the brain’s dopamine receptors, leading to addiction and the tendency for relapse. Many studies also show that some people are predisposed to lower levels of D2 receptors and dopamine release, making them more at risk for addiction. Food addiction involves the same exact dopamine receptors as a substance addiction.
The hypothalamus in the brain is responsible for integrating hormonal and neuronal signals that control appetite and body weight. The brain makes a strong connection between food and reward, responding to food’s smell, sight, and taste with cues in the brain that override the natural energy balance. Thus, the brain’s food reward circuit controls eating behaviors just as it controls substance use.
What Dopamine Signaling Means For Food Addicts
Dopamine-mediated food reward is linked to obesity directly, an ongoing epidemic in America. In drug addiction, researchers know that the rewarding effects drugs have are induced mainly by increased dopamine release on specific receptor targets. Cocaine, for example, targets the dopamine transporter. Food addiction and dopamine reward signaling is more complex, and researchers are still uncertain about exactly how food triggers the same dopamine reward signals as drugs and alcohol. However, studies point to a few consistent facts:
- Food with high fat and sugar content can activate the dopamine reward circuit significantly. Rewarding food stimulates the same dopaminergic transmissions as drug abuse. Both food and substance addictions have common neural substrates and depend on dopaminergic circuits.
- Human brain imaging studies support the connection between dopamine circuits and the control of food intake. The dorsal striatum in the brain correlates with feeding behaviors the most. The reduction of dopamine receptor binding in this part of the brain relates directly to feeding.
- Compulsive eating behaviors are related to D2 receptor expression. Manipulating the D2 receptor by deleting insulin receptors in mice showed that this increased body weight and fat mass. Different locations of D2 receptors in the brain could lead to different circuit outcomes.
Obese people and substance addicts both show a reduced expression of D2 receptors. Food-related and drug-related cues activate similar brain areas, suggesting pathological eating as a means to compensate for decreased dopamine release. Drug abuse stems from the same dopamine deficit. Individuals with naturally lower numbers of D2 receptors may succumb more easily to addictive behaviors, thus leading to obesity.
Learning How To Overcome A Food Addiction
Understanding how a food addiction affects the brain is the foundation for knowing how to stem the problem. Changes in dopamine signaling, when palatable foods are introduced into the system, point to an increased motivation to eat these foods. Researchers may address this issue by looking at D2 receptor expression and dopamine signaling.
Recent studies suggest a strong connection between the reward circuits and homeostatic circuits of feeding behaviors. Since it’s clear that D2 receptor function is a critical factor in food motivation and obesity, treatment naturally must address these processes in the brain. However, scientists still struggle to define the brain circuits involved in controlling food addiction. Addressing the underlying physiology of food addiction is difficult, but not impossible.
Today’s treatments for food addiction rely heavily on awareness of the problem. Once you realize you have a food addiction, you can begin recovery. Understanding your brain’s reward center and how it feeds your addiction can help you avoid foods that will give you a dopamine rush, such as fats and sugars. Just like a drug addiction, a strong support system will help you stay on track.