From an evolutionary perspective, we have always eaten in order to live. But too many of us live to eat. Consequently, more than 1 in 5 adults are overweight, and more than a third of them obese. Today, with 24-7 access to food, a biological drive to eat high-calorie fare has rapidly evolved into a health burden.
The brain has developed a faulty anticipation of energy needs. Overriding evolution is a desire for the feel-good mood boost that many foods now bring us and which may be fostering an unconscious urge to overeat.
The human brain is easily tricked by pleasure foods as they confuse the brain’s regulating systems. In North America, it seems we get the most pleasure from refined carbohydrates, vegetable oil, and diet pop to name a few. Refined carbs – empty-calorie foods – may make us feel good, but because the brain seeks micronutrients and empty-calorie foods like white bread, pasta, cake and cookies don’t provide these micronutrients, the “eat more” signal typically stays on. It also turns out that vegetable oils – found in most snack food – may be making us stoned! Vegetable oil promotes snacking because new research suggests that it plays on endocannibinoid receptors much the same way that marijuana causes the “munchies.”
Sugar-free soft drinks also confuse our brain. When studies are done on diet soda drinkers, there is a diminished activation of an area in the brain associated with the food motivation and reward system. Decreased activation of this brain region has been linked with elevated risk of obesity. But besides the very direct and often negative impact these and other foods are having on our cravings, it seems we desire to keep filling up on them because they surge a “feel-good” hormone in the brain called dopamine.
Complex interactions between the nervous system, hormonal pathways, and immune system are at play when it comes to overeating. In fact, it’s not just overeating. Can’t put your blackberry down? Feel bored when you’re not at work? Late-night binge behavior? Believe it or not, all these things have a lot to do with dopamine – the neurotransmitter that’s heavily involved in the pleasure center within the brain. It’s released in high amounts during gratifying activities such as eating, sex, exercise, dancing and other enjoyable experiences.
The pathway between the brain and body is known as the neuroendocrine-immune supersystem. Symptoms of this system breakdown can sometimes appear as a hormone issue when in actuality, they can be attributed to a neurotransmitter imbalance. Keep in mind, dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Common symptoms include mood changes, focus issues, insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, and, in particular, compulsive overeating resulting in weight gain. As a brain neurotransmitter, dopamine influences well being, alertness, learning, creativity, attention and concentration. Dopamine also affects brain processes that control movement, emotional response and is the source of the brain’s power and energy.
While too little dopamine can leave us craving food, sex or stimulation, too much can cause addictive behaviors. In a December 2008 study in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism, J. Reinholz and colleagues suggest that your brain uses dopamine to tell your body when to stop eating. Low dopamine levels may also play a role in overeating for people with a genetic predisposition to low dopamine levels.
We’re a society that also consumes too much of the addictive stimulants: chocolate, caffeine (coffee, tea), sugar and cigarettes. Consequently, and not surprisingly, almost all abusive drugs and addictive substances influence dopamine production. Alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamines and even sugar can also mess with our dopamine balance. Many smokers eat more when they are trying to quit because both food and nicotine share similar dopamine reward pathways. When less dopamine is stimulated as nicotine is reduced, food and sugar cravings naturally kick in to compensate.
The natural tendency when experiencing a state of “feel good” is to seek out more of it and work to sustain it. But, chronic dopamine surges over a long period of time (especially from overeating) will eventually cause a loss of dopamine activity in the brain and decrease the receptors in charge of satiety, as well as the activity of those receptors. And so begins the cycle driving us to sustain our feelings of pleasure through the intake of food.
The bottom line seems to be that over-eating eventually causes loss of dopamine in the brain and a decrease in receptors in charge of satiety – so ultimately you crave more and more and never feel satisfied.
If you pay close attention, your body will give you specific clues that let you know you’re low. If you make a late-night trip to the fridge or pantry at least twice weekly, find yourself eating even when you are really full, or feel irritable and tired when you try to cut down on your favorite foods, you might be low dopamine. But, the best way to know if your dopamine levels are imbalanced is to have your neurotransmitters tested. The way to do this is easy and uses cutting edge science. Urinary neurotransmitter testing – a simple pee-in-a-cup test – is reflective of total-body neurotransmitter activity. It has been observed that urinary neurotransmitter measurements are correlated with neurotransmitter activity in the central nervous system.
Since higher levels of dopamine may reduce your impulse to eat, the good news is that by eating healthy micronutrient-rich foods high in tyrosine – the natural building block of dopamine – and supplementing with the amino acid L-tyrosine, the temptation to overeat will diminish and slowly cause more of the dopamine receptors in the brain to reactivate, making it easier and easier as time goes on for that person to derive increased pleasure from smaller amounts of food.
Foods highest in L-tyrosine include:
- Fava beans
- Ricotta cheese
- Mustard greens
- Dark chocolate
- Wheat germ
Eating more of them may help boost your dopamine in the brain. What you should do is make each of these foods the base of every meal you have throughout the day. Try these recipe suggestions.
But if you really want to see results, adding L-tyrosine as a supplement can be the crucial step in the dopamine diet. As an amino acid and the building block of dopamine, taking L-tyrosine as a supplement boosts your dopamine levels.
What I normally recommend is to take 500 to 1,000 mg when you wake up in the morning (on an empty stomach) and then again between lunch and dinner. Be careful because it’s a stimulating supplement. It is always advisable to get tested as well as discuss this with your health care provider before starting to supplement with it. People who have an abnormal heartbeat or those using agents that may treat heart disorders, who have hypertension, or those taking monoamine oxidase inhibitor drugs (MAOIs) should use L-tyrosine only under the guidance of their doctor.
Taking L-tyrosine for 4-6 weeks should reach full effectiveness to cut cravings. You’ll notice that you are not reaching for that bag of potato chips anymore, and you won’t be craving and visualizing every snack and meal throughout your day.
L-tyrosine is widely available at health food stores or vitamin stores at only about $15-20 per bottle.
While increasing intake of foods rich in the amino acid L-tyrosine as well as supplementing with L-tyrosine itself can up-regulate dopamine production in the brain, there are still other dietary factors that can also influence dopamine levels. The omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood have a significant effect on dopamine levels so they too become part of The Dopamine Diet.
One of the notable features of brain and nerve cells is the high percentage of the omega-3 fat DHA. In fact, the brain is comprised of 60% fat with DHA being the most prevalent. Because of DHA’s unique structure, it can bend and change shape rapidly. This “flip flop” action of DHA occurs up to a billion times per second in brain cells which facilitate the rapid transfer of electrical signals which, in turn, become our thoughts and emotions.
Poor electrical transmission in brain cells has a direct effect on dopamine production. In fact, virtually all disorders of the brain, including dopamine-related disorders, are associated with reduced levels of DHA in brain tissue. Supporting the brain’s electrical signals is just one way DHA boosts dopamine. DHA also boosts dopamine levels by reducing the production of the enzyme that breaks down dopamine. More recently, scientists have discovered that DHA is converted to a compound called neuroprotectin D-1 which protects brain and nerve cells from stress and toxins. Neurprotectin D-1 helps maintain the integrity of the dopamine-producing cells as well as the receptor cells. Omega-3 supplementation trials have shown up to a 40% increase in dopamine!
Dietary sources of DHA come almost exclusively from seafood. While fish and fish oil are the most common sources of DHA, one of the richest natural sources of DHA is squid. As an interesting side note, squid ink – also used in some exotic foods – is very high in dopamine! Most places around the world enjoy squid in the form of calamari (squid tentacles and mantle), but unfortunately this part of the squid is low in fat and therefore low in DHA. Some cultures, primarily in Asia, consume the entire squid and reap the benefits of its rich DHA content. While most of us are not brave enough to consume squid eyes and viscera, you can get the same DHA goodness from a squid oil supplement, which is becoming more and more common on the shelves of health food stores. As part of my Dopamine Diet protocol, I encourage the consumption of 1-2 tsp of squid oil daily. Surprisingly, some brands of squid oil actually taste very good and can be easily mixed with food.
As a bonus, here’s one of my favorite dopamine-boosting recipes:
Fava Bean Dopamine Delights
Makes 12 crostini
12 brown rice crackers
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fava beans, shelled
1/2 small Spanish onion
1 organic garlic clove
1 tbsp finely diced red pepper
10 black olives (pitted)
6 sprigs tarragon, leaves only
Cook the fava beans in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Purée the beans in a food processor with the onion, garlic, olives, the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil, and the tarragon leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Just before serving, spread the fava bean paste onto the rice crackers. Garnish with the diced red pepper and a sprinkling of black pepper.