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Salt, sugar, fat, and dopamine: addicted to the modern world

Home » Resonance » Salt, sugar, fat, and dopamine: addicted to the modern world

As we all know, you can have too much of a bad thing like alcohol, drugs, and gambling. This is called addiction. But can you have too much of a good thing? Answer: yes. Sorry about that. You can become addicted to pretty much anything once you need more to get that same hit of pleasure and to avoid the come-down, the inevitable result of too much.

Sometimes that “too much” doesn’t have to be so much at all. Especially in our society, where for many people life is a breeze compared to what our ancestors endured. We tool around in our SUVs on the hunt for a great buy or a cool experience. But no matter what we get, it never seems to be enough.

We get impatient. Look in the rearview mirror. There might be a person in an over-large, over-powered vehicle glaring at you. They have places to go, people to see. 

What’s going on here? There’s a problem, for sure, and the blame lies with evolution.

The human brain evolved during millennia when life was about surviving the day, not ordering your preferred style of latte — when it was more important to strive than to attain. It was hard work to kill that mastodon, gather those berries, and look after the kids.

The problem is the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is the common pathway for all pleasurable experiences. Throughout evolution the human brain doled out dopamine, our main pleasure chemical, in small doses, just enough to keep us motivated during the ups and downs of the day.

This is the message of psychiatrist and medical researcher Anna Lembke, the medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic.

Her new book, Dopamine Nation, explores the interconnection of pleasure and pain in the brain. This helps explain addiction — not just to substances like drugs and alcohol, but also to food, sex, smart phones, the latest products and services, and all the other rewards that we now take for granted.

Yet our survival depends on finding a certain equilibrium. That’s what our emotions are for. The brain tries to balance the pleasure chemicals and the pain chemicals, a process called homeostasis.

“When we pursue pleasure, we are really pursuing a dopamine hit in the brain,” Lembke told Terry Gross of National Public Radio. “After a while it takes more and more of whatever to get the same amount of pleasure. Within a short timeframe we have gone from an era of scarcity to an era of over-abundance. Now all behaviors and substances have the potential to become addictive. This includes marketing, electronic devices, and our food system which balances just the right amount of salt, sugar, and fat.”

The three triggers of dopamine, she explains, are quantity, potency, and novelty, delivered via a substance or a human experience. Marketers get this, as do politicians, entertainers, and everyone else clamoring for our attention. And everything can be delivered – fast — to your door or to your computer inbox.

Our instinct to approach pleasure and avoid pain that dates back millions of years, to a time when people needed to actively seek food, clothing and shelter every day.

But the irony, as Lembke says, is that in today’s world such basic needs are often readily available. This is challenging because it is the reverse of how we evolved. “We’re now having to cope with: how do I live in a world in which everything is provided? And if I consume too much of it — which my reflexes compel me to do — I’m going to be even more unhappy.”

Her patients who are struggling with substance abuse often believe their addictions are fueled by depression, anxiety and insomnia. But she maintains that the reverse is often true: addictions can become the cause of pain — not the relief from it. Once the dopamine wears off, a person is often left feeling worse than before.

“They start out using the drug in order to feel good or in order to experience less pain,” Lembke says. “With repeated exposure, that drug works less and less well. But they find themselves unable to stop, because when they’re not using, then they’re in a state of a dopamine deficit.”

The same areas of the brain that process pleasure also process pain; and pleasure and pain work like a balance — a teeter-totter, she calls it. The balance wants to remain level. This is called homeostasis. It doesn’t want to spend too much time on either the side of pleasure or pain.

“So that when I eat a piece of chocolate, my brain will adapt to the presence of that pleasurable stimulus by tipping my balance an equal and opposite amount to the side of pain. And that’s the aftereffects or the comedown or, in my case, that moment of wanting a second piece of chocolate. Now, if I wait long enough, that feeling passes — and homeostasis is restored.”

But the comedown can make us uncomfortable, restless, irritable, and wanting to re-create the feeling of pleasure. If we can’t wait for the craving to pass, we are experiencing addiction. We all have our own weaknesses and our own triggers. Some people are addicted to their jobs. This can make them successful, but they may sacrifice their relationships and their health. Some people get addicted to exercise and even to healthy foods.  

For some people, there isn’t much of an upside. “Risk factors for addiction include poverty, unemployment, and multigenerational trauma,” says Lembke.” Superimpose easy access to cheap rewards and you find the people who are most vulnerable to addiction are disadvantaged, because not only are they living in poverty, but they also have access to cheap feel-good drugs.”

The moral of the story: we evolved to strive, not to succeed, at least not too much. Sorry about that.

Discover More: You can read this post on life and comedy by David here.

Resonance is the blog of Silver Magazine editor David Holt.

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