Dopamine: The puppet master

The more you know, the more you know why you make the choices you make.

Think it’s all about will power? Think again….

Over millions of years, we developed evolutionary adaptations which allowed us to survive and thrive. It’s really quite stunning how we overcame the most hostile conditions to become the brilliant, ingenious people we are today.

One of the incredible ways we learned is through the chemical signals that our brains would send to us to tell us if a behavior was good (it helped further humanity) or bad (would kill us). These adaptations helped guide and shape us and most importantly, helped carry on humanity.

Many of you can’t resist the urge to stop and get that pint of ice cream or bag of donuts even though you just cursed and swore to yourself earlier in the day that you had had enough. Even after your doctor just told you that because of your weight, you were a borderline diabetic and now had high blood pressure, and she also wants to put you on a slew of medications to combat your bad choices. She likely also informed you that if you continue with the unhealthy lifestyle you might have a heart attack or stroke, but you still want that ice cream. “What in the hell is wrong with me?! Why can’t I just stop?! Why do I continue to self-sabotage?” You wonder just what it will take to give you the power, to finally take control of your life and stop this mindless eating.

For millions, they don’t know why the society, their health care providers, and family chide them and make them feel so badly. They feel as if they are trapped in a horrible loop. First, you are so fat and weak. Then, you think, no more, because the diet starts today! Next, you find yourself forgetting your previous will power and determination only to be sitting in front of the TV with a pint of ice cream and feeling numb or unaware of your body’s sensations.

What is this dualistic nature that we seem to struggle with? Why do we feel as if there is someone else up in our brain pulling the puppet strings even though we have consciously told it to stop.

One of the answers is DOPAMINE.

Dopamine is one of the chemicals produced in the brain which sends signals to our bodies to make us feel a certain way. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical.

Long ago when our species faced possible starvation our brain would send us certain chemicals signals such as dopamine to make us feel good when it associated a certain behavior to staying alive. Thus, we would repeat these actions and reinforce the behaviors.

Let me give you an example.

As hunter/gatherers there would have been a season when food was more abundant, such as when trees would bear fruit. We would gorge on that sweet fruit (fructose) and our bodies would be able to store energy for later by the conversion of fructose to fat. This allowed us to survive the scarcity of winter or any other food deficient time. Consequently, when we would eat that fruit our brain understood that this behavior was beneficial and necessary for survival, so it prompted us to repeat eating the fruit by releasing the feel good chemical dopamine whenever we did. Thus, we became conditioned to that behavior. This type of signaling is what got us to where we are today. It drove us to behave in ways which helped us survive as a species. It was quite elegant. It worked like magic.

Fast forward to modern day.

So let’s compare. We, hunter/gatherers, would eat an apple which may have contained around 10 grams of fructose. We would eat as many as we could over the short season that fructose was available. In order to get to those fruit trees, we may have had to travel many miles, traversed rugged terrain, which required a lot of energy use. In contrast, modern day humans now sit all day long. The typical modern diet now contains a massive sugar load in everything we eat, all year round. We average about 160 grams of sugars EVERY DAY!

This is one of the reasons you feel out of control and unable to stop the self-destructive behaviors.

It’s just chemistry baby!

Each time you consume the sugar, your brain gives you the dopamine (the feel good) hit. Thus you repeat those behaviors to get the hit.

In the modern world, this biochemical – behavioral loop has run amok. What once served us now is killing us. We are so used to these massive hits of dopamine that even if we feel we have the resolve to change our evil ways, our chemically dependent self tells us otherwise.

This is why we find ourselves in this vicious cycle of what can feel like schizophrenia. You want something but yet you don’t. The “thinking brain” wants one thing but the body will signal the exact opposite. We are used to such large surges of dopamine that we will override all else to feel good again.

To know better is to do better.

If we can start to recognize the insatiable drive to consume the sugar as our brains just clamoring for more of the drug, then we can start down the path of changing our patterns and behaviors. If you recognize that you are only responding to the way you have internally trained your body, then you can start to say, “Ah ha! I know what’s happening here. I understand physiologically why I behave this way.”

Once you recognize this pattern, you can slowly start to retrain the body/brain connection.

Good Luck and good growing!