The Brain Reward System

The developing of an addiction involves the overstimulation of a complex brain system called the reward system.

The human body is a perfect survival machine, we have evolved to be able to survive most threats: diseases, accidents, nature, famine…. One of the ways we are able to do this is an elaborate set of neurons in our brains that makes us enjoy and repeat behaviours that keep us alive, this is called the Brain Reward System.

The Brain Reward System involves several areas of the brain linked via an intricated net of connective pathways. When this system is activated by a behaviour that is essential for our survival such us eating, having sex, doing exercise, connecting with people…. or a substance like foods rich on carbohydrates…or a toxic chemical like alcohol, nicotine, heroin, cocaine, etc, a complex signal stimulates the production of compounds called neurotransmitters. The main neurotransmitter produced is Dopamine. Dopamine works by making us feel pleasure.

As the body enjoys the experience it memorises it to repeat it.

If the brain reward system works correctly, the human body asks us to repeat these behaviours every so often or when needed (like when we are hungry…). If the brain reward system is overstimulated, by repeating the experience too often when not needed the system begins to malfunction and an addiction appears.

Josh Riemer

The Cycle of Addiction

For an addiction to develop, a certain amount of behaviour and chemical changes have to occur.

The use of certain substances or behaviours can activate the Brain Reward System and the dopamine released makes us feel pleasure. We memorise this and remember that we LIKE using this particular substance or practicing this particular behaviour.

As humans when we feel low, sad, frustrated or upset, we aim to change these feelings for more positive ones and seek to feel pleasure. We will then use what we remember that makes us feel happier, like the chemical or the behaviour we practice in the past that stimulated our brain to produce dopamine. If we repeat this enough times we will then WANT this substance or the conduct that makes us happy.

As time goes by and if we use the Brain Reward System to pick us up every time we have a negative feeling, the system gets highjacked and starts giving us signals to repeat the pleasurable experience . Mental obsessions and cravings become a daily struggle and we believe we NEED the substance or the behaviour to survive when in reality this is not true.

Diagnosis criteria

To be able to say that someone suffers from an addiction to something, the person has to suffer from certain symptoms that fit the criteria for diagnosis.

In Resolve Food Addiction we use the DSM 5 criteria (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). In this manual, addiction is classified as a Substance Use Disorder. Note that the manual doesn’t talk about behavioural addictions, gambling is the only one classified as an addiction at present.

There are 11 different criteria in the DSM classification:

  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts of for longer than you’re meant to.
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.
  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.
  4. Cravings and urges to use the substance.
  5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home or school because of substance use.
  6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.
  7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.
  8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.
  9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.
  10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).
  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.

The Science behind Food Addiction

Although Food Addiction is not recognised by any of the substance abuse classifications, there is plenty of scientific evidence backing its existence.

One of the most prolific scientists in the field of food addiction research is Dr Nicola Avena. Dr Avena is a researcher from the University of Princeton, she holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Psychology followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at the Rockefeller University of New York. She has published more than 70 articles, books, and several book chapters on topics related to food addiction, obesity, and eating disorders.

Her studies using lab rats have proven again and again that the chemical and behaviour changes produce by ultra-processed foods and sugar are similar to those produced by toxic addictive substances like heroin and cocaine.

Dr Ernest Noble MD. Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and the Director of the Alcohol Research Centre Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour at the UCLA School of Medicine.

His genetic research on alcoholism led him to discover a gene marker on the D2 dopamine receptor associated with alcoholism, then associated with other substance disorder like cocaine, nicotine, and opioid dependency. In 1994, he found this marker on genes of a group of obese adults with no prior experience of drug addiction or alcoholism, they called it : The Obesity Gene.

Dr Mark Gold MD is a Professor at the University of Florida, College of Medicine’s Brain Institute and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry. His research on opiate addiction led to the concept of hedonic overeating and pathological attachment to food as an addiction.

There are multiple other scientists working on the concept of sugar or overeating as an addiction, too many to mention in this section.

Food Addiction in the News

Over the past few years, more and more celebrities have been opening up about their weight problems.

Tom Watson, a renowned former labour politician, discussed problems with his health and his diagnosis of type 2 Diabetes with the press. After following a low carbohydrate diet he was able to achieve a healthy weight and reverse his diabetes, only to put on the weight again after a couple of years. He now believes he might be suffering from food addiction.

Author and presenter Richard Osman recently disclosed that he has been living with food addiction and he opened up about his difficult journey to control the affliction.

Singer Robbie Williams has been very vocal about his addictions in the past. Although he managed to overcome his drug and alcohol addiction he has been having a lot of difficulties controlling his food addiction. During several interviews he discussed how food addiction is different from his other addictions because he gets triggered all the time. Whilst with drugs and alcohol he is not exposed to those on a regular basis , with food it is difficult not to be triggered by his day to day activities and how this makes it more difficult to control.

There are many other examples of celebrities or prominent people discussing their weight problems and we suspect that as time goes by, the classification of food addiction as a substance disorder will be lead by patient’s experiences more than anything else.

Recommended Reading

If you are interested in reading about food addiction, there are many books that can give you an idea of how common food addiction is and how the food industry promote ultra-processed foods with addictive ingredients to keeps us HOOKED on their products. In his book, Michael Moss highlights some of the scientific evidence regarding food addiction and the food industry, starting with McDonalds. Available on Amazon.

Physician and Addiction Professional Vera Tarman talks about her experience of treating people suffering with different addictions including food in her book FOOD JUNKIES. If you want to know more you can read our blog post review.

Craig Nakken’s knowledge of THE ADDICTIVE PERSONALITY and addictive thinking comes across in his book called The Addictive Personality, a must read for those who still think that addiction is an excuse to justify some people’s behaviour. Available on Amazon.

METABOLICAL is full of information about how junk food affects our bodies, from our endocrine system and metabolism to our brains. Professor Lustig is an endocrinology paediatrician with an interest in nutrition. Available on Amazon.