Last week's LA Times reported on a essay written by my friend and colleague, Dr. Daniel Amen, who linked Lakers' forward Lamar Odom's jittery behavior to his self-confessed candy addiction. Dr. Amen is right: lots of people notice that eating candy bars or other sweets gives them a quick pickup. But what they don't know is the long term damage that this type of eating is doing to your brain.
If you are constantly craving sweets to supply a much needed energy rush, you might have more than just a sweet tooth: your brain is telling you that it is low on the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is your brain's natural power source which keeps you mentally and physically energized throughout the day. Without it, you'll notice that you don't have energy, making your brain and body sluggish. When we feel this way, we experience an instinctive, often unconscious attempt to bring the fire back. That's when you'll reach for foods that will deliver an energy boost: high sugar, fast-digesting carbohydrates. These stimulants actually boost dopamine production, so in affect you are self-medicating correctly, although dangerously, because these foods can contribute to weight gain as well as erratic behavior. Worse, these foods prevent your brain from making more of this chemical itself, relying instead on your food addiction to these sweets to keep it going. Over time you'll find that you need more and more of them to give you the rush you are looking for, or even to just be able to stay in the game.
Are You Low on Dopamine?
If you answer no to three or more of these questions, you just might be. New studies conducted by Brookhaven National Laboratory and The North American Association for the Study of Obesity suggest that many women have impaired dopamine levels, regardless of their age. Many can trace this imbalance back to inheriting a bad set of genes, particularly if they were the daughter of an alcoholic. This genetic deficiency may be the reason why you find yourself eating all the time. Just like an alcoholic, you are suffering from an addiction, only this time the culprit is food. While you can't fix the gene, you can change your destiny by changing your diet.
• Do you recognize when you are full?
• Do you feel happy after eating?
• Can a small snack like a piece of fresh fruit tide you over until the next meal?
• When dieting, have you found that you were always hungry, even after you finished a meal?
• Do you drink copious amounts of liquid with your meals?
A dopamine deficiency can be caused by genetics, illness, aging, or weight gain. But in reality, it doesn't matter what the culprit was, because the fix is the same. You can correct a dopamine deficiency just by teaching your brain to create more of this vital chemical largely by making better food choices throughout the day, so you won't be relying on sweets to keep you peppy. Low dopamine individuals need to choose foods that are the building blocks for creating dopamine: those in the lean protein group that are high in the nutrients phenylalanine and tyrosine. These foods will supply you with more natural energy.
Try to make sure that you include some of the following foods into your diet every day. Food that are high in both phenylalanine and tyrosine include:
• Cottage cheese, low fat
• Oat flakes
• Ricotta Cheese, low fat
• Wheat germ
• Whole milk
You can also start boosting your dopamine immediately by cutting out as much of these same sugary foods and processed "simple" carbs from your diet as possible. This way, your brain will learn to make more dopamine on its own. By taking both of these steps, you'll immediately begin to get your brain and body into better shape.