Imagine for a moment what it would be like feeling as though you can never get enough. Have you ever been there? A place where no matter what you do or how hard you try you’re just not satisfied. You’re left to feel like you need more. Perhaps it’s your work or maybe its money. Or maybe you’re on a roll and can’t stop yourself from continuing knowing in your heart there is more at the end of this run. Have you ever wondered what would it be like to be hungry all the time – to eat a meal and not feel sated and wanting more while others at the table are just fine?
This is just a tiny glimpse through a window looking at some of the feelings a person with an addiction experiences. The satisfaction you feel when you’ve completed a job or the feeling you get with a pat on the back for a job well done comes from Dopamine. Unfortunately, not everyone shares the same level of satisfaction; in fact some don’t feel it at all.
Certainly we’re all familiar with the big brothers of addiction; drug and alcohol abuse. However, process addictions such as gambling, food, sex, gaming, retail therapy and yes, even money are proving to have similar effects on the brain as substance abuse and can be just as self-destructing. The common thread between all of these addictions is Dopamine (DA); the primary neurotransmitter of reward and pleasure and the most important brain chemical you’ve probably never heard of.
Dopamine is one of the “Feel Good” brain chemicals. As a neurotransmitter, its responsibility is to communicate messages to other areas of the brain. DA’s message is one of calm and wellbeing. A neurotransmission functions similar to an electronic transmission; in fact it’s not all that much different from you emailing a select group of friends. Emails use electricity to form, transmit and receive messages while the brain uses electricity and chemicals. Although Dopamine plays many roles in brain function, the brain chemical has earned its greatest notoriety from its vital role in the reward system.
In medical circles Dopamine is known as “the reward chemical,” and/or the “pleasure molecule.” It’s produced in the brain and directly influences our enjoyable experiences. It holds sway on our likes and dislikes, our dreads and desires and even love. When functioning properly, DA takes its cue and travels throughout the reward circuit announcing to the receiving cells that all is good. As a result, the rest of the brain simply goes about their business.
Everyday in our hectic lives we go through our normal routines that give us cues that can activate our reward system. It could be something as simple as your partner randomly flashing a smile at you or from the excitement you feel when you see your son or daughter return home from school after acing a test you helped them prepare for. These little unexpected gifts of life that keep us in good spirits are derived from our reward system when DA is being produced and processed properly.
However not all brains work the same. Everyone is unique in the way their brains produce and utilize DA. It’s a delicate balance. Parkinson’s disease, depression and propensities to addiction are a result of too little Dopamine while too much can lead to a false sense of euphoria and schizophrenia.
My close friend and colleague Dr. Kenneth Blum – discoverer of the reward gene – make understanding Dopamine and its functions his life’s work. His major contributions to the understanding of the reward system made global headlines. Part of what Dr. Blum’s seminal discovery revealed is that some people’s brains have fewer Dopamine receptors than others by as much as minus 40%. Dr. Blum’s discovery completely changed the way the medical profession viewed addiction and its treatment. He found that even though Dopamine production was up to par, people with the addiction gene – DRD2-A1 – had a limited ability to process the chemical. To go back to my email analogy; what Dr Blum discovered would be like you sending out an ‘all is good’ email to friends only to have a significant number of those emails bounce back. Your friends, who are accustom to receiving your ‘all is good’ message, never got it. So, just how do you think your friends who are expecting your email and don’t receive it might feel; a little stressed out perhaps? The same pretty much holds true in the brain.
The condition “Reward Deficiency Syndrome” (RDS) was discovered by Dr. Blum. He describes the condition this way: ‘when levels of Dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals are low or blocked from the brain’s receptors; stress, pain, discomfort and agitation are the result. This condition is called “Reward Deficiency Syndrome.”
The human body is an amazing mechanism. It recognizes imbalances and sets out to right them. The medical field refers to this as homeostasis or the ability to maintain a constant internal environment in response to environmental changes. This stabilization of equilibrium also plays out for people who have RDS.
Individuals with Reward Deficiency Syndrome experience reward and pleasure on a much lower level when compared to people with normally functioning dopaminergic neurotransmission. Their Dopamine may be depleted or not utilized properly. As a consequence, their brains set into motion a quest to locate external dopamine stimulating scenarios. It’s not a conscious decision but rather a subconscious response. People with RDS have a propensity to abuse drugs and alcohol. They’ll seek out thrilling experiences and engage in risky behavior in an effort to spike their DA Levels. These people are not abusing drugs to get high and they’re certainly not eating sugary delights because of their nutritional value. They unwittingly do these things to raise their Dopamine levels thus normalizing their brain chemistry.
These behaviors are not solely reserved by drug abusers. What we’re finding is food addiction is rising at an increasingly alarming rate. Food addiction and obesity, especially in children, has become a major concern in the medical and scientific community. My suspicion is that sugar – including anything that is converted to sugar in the body – plays a key role in this epidemic. Sugar and its inexpensive substitutes are found in nearly all of the process foods, fast foods, sodas and fruit drinks that we consume. What most people don’t realize when they’re enjoying their favorite comfort food is that sugar can be addictive. Dr Blum says it only takes a matter of minutes from the time sugar touches the tongue to the time it begins to influence the reward system. Sugar affects the brain in the same way as heroin, causing a flood of Dopamine in the reward circuitry. The ensuing feeling of euphoria one gets is also similar to heroin although not as intense.
Dopamine is not always about fun and games and enjoyable moments. It also acts as – and is often referred to – the anti-stress molecule. Stress occurs when the brain perceives a situation as disagreeable or dangerous. It’s a response to harmful, threatening, or challenging events or stimuli. When the brain perceives a threat, it activates the “flight or fight” system; one of our primitive survival modes encoded in our DNA. In turn, the brain releases Dopamine and stress hormones to ready for the challenge. When a danger finally passes or the perceived threat is over, your brain initiates a reverse course of action that releases a different bevy of bio- chemicals throughout your body. Depending on the assessed long- term impact of the threat, it can take anywhere from half an hour to several days before you return to your normal resting state.
There are three types of stress: acute, eustress and distress. Acute stress occurs rapidly and often can feel severe. Perhaps the best way to describe it is receiving an ‘end of day’ deadline in the middle of the afternoon. Although nerve-racking at the time, there is no long-term damage.
Eustress is often considered ‘good stress.’ It’s the type of stress that helps us put our feet on the floor in the morning ready to meet the day’s challenges. In combination with Dopamine, eustress aids in our ability to learn. It’s usually short-term and actually releases some of the ‘feel good’ chemicals including dopamine. A good example of eustress would be the feeling you get when you’re working towards goals or competing in sports. Eustress is not considered dangerous and has little to no side effects.
Distress on the other hand is long-term and has the potential to be very unhealthy. This occurs when someone is unable to adapt to stressors. People in distress cope in both negative and positive ways. Regardless, distress is unhealthy, is known to cause type 2 diabetes, create and/or contribute to heart conditions, damage the brain and connectivity and increase ones susceptibility to addiction. Clinical investigation has confirmed that stress contributes to the development, maintenance, and outcome of substance use disorders.
As you can clearly see, distress can wreak havoc on your brain. Everyday stress depletes your stores of dopamine and serotonin. Considering the amped-up lifestyle we lead where no one is immune to stress, dealing with its effects in a positive way is a must if we intend to maintain good mental health. Anyone who has read any of my past articles knows that I’m an advocate of healthy diet and exercise. Over my nearly thirty-year career in holistic addiction treatment I’ve reviewed a mountain of research. What I’ve found is that the twin common threads that leads to a healthy body and mind is none other than a healthy diet and exercise. However there is a caveat.
The unfortunate reality in our fast-paced lives is that it is nearly impossible to get all of our nutritional requirements from the food available for us to eat. Sure everyone eats enough to get their daily calories but what about the all important vitamins and minerals our body and brain needs. Scientific research has shown that certain amino acids are essential for a properly functioning brain. Deficiencies in amino acids can contribute to chronic illnesses, anxiety, depression, blunted alertness, shortened attention span, learning deficiencies, memory loss and general bad mood.
It is for these reasons, and the lack of quality amino acids available on the market, that lead me to formulate my own supplements designed to improve mental health. My signature nutraceutical, Mental Clarity, has been shown to improve cognition, memory and energy while minimizing emotional responses to stress. In addition I’ve also formulated other high quality amino acid supplements that support healthy brain function and balance to your neurotransmitters including: Tyrosine for effective Dopamine production and utilization, Tryptophan the precursor to Serotonin, a special Anti-Stress formula designed to calm your edgy nerves and a host of others.
It goes without saying that with over 100 billion neurons the human brain is a very complex and delicate instrument. Every second there are more than 100,000 chemical reactions in your brain. In fact, if you’re an average adult that reads prose text at 275 words per minute, than in the time that it took you to read this far into the paragraph, your brain processed over a million chemical reactions. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I bring you this information so that you can grasp the complexities that we generally don’t think about and to expose the risks to our mental health and wellbeing that we face everyday. We live in an age where I believe the environment is changing faster that we are able to adapt. That being said, I no longer think we can take our mental health for granted and must be pro-active and take control of our own well-being so that we can achieve homeostasis and enjoy our lives to the fullest.
You can find all of my specially formulated nutraceuticals on my website www.lasertherapyspa.com
John Giordano DHL, MAC is a counselor, President and Founder of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies, Laser Therapy Spa in Hallandale Beach and Chaplain of the North Miami Police Department. For the latest development in cutting-edge treatment check out his website: http://www.holisticaddictioninfo.com