In episode #112 I talked to you about Reward Deficiency Syndrome – what is and how it may contribute to food addiction, emotional eating or binge eating.  In this episode, I will discuss the causes of dopamine depletion or reward deficiency syndrome.  I will also talk about how having RDS can affect your preferences for certain foods, cause cravings and lead to unwanted eating behaviors. 


In this episode, you will learn:

1. What causes reward deficiency syndrome?

2. How are our eating behaviors used to manage our mood?

3. What are the three stages of eating?

4. How internal opiates impact our eating behaviors?

5. What’s the truth about sugar addiction?


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So, as I mentioned, episode 112 is the part one of reward deficiency syndrome and how it affects your preferences for food and can lead to binge eating, emotional, eating, and food addiction. Today I want to talk more about the causes of reward deficiency syndrome and how it leads to using food, to manage your mood. Now you may have been born with low levels of receptors, or if you experienced childhood trauma, neglect or abuse that may have decreased the number of dopamine receptors as your brain was developing.

So here are some of the causes of RDS. Number one, you may have a genetic predisposition that perhaps was passed down from your parents who’s had similar impulsive, compulsive and addictive issues. If you carry the gene for RDS, which is the D R D 2 gene. You won’t experience as much pleasure from eating highly palatable foods and you will be more likely because you’re not getting pleasure from them to continue eating them beyond your feeling full. So that’s the genetic component. So think about if you had parents with food and body image issues. If you have parents with substance use disorder issues, those are behaviors and issues that could predispose you to having a low level of dopamine receptors.

The second are prenatal conditions. So if your mother used alcohol or other substances while she was pregnant with you, or if maybe she was very poor and was malnourished in the prenatal period, those can also cause a reduction in dopamine receptors in the brain of the developing child.

Number three, malnutrition in the child itself or in you when you were a child, poor diet due to poverty. And I’ve had a number of patients in the anchor program who grew up very poor and didn’t know where their next meal was gonna come from and that could have caused certain impact on the brain. Also chronic low calorie dieting, food allergies or food sensitivities. Any of these can disrupt your ability to absorb nutrients, which also may affect the dopamine levels in your brain.

Number four is severe or ongoing stress. Both prenatal stress and early life stress can increase the risk of developing, disordered, eating and substance use disorders. So say when your mother was pregnant with you, she, you know, we have a perfect example. When we look at the war in Ukraine, there’s so many pregnant women who are having to leave their home, who are, you know, in a war zone and that kind of prenatal stress can increase the risk of what we’re talking about.

And then number five, heavy and prolonged use of drugs or alcohol. So if you yourself have been struggling with substance use disorders that will affect the dopamine being produced in your brain.

And finally, as I mentioned earlier, childhood trauma abuse or neglect affects the developing brain and can reduce the number of receptors for dopamine in, in the brain.

Now clearly there is a strong connection between our brain chemistry and our eating behaviors. I’ve talked about this a lot, so it’s not surprising that the emotions play a major role in food addiction, binge eating and emotional eating. You may have noticed that you overeat when you’re depressed or anxious or stressed. This is what we call self-medicating. Essentially the stress or unpleasant emotions are the problem in our subconscious mind, eating is the medicine that will make you feel better. People who have substance use disorders use substances in the same way to try to manage negative emotions. If you have depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, that’s untreated. This can contribute to your being out of control with food as well. Now the catch of course, is that you cannot actually be abstinent from food the way you can from drugs of abuse or alcohol, since it’s not an option to stop eating entirely, it is helpful to look very closely at the ways in which you may be using food to self medicate.

Understanding these links between eating and mood can help you strategize more effectively about your eating behaviors. Now, when there is a deficiency or imbalance in dopamine receptors, it can cause some of the binge eating food addiction and emotional eating behaviors. Now you can look at eating from the feel good standpoint as having three stages.

Number one, you think about eating something and then you start to crave it. Then number two, you take action are driven to get the thing you. Both of these stages are related to dopamine production. The third stage is feeling satisfied in taking pleasure in what you’re eating. Now this stage is governed by the production of opioids in the brain not dopamine. So this third stage is related to opioids in the brain. And that’s what gives you the satisfaction and pleasure in what you’re eating and opioid production is part of the reward cycle. So opioids simply make you feel better, at least in the short term and that gives us satisfaction with what we are eating.

Now when there’s an imbalance of dopamine in the brain, remember you can experience a lot of negative emotions as I mentioned earlier, or you can also have difficulty coping with stress and you may then use food to self medicate or use other substances or behaviors. So what are we talking about? The use of alcohol, drugs of abuse, sex, addiction, gambling, all of those are things that cause release of dopamine in the brain. Now there’s a lot of perfectly normal things also that cause release of dopamine. And that could be, you know, petting your dog, watching your children, play, watching a sunset, you know, sitting down to a meal with your family. All of those can cause positive releases of dopamine in the brain as well.

Let’s get back to talking about food. Now, when you eat sugary high fat foods which we call our comfort foods or our food fix, your brain not only releases dopamine, but it also releases the opioids, internal opioids, leading to a reduction in feelings of stress and lifting your mood. So while dopamine is related to the feelings of cravings and wanting a certain food internal opioids produced in the brain, give you the actual pleasure from eating. I bet you didn’t know you had internal Oxycontin available to you. So just, just an aside snow, it’s obviously nothing to joke about. I have in my own family, people with substance use disorders, so nothing to joke about.

Animal studies on eating behaviors have highlighted something that’s really important that, that we also see in humans while sugar appears to have that, you know, you see all the books about sugar addiction. Everybody’s talking about sugar addiction. The number one thing you do when you wanna lose weight is cut out sugar. So while sugar appears to have addiction like effects in animals, it is not exposure to sugar itself that leads to addiction. Instead, what the animal researches have found is that if you give the animal sugar and then deprive them of sugar, that’s what leads to cravings. When animals are deprived of their sugar solution for part of the day, they will binge on it when it’s return. After they no longer have access to the sugar, the animals actually have withdrawal like symptoms. Similar to those seen with drugs of abuse. When deprived long term, the animals that are offered drugs instead of sugar will become addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamines at a higher rate than those animals who were not sensitized to sugar first.

Now I know in the old days, parents used to put sugar water in baby bottles and give their baby sugar water instead of plain water to drink. So that could constitute sensitization to sugar. But the important point here is it’s not about the sugar. There’s two points really. First point is it’s not eating sugar that’s the problem. It’s eating sugar, then depriving yourself of sugar. And that’s what leads to the cravings because deprivation just set you up for the next binge. The second point is this mainly happens to people who I call vulnerable and the vulnerability comes from childhood abuse, neglect, et cetera, which then causes reward deficiency syndrome.
So for animals and humans, it’s really depriving yourself of these comfort foods or what the researchers call highly palatable foods that set you up for cravings. When you restrict those foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat, it causes stress that then leads to relapse and binging. Now, this is a story that we all know, right. Dieting doesn’t work and deprivation itself is what makes diets fail.
So deprivation is it’s really important that you look at that and recognize all the areas where you are depriving yourself as you think you shouldn’t be eating these foods or these foods are bad, etc. Doesn’t mean that you have to, you know, bring all of them into your home and eat them all the time. Although that has worked to turn people off from eating addictive light behaviors in the past, but that’s not something that I can recommend. The ease of access to food has also been cited as a problem, but it again is not the problem. The problem is that it can trigger the desire to eat at inappropriate times like to eat when you’re not physically hungry to eat more than your body needs or to eat certain types of food for just for comfort. So this accessibility, you know, having food everywhere signs about food commercials, about food, all of that availability, the accessibility forces you to constantly be checking yourself and stopping the desire to eat. Now, this is much harder for people who have low dopamine receptors or reward deficiency syndrome. If you have RDS the part of your brain that deals with and manages emotional regulation, impulsivity, and the ability to make sound decisions may be impaired. Making it harder for you to resist all of these, you know, excessive food cues and triggers that make you wanna over eat.

So just as I said, just being exposed to things like commercials on TV, about food can activate that part of your brain that motivates you to eat and causes cravings. That’s why I love TV that you can watch without commercials. When your brain is activated from food queues, dopamine is released, even though you haven’t started eating and that makes you feel better before you eat and motivates you then to eat more. This is especially true when you have deprived yourself of foods that you want, or like. And just a word on that, I mean, I think a lot of us think that we like certain foods or that we crave certain foods, but in all of the years of working with people and having our dieticians do the mindful eating exercise, many of my patients in the anchor program find that when they eat mindfully, like you have a piece of chocolate in your mouth and you really taste the chocolate and you know, all of the things that goes into mindful, eating the smell of it, the look of it, you know, using all five senses often, and it’s not unusual for people to find, you know what? I don’t really like that as much as I thought I. Could be the same for bread or bread and butter, or, you know, any number of things you may find when you eat it mindfully that you convince yourself that that’s something that gives you emotional comfort. That may not really be something that you like.

Okay. So as you can see, dieting in an environment of food, abundance is almost impossible, literally almost impossible. So we wanna really find out how to deal with reward deficiency syndrome and how can we heal our brains that have been changed from either abuse, neglect, genetics, maternal, prenatal stress, early life stress, all of the causes that I mentioned in the first part of the podcast. Well, here’s how, first of all, I’m not gonna tell you how right now, sorry, I didn’t mean to get your hopes out, but in the next podcast, I will be talking to you about how to leverage. Your brain power to overcome reward deficiency syndrome and put it into, you know, addictive food behaviors, binge eating and emotional eating. So that’s on the next podcast coming up. And I just wanna thank you for listening today, and I hope this was helpful. Part three on leveraging your brain power to overcome RDS and food addiction, bingeing, and emotional eating be coming to you soon. Please and it will be the third in the series, the third and final part of the series.

Please rate the podcast so we can, you know, five stars, get the word out, be ranked higher, all of those good things. Please share if you know of anyone who might benefit from this podcast. I also just wanna remind you that in the show notes, you’ll find the link to the free book giveaway for the food addiction recovery workbook. I pay for the book you pay for shipping and or handling, and you can get either the ebook or the hard copy it’s up to you.
Now we have just filled the August anchor program, but we are taking applications for the upcoming fall program. If you’re interested in the anchor program, please look in the show notes for the link to set up a free consult to discuss your individual food and body image issues.

Okay. I’ll see you next time. Thanks for listening.