Which one of the following is your favorite food? 1) pizza, 2) chocolate desserts, 3) chips, 4) cookies, 5) fries or 6) ice cream. Did you have trouble picking just one? If so, it’s no surprise. These are the most addictive foods, according to the Yale Food Addiction Survey. It’s not uncommon to crave these foods and overeat, even when we know there are adverse consequences of over-consuming sugary, fatty, starchy foodstuffs. Suppose you find yourself eating for reasons other than biological hunger, such as being stressed, tired or wanting comfort; you can benefit from applying the findings of a newly recognized field called nutritional psychiatry.
The connection between the foods we eat, moods, behaviors and mental health has long been recognized. The practice of nutritional psychiatry uses specific nutrients, such as amino acids and minerals, to correct underlying deficiencies and effectively treat mood and eating disorders. The higher our supply of necessary nutrients, the better we feel. The more depleted we are, the greater our cravings.
As described in The Craving Cure by nutrient therapy pioneer Julia Ross, deficiencies in five different biochemical pathways can contribute to overeating: serotonin, GABA, endorphins, catecholamines and glucose. When you make enough of these neurotransmitters and keep your blood sugar stable, you’ll feel satisfied, and your cravings will diminish, often quite rapidly. When you don’t make enough, you’ll be dependent on fast food, low-nutrient packaged goods, candy, soda and alcohol for continued mood lifts.
Serotonin deficits are the most common, affecting 80 percent of U.S. adults. When your serotonin is low, you feel negative, irritable, worried, obsessive and sleepless. If you feel like you have a black cloud hanging over you, you probably have low serotonin. To raise your level, take 500 mg of tryptophan or 50 mg of 5-HTP. Try taking a capsule at 3 p.m. and at 9 p.m., which are the times of day cravings frequently occur. Raising your serotonin level also prevents anxiety and depression. If you’ve tried a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) such as Prozac or Zoloft without success, using tryptophan or 5-HTP may give you the results you’re looking for.
If you eat when you feel tired, stressed or overwhelmed, you may have a GABA deficit. GABA is a naturally soothing neurotransmitter, making you feel relaxed and worry-free. Take 125 mg of GABA or 100 mg of theanine. If you’ve felt the need to use Xanax or Valium, GABA or theanine can be a substitute. If you are using medication, talk to your prescriber about the wisdom of combining medication and supplements. They can also advise you regarding weaning off medication, which should only be done under the supervision of a qualified health care practitioner.
If you crave comfort foods or find yourself weepy and overly sensitive, you may have an endorphin deficit. Endorphins are known to cause “runner’s high” and feelings of euphoria when they’re produced in excess, but normal amounts allow you to experience pleasure and feel comfortable on a day-to-day basis. Increase your endorphins by taking 500 mg of phenylalanine in the morning.
When your blood sugar drops too far or too fast, a condition called hypoglycemia, you may crave sugar, starch or alcohol to give you quick energy. Consuming a lot of processed foods, as is common in the standard American diet, requires your body to produce extra insulin in an attempt to keep your blood glucose steady. Insulin signals a feeling of fullness, which causes us to stop eating. Unfortunately, insulin is depleted rapidly when you eat fast food, and its lack causes hypoglycemic cravings. To prevent this process, take 500 mg of glutamine whenever you crave junk food. You can also take 200 mcg of chromium with meals to keep your blood sugar on an even keel.
If you have a case of the “blahs,” which only coffee or chocolate can cure, you may have a catecholamine deficit. Lack of catecholamines leads to fatigue and difficulty concentrating. When you have enough of these neurotransmitters, you feel energized, upbeat, and alert. To increase your catecholamines, take 500 mg of tyrosine in the morning.
If you skip meals due to lack of appetite, try 25 mg of zinc per day. In addition to stimulating your appetite, zinc restores your sense of taste so that sweets start to taste too sweet and “boring” foods become more palatable.
You may recognize yourself in several of these symptom pictures, as it’s possible to have more than one deficiency at work. If you’re unsure which type of eater you are, take the free assessment questionnaire at www.CravingCure.com or I highly recommend reading The Craving Cure.
Dr. Needle is a licensed naturopathic doctor with Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert and can be reached at (760) 568.2598.