According to the charity Action on Addiction, one in three of us are addicted to something, whether it be a substance such as caffeine, cocaine or alcohol, or whether it is being in the grips of a particular habit that is preventing someone from living their lives in the way in which they’d like; addiction encompasses a wide range of behaviours and dependencies and can range from substance misuse to an addiction to gambling, shopping or food. In the US, research carried out over a 12 month period, demonstrated that it was quite plausible that 47% of the U.S. adult population suffers from maladaptive signs of an addictive disorder.Despite the variations of addictions and the behaviours that are entailed, it is increasingly recognised that common underlying chemical imbalances related to neurotransmitter balance can be found amongst all of them.
The addicted brain has essentially become dependent on a substance or habit to produce feel-good chemicals; neurotransmitters that are associated to feelings of reward, pleasure, satisfaction and relief. When neurotransmitter balance in the brain is out of kilter due to either genetics, chronic stress or a poor diet, we are more susceptible to turning to substances such as alcohol or caffeine to bring us back to balance, as our brain instinctively craves what we are deficient in. In order to reach a more comfortable state, vulnerable individuals attempt to continuously manipulate their neurobiological circuitry by repeatedly using substances such as a drug or engaging in a behaviour such as gambling. The problem with this is that these are often substances or habits that can leave us in a vicious circle of needing more to produce the same effect.
A simple way of describing this is with caffeine, for example. A large majority of us struggle to start our day without our first cup of coffee in the morning. This is often related to having a poor circadian rhythm, whereby cortisol (our stress hormone, that helps us wake up), which is normally supposed to peak in the morning, is abnormally low. Caffeine helps to stimulate the release of cortisol, adrenaline and the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. All together, the effect helps to enliven, motivate and stimulate us to get up and go. As our brain strives to seek balance after drinking a cup of coffee, or any other substance that’s mood-altering, the receptors to the neurotransmitters that have been stimulated consequently dampen, in order to avoid over-saturating our brain. This means that we begin to build tolerance and therefore need increasing amounts of the chosen substance to produce the same rewarding, elating effects. Eventually, this can lead us to being ‘reward deficient’, whereby our brain has become dependent on a substance or a habit to produce neurochemicals that lead to the ‘reward’ that it is seeking, which are in most cases feelings of pleasure, stimulation and satisfaction.
Giving up an addiction can be incredibly difficult, as the dependency is hardwired into the limbic system, an area of the brain that predates the cortex and is largely concerned with meeting our basic needs and survival, whereas the cerebral cortex is associated with higher functions such as thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language. In addiction, obtaining the substance or engaging in a behaviour is a matter of survival to the limbic part of the brain. The symptoms caused by abstinence, when the addictive substance or habit is removed, can be debilitating and can include anxiety, fatigue, hypersensitivity to stress or pain, problems sleeping and extreme mood swings. These symptoms can continue for long periods of time and can therefore be a negative influence in relapse.
Nutrition, alongside lifestyle changes such as exercise, improved sleep patterns and relieving stress, can play an essential role in helping to support the brain back to health. Improving these areas can help to to attenuate cravings by addressing and supporting certain biochemical factors that can influence someone’s chances of relapsing.
Blood Sugar Balance
Eating a diet low in glycemic load can be an effective nutrition tool in reducing cravings and supporting brain and body health. This means eating foods that will have as little impact on blood sugar levels as possible, helping to keep them stabilised, which can have a positive impact on stress levels. This is due to the intimate relationship between blood sugar and cortisol and adrenaline, our stress hormones. When we eat foods high in glycemic load, sugar is released too quickly into our blood and insulin levels peak in order to rapidly remove the sugar from the blood into our cells. The problem with this we are then left with lower than necessary blood sugar levels, which can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, mood swings, irritability, headaches and dizziness. Cortisol and adrenaline release are also stimulated, as it helps to mobilise glucose from storage into the blood for use as quick energy. As you can see, these kinds of symptoms are not so different from abstinence symptoms, which can leave us vulnerable to relapse.
In order to eat a low glycemic load diet, it is important to eat foods that will release sugar slowly from food. Switching from refined grains to wholemeal is important, as well as avoiding processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks, confectionary and even seemingly healthy foods such as fruit juices. These do not provide the body with sustainable sources of energy, as blood sugar levels rise and fall rapidly, leaving us to be susceptible to cravings.
In addition to this, eating good sources of protein, fat and fibre with every meal can also be very effective in stabilising our blood sugar levels and therefore helping to avoid the symptoms associated with blood sugar crashes. Lean meats, oily fish, pulses and nuts and seeds and avocados are all examples of healthy sources of protein and fat.
By increasing our fibre content through wholemeal sources of grains, as well as increasing our intake of vegetables, we will not only help support our blood sugar levels but we will also be providing our gut bacteria with the fuel they need to help them flourish. Latest research is showing just how important gut bacteria composition is for our mental health. It has been discovered that bacteria not only helps to support our immune system, but it also plays an essential role in protecting the nerve cells in our gut and produces short chain fatty acids, which all together help support communication to the brain and vice versa, having a direct impact on our neurotransmitters.
The essential fatty acid, Omega 3, can be incredibly therapeutic in helping to optimise the function of our brain cells. Omega 3 is composed of two elements, EPA and DHA, which play an important role in regulating inflammatory responses as well as nourishing the membrane of our cells. This is the part of our cells that is involved in receiving and transmitting neurotransmitter signals, as well as controlling nutrient intake and waste removal. The best sources of omega 3 are small oily fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel and herring. Vegetarian sources include walnuts, flaxseeds and hemp seeds. It may seem obvious, but eating a diet that is rich in these foods, as well as a high intake of vegetables, really can positively alter brain activity, to help take the edge off of abstinence symptoms and give someone a better chance of long-term recovery.
Nutrients provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters, as well as helping to support the cells in our brain and their energy-producing pathways. Depending on the substance or habit to which someone is addicted, supplementing with the right nutrients to address certain imbalances can be incredibly effective in improving abstinence symptoms, without causing side effects or dependency on medication.
For example, amino acid therapy, whereby specific amino acids are supplemented to help restore normal brain chemistry, has been shown to be an effective way of helping the brain to recover from its ‘reward deficiency’ and rebuild its own inbuilt mechanism for producing a natural high. Every cell in our body is dependent on amino acids, which are the components that make up proteins, to reproduce and grow. Amino acid therapy has shown to help increase receptor sensitivity to neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin and dopamine, as well as improve glucose metabolism, which also helps to support energy-production pathways in the cells. The process of figuring out the right combination of amino acids is a complicated one, however. This is why it is important to work with a specialist in this area that is able to assess the symptoms and undergo test analysis to build the right nutrition and supplement programme for an individual.
If you’re interested in working with a professional practitioner in this area that can guide you through a tailor-made nutritional programme to suit your needs, you can search online via BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy). Our not-for-profit nutrition clinic the Brain Bio Centre, specialises in mental health and has been supporting people with mental health, neurological and cognitive conditions for over 13 years. Get in touch here to speak to our team to discuss the best options for you.