Food Addiction – What Happens?

Food addiction – what happens? Is “food addiction” real? It turns out that it really is a problem for many people. Food addiction is the compulsive intake of specific foods that a person craves.

It may be associated with binging, but it may also happen just with foods that you are used to eating every day. Food addiction is actually the flip side of a type of food sensitivity. It is not a conventional allergy or intolerance, although many people with allergies also have this type of sensitivity. No one knows the precise mechanism(s) by which food addiction develops, but it probably involves the gut and the brain.

Food addiction involves the chemistry and biology of the body. For instance, when someone eats a food containing gluten from wheat, rye, or barley but has a problem with complete digrestion, some fragments of the gluten are left over. Those gluten protein fragments actually end up having opiate-like effects on the gut and brain. Researchers have called these proteins “exorphins.”

Exorphins come from foods but they can act at the same receptors that the gut and brain have for opiate drugs (which we know are very addictive). Similarly, a partially digested milk protein from casein is also another type of exorphin with addictive properties.

brain pathways

Thus, right off the bat, wheat and dairy products have a direct way of becoming addictive for your system.

Now consider sugar. Yes, eating excessive amounts of sugar is bad for your health, especially heart and blood vessel health, in many different ways. But one thing that you may or may not know is that sugar can activate the same reward pathways in the brain that cocaine or amphetamine as drugs or having sex also activate. These pathways contain the neurotransmitter dopamine. And dopamine is involved in creating addictions in the reward pathways of the brain.

In studies on animals, researchers even found that they could give repeated doses of sugar over a series of days and then give that same, drug-naive animal its first exposure to cocaine or amphetamine. And the behavioral response of the animal was as if it had previously gotten doses of the drug, not of “just” a food like sugar. There is a cross-sensitivity between cocaine and sugar.

Surprisingly, there is also a cross-sensitivity between the environmental pollutant chemical formaldehyde and cocaine as well. That might mean that exposure to at least some chemicals, besides their toxic effects, might also trigger food cravings.

All of this information begins to tie things together. That is, you can trick your brain over time into thinking you are addicted to opiates by compulsively eating foods containing wheat and/or milk in them. And you can trick your brain into thinking you are addicted to cocaine or amphetamines by compulsively eating foods containing sugar (sucrose).

So – regular ice cream binges? Cakes, cookies, and/or pies most days? Lots of addictive ingredients there. Not a good thing.

chocolate cake food addiction

Why haven’t you realized this might be a problem?  It is because this type of food addiction is masked. You cause and maintain it by eating the food(s) frequently. The food addiction develops by repeatedly consuming an addictive food and causing a sensitization or sensitivity. You might even think that the addictive food isn’t a problem (and there is usually more than one food involved) because you feel better when you eat it (for a while).

Then the repeated meals of the food temporarily relieve symptoms. You start feeling bad (mood or physical symptoms) again later on – when the effects of the last exposure to the addictive food wear off. Just like a drug addict in withdrawal. And then, just like any addict, you start craving another hit of the addictive food to relieve your withdrawal symptoms. And on and on it goes.

You end up with chronic symptoms and masked food sensitivities (addictions) – cravings, stuffy nose, depressed mood, fatigue, headaches, muscle and/or joint pains. And more. Food addiction can be a factor in diabetes, inflammatory bowel disorders, and arthritis, among other conditions.

person who feels sick

The key to relief is breaking the addictive cycle with changes in your food plan, certain alternative therapies, and sometimes natural supplements. And, if necessary, you may need a complete plan for avoiding exposures to environmental chemicals that can also trigger your symptoms and your food cravings. We’ll discuss more about testing for and treating your food addictions and chemical sensitivities in another article.


About the Author Kris Greenway

Natural Wellness Zone is a blog discussion of approaches to self care using complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies that make sense to help people dealing with a range of health challenges. Kris Greenway is a fellow patient who has researched and found more natural ways to deal with a long list of health problems, including type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, leaky gut, and arthritis. She includes information and updates from expert physicians to educate people about their natural wellness options.