In a famous poem, W. H. Auden called modern times the “age of anxiety.” Obesity
has increased at the same time that probably many people have experienced
increased psychological stress. The normal stresses of everyday life and physical
activity cause the release of the beneficial levels of cortisol from the adrenal glands
that help your body cope with stress. Small amounts of cortisol over a short period
of time are essential to health, but long-term high levels of cortisol are detrimental.
Lustig describes two mechanisms by which stress leads to obesity—stress-induced
eating and stress-induced fat deposition. “Stress eaters” generate high levels of
cortisol in response to stress and eat more high-fat high-sugar “comfort foods.”
Chronic stress increases the urge to consume comfort foods and the accumulation
of high-risk visceral fat.

Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist, writing in the New York Times, considered “What
Cookies and Meth Have in Common.” He notes that evidence from neuroscience
confirms the link between stress and addiction. Pleasurable feelings from sex, food,
money, drugs, or other positive events come from the release of dopamine in the
brain. But adversity and stress reduce the number of D2s, the dopamine receptors
in the brain’s reward circuits. This makes people less responsive to dopamine and
more likely to seek out the greater stimulation of recreational drugs or comfort food
to make themselves feel better. To make things worse, people with fewer D2 receptors
also show decreased activity in their prefrontal cortex, making it harder for
them to exert self-control. Friedman says that “Chronic exposure to high-fat and
sugary foods is similarly linked with lower D2 levels, and people with lower D2
levels are also more likely to crave such foods.” For them, normal food consumption
is insufficiently rewarding.

So, stressors such as low social status, perceived lack of social support, and financial
insecurity are half of the addiction equation. The other half is easy access to
cheap addicting food and drugs. In recent decades, we have engineered ever more
palatable high calorie processed foods and synthesized ever more potent brain-stimulating
drugs for recreational use. The consumption of extra-palatable foods, high
in fat, sugar, caffeine, and sodium, increase the level of dopamine in the brain and
cause feelings of pleasure and reward. The body’s response to highly processed fast
foods fits many of the criteria for addiction.

A review of the health effects of fructose and fructose-containing caloric sweeteners
found that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) is associated with
weight gain. The review noted similarities between the effects of sugar and other
addictive substances (including other foods) on the brain’s reward systems—perhaps
sugar is addictive. Research with functional MRI brain scans has shown that
the brain activity patterns of people with addictive-like eating behaviors are similar
to those of substance abusers.

So, what can be done? Certainly, the creation of a less stressful social environment
would help, and, as Friedman says, “Fortunately, our brains are remarkably plastic
and sensitive to experience. Although it’s far easier said than done, just limiting exposure
to high-calorie foods and recreational drugs would naturally reset our brains
to find pleasure in healthier foods and life without drugs.”

This blog presents opinions and ideas and is intended to provide helpful general information. I am not engaged in rendering advice or services to the individual reader. The ideas, procedures and suggestions in that are presented are not in any way a substitute for the advice and care of the reader’s own physician or other medical professional based on the reader’s own individual conditions, symptoms or concerns. If the reader needs personal medical, health, dietary, exercise or other assistance or advice the reader should consult a physician and/or other qualified health professionals. The author specifically disclaims all responsibility for any injury, damage or loss that the reader may incur as a direct or indirect consequence of following any directions or suggestions given in this blog or participating in any programs described in this blog or in the book, The Building Blocks of Health––How to Optimize Your Health with a Lifestyle Checklist (available in print or downloaded at Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere). Copyright 2021 by J. Joseph Speidel,