WHY WE CRAVE THINGS THAT INFLAME US
Industrialized Food’s Dirty Little Secret
o one can deny it: indulging one’s cravings can be unimaginably delicious.
At least … in the first few moments.
Because, if we’re paying attention, we might also notice that indulging the things we crave might leave us out of sorts or ready for a nap a little while later.
We are wired to crave things that inflame us. Whether this is by devious design or a mere accident of evolution, no one can say.
There’s well-defined functional relationships between cravings, immune activation and neuroendocrine reward pathways. As our immune systems swing into action to mount a reaction to a food (or anything else it targets) inflammation results. Inflammation increases dopamine, at least in the short run.1,2 Dopamine’s job is to rewire the brain to repeat whatever behavior created the dopamine surge. Dopamine gives us pleasure. Dopamine feels real good. Too good sometimes.
And this is one of those times. Because it addicts us to anything that kicks our immune system into action, inflaming us.
So our brains get less of a reward over time. That makes us return again and again to whatever it is that gives us our dopamine hits … because after awhile that can become the only way we can feel pleasure.
(We can recognize a similar dynamic operating with some kinds of self-stimulating behavior. We can become addicted to creating drama or starting fights because the same blood-sugar and ultimately dopamine-boosting stress hormones are released, rewiring the brains of the chronically emotionally inflamed into a kind of permanent attack mode.
Some brains would rather apparently be forever upset than chronically bored.)
Why should we care if something inflames us a bit, as long as it’s fun?
Because later we pay. Chronic, low-grade inflammation feeds all the processes that ruin our moods, rot our brains and make us old before our time.
How can we tell if something is inflaming us?
Does it knock us horizontal for awhile: do we have to take a nap after eating/breathing/encountering the pro-inflammatory influence? Do we feel congested, nauseous? Does stool get loose? Do our skin, our eyes, our noses start to itch?
All of these are decent signs that something may be inflaming us.
What can we do about it? First of all learn how inflammation works.
Second: realize that in almost all cases (there’s a few exceptions: you know who you are) it’s not the things we do once in awhile that do us in. It’s the things we do every single day.
So an old naturopath’s trick (one I use all the time) is to ask new patients to keep a five-day food diary. We look for foods that are eaten every day, or more than once/day. Very often we’ll see the same kinds of pro-inflammatory foods time after time: wheat, dairy, sugar-rich processed foods.
But even if someone’s already done their early work and those suspect foods don’t show up, it’s possible for us to develop sensitivities to anything we encounter on a regular basis … if the right conditions are in place.
So if you’re one of us who’s become convinced that the thing to do is eat the same food every day … listen up.
Meet the oligoantigenic diet.
The idea is very simple: don’t eat the same food more than once every four days.
Now obviously avoiding one of the staple foodstuffs upon which modern industrialized diets depend (corn syrup comes to mind) more than once every four days can entail a major reworking of one’s eating patterns.
Fortunately, most of us don’t need to adopt such an extreme approach to keep inflammation down.
Even so, since we’re fighting an inflammation-driven addiction, it can help to have support. An outside set of eyes looking at our food diaries can pick up patterns we ourselves would overlook. It can be very helpful to have someone there to lean on and help us get back on track when we stumble.
Enter the health coach.
But … generally … none of this means we shouldn’t enjoy and indulge ourselves on special occasions.
With occasional exceptions (you know who you are, and if you don’t you should by now …) it can actually be a good idea to indulge one’s old bad habits once in a blue moon after one’s cleaned up one’s act, not only to defuse the guilt/rebellion psychodynamics that keep so many of us hooked but also to remind us of why we gave up our bad habits in the first place.
When we’ve learned to recognize and feel the effects of inflammation spreading through the body and mind, occasional lapses usually end up reinforcing our determination to stay the course.
1. Petrulli JR, et al. “Systemic inflammation enhances stimulant-induced striatal dopamine elevation.” Transl Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 28;7(3):e1076.
2. Dunn AJ., “Endotoxin-induced activation of cerebral catecholamine and serotonin metabolism: comparison with interleukin-1.” J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 1992 Jun;261(3):964-9.
3. Eisenberger NI, et al. “Inflammation-induced anhedonia: endotoxin reduces ventral striatum responses to reward.” Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Oct 15;68(8):748-54.
4. Felger JC, et al. “Chronic interferon-α decreases dopamine 2 receptor binding and striatal dopamine release in association with anhedonia-like behavior in nonhuman primates.” Neuropsychopharmacology. 2013 Oct;38(11):2179-87.