PEOPLE are programmed for addiction. Their brains are designed so that actions vital for propagating their genes—such as eating and having sex—are highly rewarding. Those reward pathways can, however, be subverted by external chemicals (in other words, drugs) and by certain sorts of behaviour such as gambling.
In recent years, neuroscientists have begun to understand how these reward pathways work and, in particular, the role played by message-carrying molecules called neurotransmitters. These molecules, notably serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), hop between nerve cells, carrying signals as they go. Some drugs mimic their actions. Others enhance them. Either way, the body tends, as a result, to give up making them. At that point the person needs the drug as a substitute for the missing transmitter. In other words, he is an addict.
Unfortunately, this improved understanding of the biochemistry of addiction has yet to be translated into improvements in treatment. The latest figures from Britain’s National Treatment Agency suggest that only 11% of those who start treatment complete it and are drug-free after 12 weeks. A new approach that acknowledges the underlying biochemistry might improve this situation. And on October 11th and 12th delegates to a conference in London, organised by Food for the Brain, an educational foundation, heard accounts of such an approach. Its tools are not drugs but dietary changes. The theory is that providing food rich in the precursors of lost neurotransmitters will boost the levels of those chemicals, and thus reduce craving. At the moment, only preliminary trials have been carried out. But they look promising and if larger trials confirm them, a useful, new front in the war on addiction might open up.
Basically, when we’re in withdrawal from heroin/nicotine/gambling/crack we get low on glutamine, a precursor of GABA. It’s GABA’s job to keep us relaxed. So when we don’t get our fix we get anxious and don’t sleep. But we can restore your glutamine levels by eating an amino acid called N-acetylcysteine (NAC) that’s found in nuts and seeds. Then you can start messing with other neurotransmitters, like serotonin (start by eating stuff high in tryptophans, e.g. meat, brown rice, nuts, fish, milk). And it’s good to eat DHA (found in omega-3 oils, i.e. salmon oil, flaxseed oil and so on).
So, you want to crave less–sweets, booze, crushing*? Eat fish and nuts with brown rice. A lot. Eat salads with flaxseed oil and seeds. Take fish oil supplements (but take them with food or you’ll be tasting those little buggers all day). Drink milk (urk, hate milk; love cream, though, wonder if that works…). I bet you’ll feel better. I know I feel a lot calmer when I eat this kind of food. Anyway, just thought I’d share.
* The more I think about Karina‘s recent posts on crushes, the more I think crushing (sometimes) might be a form of addiction, a relatively harmless/cost free way to light up the pleasure circuits.