What do overeating and drug addiction have in common? In a provocative opinion piece in the New York Times at the end of June 2017, Dr. Richard Friedman lays out his ideas on why people indulge in overeating and drug abuse despite the obvious dangers to their health.
Both modern day obesity and drug addiction can be explained by the same three components- environment, genetics, and access.
While we unfortunately cannot change our genetics, our environment has been shown to significantly trump genetics – and with that there is hope in changing the path to addiction.
Our emotions, particularly stress, are heavily mirrored in our environment. Historically, drug addiction has been thought of as either an ingrained behavior or a moral defeat. In a 2015 study on middle-class whites conducted by two Princeton economists, a disturbing elevation in mid-life mortality since the 1990s was observed. The majority of these deaths were found to be either suicide, alcohol or drug overdoses. These consequences did not arise from those addicts going insane, but rather from economic hardships or diminishing social status, and thus, snowballing stress.
Humans crave pleasure – we all want to feel happy, right? This pleasure has been linked to a release of dopamine, a natural compound found in our brains. Dopamine receptors, called D2s, release dopamine in our brain’s reward circuit when we engage in satisfying activities such as sex, eating, drug use, and building wealth. This primitive reward circuit helped us survive by locating food or sex in our environment, but can now be triggered well beyond those essential activities.
Today, those with more D2 receptors experience higher levels of natural stimulation and gratification, making them less likely to seek the same pleasures through drugs or food.
In a study conducted at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow tested Ritalin on non-drug abusing patients with different levels of D2 receptors. She noticed that those with fewer receptors experienced much higher stimulation than those with more receptors. The same story applies to eating food. Dr. Volkow discovered a proportional correlation in the reduction of D2 levels and body mass index. People with lower D2 levels would feel less satisfied after eating the same amount of food as someone with higher D2 levels, similarly, an obese person would eat more than a non-obese person. Both drug users and obese people with fewer D2 receptors lacked self-control when it came to satiating their brain’s reward circuit.
Finally, where does the role of access come in? Clearly if you are not exposed to drugs, your stress level is irrelevant when it comes to drug addiction. the same applies to overeating.
Production of cheap and unhealthy foods that stimulate D2 receptors has heavily increased in the past few decades, with a tragic result. Today, slightly over one third of American adults are considered obese. Similarly, the drug industry has introduced stronger forms of former drugs, only heightening their users’ tolerance and demand for higher doses. Simply limiting this exposure would help our brains not fall prey to food or drug addiction.
“The double whammy of caloric modern food and potent recreational drugs. Their power to activate our reward circuit, rewire our brain and nudge us in the direction of compulsive consumption is unprecedented.”
— Richard A. Friedman