Dopamine, Cravings, And The Annoying Escape Room That Is Your Brain

I Didn’t Always Look Like This

I’m staring down at the mounds of flesh sitting precariously on top of one another around my abdomen and ribs. My stomach has organized itself into three distinct ranges. 

The lowest is the most dominant.

It is uniquely marked with dimples and crepey skin – mementos of the nine months my daughter spent nestled inside. It is also the greediest of the three – eager to expand its territory. 

My mood sours. I don’t want to look (or feel) like this anymore. 

My body is out of proportion. Though I’m fleshier all over, the bulk of the weight seems to have gathered around my gut. Even as my pants loosen in the thighs and hips, these ever-expanding mounds of flesh in the middle continue to taunt me. 

overweight stomach
food addiction and weight gain

I’ve hopped on the internet several times to google things like “causes of abdominal fat” and “dangers of visceral fat.” Excessive weight around the middle is a bad sign. I read things like “increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, dementia, and cancer.” 

The danger zone for women is a waist circumference of 35 inches. For men, it’s 40. I’m closer to that 35 than I care to admit. Far from the slender frame of my early thirties. 

And it’s not just that.

I’ve been in and out of doctors’ offices for months. I’ve had digestion issues, insatiable thirst, dizzy spells, extreme fatigue, and inflammation attacking the intermediate layer of my left eye. All the tell-tale signs of a thyroid condition, diabetes, or autoimmune disease. 

Which is what all those doctors suspected as well. And so I’ve had about twenty vials of blood drawn for this one test or another – sometimes more than once. 

All of them returned perfectly normal results. I’m fine. 

Except, I’m not. 

 

Occam’s Razor For Bellies 

So what is an aspiring hypochondriac like myself to do? Well for one, stay off WebMD. But two, get back to basics. 

What USUALLY causes excessive weight gain in the abdominal region? The answer is: stress (check!), too much sugar (check!), and inactivity (check!). 

It turns out, I’m likely not in the throes of some terrible, chronic disease. It’s more likely that I’ve fallen victim to a much more common condition known as letting oneself go. 

Right! So easy fix then, yah? 

Eat better, cut out some sugar, and hit the gym. Except once I started those things, I got smacked in the face with a wave of panic, overwhelm, and the soul-sucking riptide that is depression. 

Wonderful.

addicted stressed man sits in chair with hand over face
depression and cravings

 

And here’s what that feels like. 

It’s having a sore throat and the jitters from too much caffeine and still feeling compelled to drink more soda. Or collapsing on your comfy chair after a battle royale with your toddler over bed time and then ordering approximately 1800 calories of “please help me stop feeling this way” from Chili’s.

All of these things are followed by heavy shame and guilt, which leads to more vowing to stop eating these things forever and ever and ever. 

Because our lizard brains are hardwired to fear scarcity (which makes sense, I mean, it’s not like they had a Waitrose in the middle of the prehistoric savannah), my immediate overreaction was, “Oh my god I can never have soda or southwest egg rolls again!”

I. Am. Doomed. 

That thought triggered a long series of craving and crashing.  

 

 

But first, let’s talk dopamine. 

Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters. Here’s a succinct explanation from Psychology Today on what it does exactly:

“Dopamine helps regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. It also enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them.”

It plays a critical role in addiction. 

Dr. Marc Lewis explains what dopamine actually does to our brains quite well. He states:

“What dopamine does in the striatum is to narrow the field of potential actions, from many down to one. The competition is quashed and now there’s only one goal on the radar. That’s the basis of craving: a narrowing of focus and motivation to one thing and one thing only.”

I’ve known this cycle all too well with drinking and smoking. But it would appear the bug has bitten me again. This time with food. 

Dr. Lewis goes on to explain the role of cues in addiction and craving. Cues are reminders or associations of something that produce an emotional response. When exposed to a cue, the brain becomes flooded with dopamine. 

Isn’t that a good thing?

No!

A brain flooded with dopamine becomes singularly focused on one thing: satisfying the craving. Whether it’s booze, cigarettes, or food, once those cues are activated and the dopamine unleashed, your prefrontal cortex gets overrun. 

Loosely translated, you can no longer think about anything other than satisfying the urge. 

 

The Craving Cycle And Addiction

For those of us who abuse alcohol and/or drugs, this entire process starts to take on a life of its own. The more you scratch the itch, the stronger the cues become.

Repeatedly subjecting yourself to the crave and satiate cycle changes the structure of the striatum and prefrontal cortex.

And you don’t want that because those are the parts of the brain responsible for (among other things) decision-making and voluntary action. 

It’s why when you first get sober, it can feel like your brain will explode and you have to literally hold yourself back to keep from hoofing it to the liquor store to get your fix. 

Your brain has been rewired to want and get alcohol. Denying the brain its dopamine fix is an act of war on your internal world – at least it can feel that way. 

But what’s that got to do with my big ole belly and inability to delete delivery apps from my phone without feeling like I’m going to have a panic attack? 

Quite a lot, it turns out. 

Related Post: How To Develop Mental Toughness In Sobriety

 

Our Beautiful, Yet Slightly Under-Evolved Brains

woman eats french fries
junk food and cravings

The same regions of the brain involved in the craving cycle of alcohol and drugs are also responsible for food cravings and eating. 

Author Stephen Guyenet of “The Hungry Brain” explains that 99.5% of our existence as a species was spent living as hunter gatherers.

Our ancestors lived in an environment of scarcity. So when encountering a high caloric food source heavy in sugar, salt, or fat, our brains evolved to say, “eat as much of this stuff as you possibly can!” 

Which kept us alive for a couple millions of years. 

Now, Gueyenet argues, it’s just making us fat

A significant number of human beings, including you and I, live in an era of food abundance. Our brains haven’t caught up though, so there are parts of us that are still wired towards scarcity. 

Food manufacturers know this, which is why the industry has spent billions of dollars to find the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat to keep you coming back for more. 

Thanks, assholes!

 

The Addiction, Craving, Food Connection 

Alcoholics are notorious for scarfing down everything sugary when they first get sober. Because our lizard brains are wired for salt, sugar, and fat (see above), it makes for a convenient substitute to satisfy the now depleted dopamine levels in the brain. 

In the early days of sobriety, we do what we have to do. 

If eating a bulk sized bag of peanut M&M’s keeps you sober this week, then it is what it is. 

But we can’t keep doing that forever. It’s painfully easy to fall into the trap of cross addictions with food and alcohol, nicotine, or drugs. 

Shift Recovery has a solid breakdown of how alcoholics often go on to abuse food:

“There are many who come to Overeaters Anonymous (OA) from other 12 Step programs, especially Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), that have substantial time sober from alcohol and other addictive substances. In fact, they often come to OA or one of the other food–related 12 Step fellowships because they find themselves reacting to food just like they had reacted to alcohol or their drug of choice many years before.”

In fact, the article notes, alcoholics can find food addiction even harder to detox from as food is often a primary addiction that predates their alcohol use. 

Related Post: Why Habit Stacking Is The Best Way To Form New Habits

 

When Food Becomes The New Booze

It was the out-of-control and obsessed feeling that did it for me. 

Running around behind an active toddler, trying to keep the faith that quitting my job to blog full-time was the right decision, and wearing the many hats of a stay-at-home mom was getting to me. 

Some days I felt like I’d run a marathon. When I finally got a moment’s rest, I got that old familiar itch. 

Relax. Grab a Diet Pepsi. 

After my daughter was born and I was running on the fumes of three hours of sleep and a biological desire to keep her alive, it seemed fine to live on peanut butter and jelly and endless cans of Coke. 

We do what we must to survive that fourth trimester. 

Because I was so immersed in the chaos, it didn’t occur to me that I was forming new, dangerous neural connections. New cycles of craving and satiating that would come back to haunt me. 

Or maybe it did and I lacked the capacity to care. 

woman holds burger to the camera
food addiction

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that a year and a half later, that old familiar urge was back with a vengeance. 

Except this time, I didn’t want alcohol or cigarettes.

I wanted food and soda, as much of it as I could get my hands on without feeling too sick. Noticed I said “too sick.” There was a baseline level of physical discomfort I was willing to endure for the emotional comfort of the binge. 

And then I became sick and I REALLY knew I was in trouble because that did not stop me from eating or drinking things that would instantly make my stomach ache or spark an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

Like, maybe I need to pull over and sleep on the side of the road because I might otherwise crash my car kind of fatigue. Or husband needs to hold my hand as we walk through the mall because I might faint kind of fatigue.

Yep. I’m in trouble. 

 

Admitting There’s A Problem

I should’ve known better. 

That’s what I think about when I look in the mirror and try to come to terms with what I see. To make peace with her. 

I write about sobriety and addiction for a living and yet I’m doing it again! Feelings of shame and fraudulence wash over me. I start to get writer’s block and consider quitting. 

It makes me eat. 

stressed woman with hand on face caught in craving cycle
mental health and craving

But then I realize what I am doing. In a moment of clarity, I take stock of what’s going on. Instead of allowing my feeling brain to run wild, I let the thinking brain take over for a minute. 

Stuffing my face till I can’t move feels bad. My stomach becomes distended, sometimes painfully so. Too much caffeine or sugar triggers my anxiety and makes my chest feel tight and my heart start to race. 

I get jittery and lose focus. 

And then, somehow, as the food digests I become mostly tired, but also sad and apathetic. My mood dips. I lose hours to my computer thinking about a million different things, but not really DOING much. I’m lost inside my own inner world and it’s dragging me down. 

It sucks. I don’t want to do it anymore. 

Sometimes just saying out loud, “I’m not in control of this” is a wonderful catalyst to actually gaining some control back.

It breaks the spell of the craving just enough that you can THINK again. And that is the first step towards action and recovery. 

 

 

What’s this really about? 

I’ve been playing around with nutrition, diet, and exercise regimens for awhile now with very little success. 

It felt like deprivation or forcing myself to bend in ways I couldn’t. It felt like drinking all over again. 

Sometimes I’d lump them into the same category: I can’t control my drinking and I can’t control my eating. I’m just this “type” of person. 

But we have to eat to live, so that mindset isn’t going to work.

All the back and forth of having a few good days of eating and moving with a bad day full of greasy takeout and couch potato antics ripped my sense of self-worth to shreds. 

I felt depressed, which made it even harder to get things done, let alone make better food choices. 

But why was all of this happening? My alcohol abuse masked some deeply rooted unhappiness with my life (among other things). 

What am I masking now? 

I had to sit with myself and open up. What am I feeling? Or rather, what am I NOT trying to feel? 

And I slowly started to figure it out. 

happy smiling woman in cafe
solving problems in addiction

 

I Got 99 Problems But A Snack Ain’t One

  • I’ve been shut in the past several months due to severe heat in the part of the world where I live.
  • I’m too far from my family and miss them.
  • My husband works long, inconsistent hours which leaves me solo parenting more than I’d like to be.
  • One of my dearest friends moved away recently and I’m increasingly lonely.
  • I’m not making much money blogging and beginning to doubt myself.
  • I worry about money. 

All of these things have been piling on, but rather than give them the consideration and attention they require, I’ve mostly tried to bury them in food. Or I’ve downplayed them. 

Suck it up, buttercup! Push through. 

Admitting I was feeling these things gave me an immediate sense of relief. I spoke to a friend about it. That lifted some weight. 

I decided to extend a planned trip home to the US for a couple months to recharge my batteries and spend time with family. More weight gone. 

I’ve acknowledged that maybe our time abroad, in this country at least, is coming to an end and it’s time to make plans to move forward with our lives. Another lightening. 

stressed man puts hands over face under title why we crave
escaping the craving cycle

 

Resisting Problems Only Makes Worse

In order to grow, you have to be honest with yourself. What are the real problems causing you to act this way? 

But just as importantly, you have to believe your problems are solvable. 

I never felt like that during my drinking days. Even if I understood what needed to be fixed, deep down, I didn’t think I was capable of ever fixing them. So I drowned my problems in alcohol while creating new ones. 

I’m not doing that this time. 

cycle of craving and solutions

Rather than bore you with the details, I’ll just say that I sat down with a pen and paper and worked through exactly what I need to do and STOP doing in order to chip away at these problems and get to what’s next. 

As I worked through that process, I noticed my food cravings subsided. I could eat a healthy salad in a reasonable portion, feel full, and leave it at that. 

No five-alarm fire in my lizard brain believing I might never see ice cream again followed by an inexplicable forward trajectory to the fridge to grab a pint and a spoon before I knew what hit me. 

The compulsion to stuff myself to capacity waned, became more manageable. 

Related post: Why I’m Using Gratitude To Battled Anxiety

 

Things Are Turning Around

For the past two weeks or so (I didn’t note my start date), I’ve exercised every single day. Sometimes it’s only for 10 minutes. Other times it’s for 30 or 40.

I don’t let myself worry about if I’m doing the exact right thing for the exact amount of time in order to look like an athlete because that’s not where I am at in my journey. 

I used to focus on those end results obsessively while stalking Instagram fitness accounts to find out the exact right workout program and meal plan to get me results quickly. 

And I never stuck to any of them. I didn’t enjoy it and more times than not it led to increased binge eating. 

So I do things I enjoy that my body feels ready for on any given day. 

woman meditates on beach to battle cravings
new plans for combatting cravings

I’ve started tracking my food again. In the past, I obsessed about the calories and would go into lizard brain scarcity panic mode as the calories crept up and my belly rumbled. 

Now I’m tracking it so I can better understand how much I’m eating and maybe protect myself from a mindless binge on snacks or ice cream. (Though I do allow myself some non-diary Halo Top Candy Bar ice cream because life is for living.)

And I’ve focused on eating whole foods, largely bypassing anything that can be found in those center aisles. The caloric intake or macronutrients aren’t all that important right now. My current diet plan is just eat real food in reasonable portions. 

It’s working. 

I don’t feel out of control. The daily routine of working out, having tea in the morning, journaling, and making better food choices are grounding me. I can breathe again. 

Oh, and I’ve lost an inch off of my waistline.

Related Post: Alcohol & Weight Gain: Here’s What You Need To Know 

 

Easy Does It

I stopped being kind to myself at some point this summer and that was a huge mistake.

There’s all this talk about self-care out there, but I find that greatest self-care anyone can do is to actively prioritize self-compassion. 

We get trapped in these cycles of allowing problems to stack up and negative beliefs to run wild in our heads. And that kind of thing has always lead to HUGE problems in my life.

Perhaps that’s true for you as well. 

All too often we direct our energy towards the symptoms – drinking, weight gain, inactivity – without addressing the core problems. 

I’m working hard every day to stop all that. To pay attention to my inner world and nip things in the bud before they become monstrous and unruly. 

And I’m trying hard to give myself a break. To chuckle when my daughter gleefully hunts for my belly button when I sit. To love on this rolly poly belly and say, “I hear you. I’m working on it.” 

I did it with alcohol. I can do it with this. 

One thing I am especially grateful for is the support of the entire Soberish community and the humility to reach out and say, “I’m struggling guys” and for it to be okay. 

If you are in need of similar support, please join us. 

Be good to yourselves!

Related Posts About Craving & Mindset In Sobriety

stressed man under title are cravings driving you mad
understanding craving cycles in the brain

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Alicia @ Soberish

Hi! I'm Alicia, the woman behind Soberish. I write about sobriety, mental health, and the reality of making big life changes. Oh, and I get to call myself "mama" to the cutest little girl in the world.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Mindy

    This is a God wink for me. Thank you so much I really needed this article!

  2. Ben

    I found your writing today through Flipboard. Alcohol isn’t a problem for me personally, but these tips you’re sharing are useful for fighting lots of other negative thought cycles that I’m facing. Thanks for sharing; keep up the good fight. 🙂

  3. Connie

    Every step of addiction is so very hard. It’s reassuring to learn from you why crawling out of this hole is difficult. Thank you very much for your perspective.
    I’m thinking this was not an easy post for you. People like me need people like you.

  4. Abigail

    You have no idea how much I needed this today. I’ve been wondering around in circles in my small space, trying to hide by sleeping, opening and closing the fridge, starting to cry then stopping…this article made me realise that I’m okay and that I will be okay. Just breathe…I’m trying.

    1. I’m so glad to hear you found this helpful, Abigail! I understand how you’re feeling. We can do this!

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