Monday, December 24, 2012

What Christmas Cookies and Heroin Have in Common

First of all, Merry Christmas to everyone!  And if you don't celebrate Christmas, then you know what I mean... don't be all hypersensitive and get offended.  The way I see it, if someone said "Happy Hanukkah" to me, I wouldn't take offense, and I'd wish them a Happy Hanukkah back.  When someone wishes you a happy-anything, why would you inject negativity into the situation?  Besides, Christmas has become more than a Christian holiday; I don't really consider myself a Christian to be honest (at least not in the traditional sense), it's just a cultural thing to me, and it's a tradition in my family.  So that's my take.  Of course, this has nothing to do with today's post, but screw it, I needed to get that out there.  Stop being so sensitive.  I'm only disrespecting you if you take it that way. 

So today, I just want to briefly talk about something I read about on Whole Health Source about food and opioid receptors.  The opioid receptors, just like they sound, are the receptors in the brain that are hijacked when you take drugs like heroin.  They're responsible for the addictive nature of drugs.  This "reward" system is what calls at you to have a cigarette, snort some coke, or inject some heroin.  And the more you do it the more you want it.

But this wiring in your brain has a practical purpose; it's not there solely to make sure you end up living in a cardboard box with nothing but your dog and your needles.  Although it's pretty good at that too.  But it's there to encourage behaviors that promote your survival, so that you'll continue to do them.  Like eating food for example.  Obviously, eating is important for survival, so this reward system encourages us to eat foods high in calories and important nutrients.  Eating grass wouldn't get us anywhere; there's no calories for us in grass, and that's why you don't crave it.

As you can imagine, this system is NOT designed for today's food environment, where there are excessively yummy treats at every turn.  This seems like, to me, the driving factor behind obesity.  Foods high calories, sugar, fat, and salt stimulate the reward system the most.  This is why we can't eat just one potato chip; it's why there's always room for dessert.  Your body wants those calories like a drug... literally.

Personal example:  Just the other night at Whole Foods Market, my place of employment, I found myself binging on the center of several free cinnamon buns in the dish room.  Everyone knows the center is the best.  But I wasn't even hungry at the time.  Reward circuits just took over.  Luckily I have a metabolism like a ring-tailed lemur.

Manipulating the Reward System
It's been known for a long time that injecting opioids along with a meal will increase the perceived palatability of the meal, hence increasing the amount of food they eat.  In essence, this artificially stimulates the opioid receptors along with a food that wouldn't normally elicit such a response.  It won't change someone's perception of the taste of a food, but it increases their wanting for it nonetheless.  That's the power of the brain.

Interestingly, this phenomenon works in the opposite way too.  Using a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the opiate receptors in the brain, we can reduce one's desire for palatable food without affecting their perception of taste.  From the study, "Specifically, systemic infusions of the opioid antagonist naltrexone in humans reduce reported affective or pleasantness ratings of sweet and fatty foods while not affecting subjective reports of hunger or the ability to detect sweet or salty tastes. Similar data has been reported in rats from a variety of paradigms. (1)"

This is incredibly interesting to me.  Nothing about the food has changed, and in fact, the person is still able to taste it just the same as before.  But the brain's perception of the food has totally changed, and that makes all the difference.

This proves that one's wanting for a food goes beyond taste.  Yes, people tend to eat things that taste good... foods that are fatty, salty, or sweet.  But being fatty, salty, and sweet doesn't make a food palatable; it's the brain that does that.

So there are more than just a few parallels between food and addictive drugs... in fact, the reason we crave that Christmas cookie is the same reason we can't stop shooting up with heroin, and it's via the same physiological response.  Is food addictive?  You bet it is. 

That's it for today, hope you found this as interesting as I did!  Until next time... Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, and Happy Whatever-It-Is-Asians-Celebrate-For-Winter-Solstice!


  1. I love your description of your metabolism. I feel like everyone can relate to this post. I also agree that this is a huge problem behind obesity and our food environment. Great post!

  2. Oh Santa, his obsession with cookies is killing his fat ass! ;) I even made a video about that, AHH HA HA HA!!!

    PS: You're one smart cookie... Wait no, omega-3 enriched egg, lol.

    1. Haha thanks! A smart omega-3 enriched egg, I like it!

  3. This post really reminded me of this article:

    Good and insightful as usual.

    1. Great article! I've read some of that book they talk about, The End of Overeating by David Kessler. Definitely worth checking out for an inside look at how the food industry works!