The following is excerpted from "The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction" by Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, with Mariska van Aalst, new from Rodale.
Chapter 1: The Dopamine Made Me Do It!
"There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate." -- Anonymous
We all have one.
At least one. A little darling. A best friend. A helper, a life raft.
An entrenched habit that's so comfortable, it feels like a hug or an island of calm.
A fix starts simply enough. You think about doing something that you like to do -- drink a mojito, or check your iPhone, or get it on with your boyfriend or girlfriend -- and that thought lights up an entire dopamine-driven reward pathway in your brain.
You feel a rush of pleasure. You start thinking about when and how you are going to do that thing: Is it happy hour yet? Can I sneak a peek at my e-mail during this meeting?
Will he or she be around tonight? When are we going to connect? Your brain becomes consumed by the drive to satisfy that urge. You try, but you just can't get it out of your head. You give in. And then, as soon as you satisfy the raging hunger, bingo: You feel another rush. Your brain says, "Yeah! This is amazing. Bring it on. I want more."
You need your fix.
Most of the time, this neurological process is a good thing. Nature wants humans to stick around, so she uses this system to reward us for doing things that will ensure our survival -- eating food, bonding with loved ones, having sex, making babies. Preferably as often as possible.
As a result, everything we do -- from the time we wake up until we collapse into bed -- is driven by reward. We're either getting reward in the short term (enjoying an hourlong massage) or in the long term (earning a college degree after studying for 4 years).
The reward can also be to avoid pain. I learned that as a little girl who didn't like to brush her teeth. After suffering through a cavity, I soon learned that my real reward was never seeing that dentist again.
This same reward system drives us to learn, to create, to innovate, to pursue our goals. But as a medical doctor specializing in metabolism and weight management, logging thousands of hours a year to educate the public about behavioral change, I've seen firsthand how the dopamine rush cuts both ways. The tremendous high you get from a run in the park or a hike to the top of a mountain can be powerful enough to change your life. But that healthy high occupies the same pathways, and can easily become confused with, the dopamine hit from a snort of cocaine or a puff of a cigarette. Clearly, not all rewards are created equal -- and some can kill you.
In the past few years, I've started to see a growing manifestation of this double-edged sword in my own medical practice. More and more men and women are coming into my office desperate to find an answer to the same questions: Why can't I stop thinking about food?