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Alcohol, Food & Dopamine

answered 05:21 PM EST, Tue December 20, 2011
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It’s funny to me. I am a long time heavy drinker who is probably some kind of alcoholic but I manage to get by OK and I have accepted who I am. Every now and again, I try to take some time off from the drinking, maybe a few weeks or a month at a time, just to keep things from getting too crazy and too lose a bit of the beer weight etc.

I have a question about something I have noticed when I periodically quit. When I am drinking I tend to eat reasonably healthily. But whenever I quit drinking I am always craving fast food and I will eat 5 times more drive through burger meals in a month on the wagon than I will in a year or more of drinking. It feels to me like I am using food as a way to get kind of a buzz going instead of drinking. Is this a normal thing and why does fast food do this when a steak dinner, for example, won’t so much?

Dr. James Strawbridge Says...

What happens to people drink alcohol, sometimes lasting for days on end and stop for a time and begin to over eat fast foods? In trying to respond to this question, I will use the analogy to the experience of craving a juicy hamburger. When the craving hits, one’s mind pictures the burger and there is an instant sense of arousal motivating the individual to make a beeline for their favorite burger joint where they order the burger(s), grab a table, and chow down. Little attention is paid to anything else other than the burger and satisfying the hunger. Once seated, the individual packs up and leaves with a smile and full belly. There is no looking back or even thinking about it again until the urge strikes next time when the pattern is repeated. They grow up on a diet of fast food designed to have high impact stimulating the brain's reward pleasure circuit (where dopamine is released, a feel-good neurotransmitter that stimulates the medial prefrontal cortex where the pleasure centers is located and which is also get activated by cocaine, heroin, and alcohol.

 

According to new research by several scientists, including Dr. David Kessler, former dean of Yale’s medical school and FDA commissioner from 1990-97 points to something even deeper than our ancient programming. He says, “‘Highly palatable’ foods — those containing fat, sugar and salt — stimulate the brain to release dopamine, In time, the brain gets wired so that dopamine pathways light up at the mere suggestion of the food, such as driving past a fast-food restaurant, and the urge to eat the food grows insistent. Once the food is eaten, the brain releases opioids, which bring emotional relief. Together, dopamine and opioids create a pathway that can activate every time a person is reminded about the particular food. This happens regardless of whether the person is hungry.” Alcohol is also closely tied to the release of dopamine.

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Page last updated Dec 21, 2011

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