Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cravings: Brain Generated Bad Feelings

I've been thinking a lot lately about how overeating interacts with bad brain chemistry. I overeat in response to the bad feelings that come from my brain; it's a way of self-medicating, a way to fix the problem of feeling bad for no reason.  That method is especially effective when the bad feelings are the result of overeating!

The brain is efficient--it knows exactly what will fix the problem quickly. Chocolate-induced stimulation is missing, says the brain, so chocolate must be obtained. And then it nags the organism to go fetch some for it. (The brain is bossy like that.) And we all know how painful the brain's nagging can be.

So what to do? Surrender and give the brain what it wants? That's one solution. Not the best, considering what the consequences are.

What else, then? Well, if you consider that in most cases cravings for highly stimulating foods like chocolate or french fries are generated by the brain (and not by the environment), they can be dealt with like other brain-generated bad feelings such as anxiety, depression and rage. That means you can recognize them for what they are and make them go away with the usual bad-brain-chemistry scanning techniques.

Not so easy, you say? I agree, especially when the feeling is strong and the customary remedy is so cheap and close at hand.  And so seemingly harmless, right? Wrong.

The key is "seemingly." Having a couple of cookies or a piece of pie of a big dish of ice cream will quickly fix my cravings/depression/stress and won't hurt me or anybody else, you say, so why not go ahead?  Well, the truth is, it will hurt you and others who care about you. But more practically speaking, because eating fat/sugar is an addiction, as time goes on, more and more of the substance will be required to do the same job, until no amount will fix the problem and you're left with powerful, painful cravings and no way to satisfy them. And by then you'll no doubt be morbidly obese.

So the answer is to treat food cravings like any other brain-generated bad feelings and make them go away as harmlessly as possible.  Do a jigsaw puzzle, for instance. Or read a murder mystery.  Do genealogy hunting. Or make a model. Take pictures.  Or paint.  There are many healthy ways to stimulate the brain so it doesn't feel deprived. Come up with your own and try it out!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Roller Coaster Brain

So, addiction is caused by the brain trying to adjust to the unusual level of stimulation (either too much or not enough) by up- or down-regulating the number of receptors on the neurons that process brain chemicals.

It's as if the brain is saying, "So, I guess too much stimulation is the new normal around here," and it decreases the number of receptors to keep the brain from being over stimulated.  And when there's a change in that "new normal," the brain has to make new receptors because it's not getting enough stimulation.  "Make up your mind!" it says to the person making bad choices.

People whose brains readily adjust in that way to drugs are more likely to become addicted.  It's why when I eat even a little bit of chocolate, I find myself craving it for hours afterward.

I think that people who are hyperalert naturally produce more chemicals that stimulate the brain, producing a higher degree of alertness.  But the delivery of stimulating chemicals is neither constant nor consistent, so it sometimes drops off. When that happens, the person gets depressed because the brain has responded to the hyperalertness by down regulating receptors.  Not only does it drop off sometimes, but sometimes it becomes too great, to where there are too many receptors and the brain is overstimulated. One of the results of that condition is that the person becomes angry or combative, I think. 

So, too much or too little stimulation produces a fight or flight scenario, with depression being one version of flight (playing dead?).

The cure for all these states of being is time, really, though sufferers are usually in so much pain (or euphoria) they don't want to wait for the brain to adjust to the change in chemistry. So they do something--often something foolish or unhealthy or costly or risky--that works, but only for the short term.  And the associated costs are usually high.

The alternative? Recognize the impulse for what it is. Wait, or if you can't wait, do something that will work but will not cause harm.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Maintaining Homeostasis

I've been reading more into the book Understanding Biological Psychology. It's a fascinating book, but a little over my head from time to time.  I have to work harder to understand the genetic and physiological processes of brain chemistry, but I did read a little section on addiction that was interesting and quite pertinent, I think, to what I was saying about behaviors designed to fix the bad feeling.

In the book, Philip Corr talks about the neurotransmitter receptors on the neurons that process the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) as they enter the "dock," as it's called. In the normal state of the brain, there's an optimum number of receptors that serve to maintain "homeostasis," where the brain has a "consistent level of stimulation" (114).  The brain has the ability to increase or decrease the number of receptors, depending on what the "internal processes of the brain" are telling it is needed. The ingestion of recreational drugs such as cocaine, nicotine, or amphetamine causes the brain to respond to the overstimulation by decreasing the number of receptors.  That's fine until the person stops ingesting the drug, when the decreased number of receptors throws the level of stimulation out of balance; the person is in a "deficient chemical state" and suffers withdrawal. The brain takes action, increasing the number of receptors, but it takes time, so the suffering goes on for a while.

Of course, when the person goes back to ingesting the drug, the process starts all over again.

Corr mainly talks about typical drugs of abuse, including hallucinogens and alcohol. But I think that anything can become a "drug," such as gambling, shopping, hoarding, or eating.  Any of these activities could effectively stimulate the brain to the point where the brain takes away the receptors, causing the deficient chemical state that then prompts the next round of drug taking.

Now, if the brain starts the process by creating the bad feeling that the person must then try to make go away by ingesting a drug or doing a particular activity, then there's no reason to assume that the brain will stop sending those erroneous signals.  The mind will need to find better ways of making the feeling go away--ways that are not harmful to the person or the society.

The brain is trying to maintain homeostasis, but it's not doing a very good job, apparently. Corr talks about the "mesolimbic dopamine pathway"--"the common pathway of reinforcement and reward in the brain" (120). He says this pathway can be activated by many things, "from intellectual accomplishment to sexual orgasm." He suggests that some people have a smaller number of dopamine receptors, and that "their own internal reward system is not working too well in the first place, and this might predispose them to keep trying drugs as a means of compensating for their own naturally decreased activation of reward circuits."

It's an interesting idea, one that might explain my idea, that the brain is starting this whole thing by not working too well.  And that people are rationally trying to compensate for the brain's poor performance by acting in ways that they hope will work to fix it.

So, then, achieving happiness is just a matter of making better choices about how to fix the brain's physiology.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Allowing Yourself to Be Happy

Bad brain chemistry is a terribly debilitating condition, even in a relatively mild form like mine.  I struggle with fear, anxiety, anger, depression every single day.  It's funny how for most of my life I never knew my mother had the same condition.  Because she was married to my father, who suffered from bi-polar disorder, it seemed that he was making her unhappy all those years.  It never occurred to me that she had the same problem as he, though in a less conspicuous form.

Over the years my mother complained of unhappiness, and I wanted to do something to help her, to make her happy.  My whole life I worked at it, and not just with her--with the other members of my family, too, who always seemed to be unhappy.  But no matter what I did, it didn't help.  I decided they liked being unhappy.

But that wasn't really true, at least not in the strictest sense.  During that time I'd been unhappy, too, attributing my misery to life circumstances that were making me suffer.  So I'd change the circumstances, thinking that would change my level of happiness.  Of course, it never worked, or not for very long, anyway.  My family members were no different; they assumed their misery came from the outside and they continued to change their circumstances to try to stop their suffering.

In fact, they've tried everything, but the misery always comes back. Believe me, I know.  Unfortunately, I can't convince them that the reason it comes back is because it's inside them.  But then who can blame them? If the misery is inside you, you're doomed, right?  If you can't get rid of it, you have to give up.  Who'd want to accept that?

Well, I know I can't get rid of the bad feelings because they are part of my physical being.  But what I can do is realize that they are merely physical phenomena that can be dealt with in a pragmatic and non-self-destructive way.

Easy to say, but not easy to do.  Feeling bad is something you want to fix right away. For instance, right now I feel terrible.  It's a physical pain but it feels like a mental pain.  What I'm doing now is designed to make it go away; writing is an analgesic for me.  Hunting for the solution to the puzzle helps my brain get back on track.

I wish I could communicate this to my mother to help her feel better.  I've tried it with my sister, but she just doesn't want to accept that she has a brain chemistry problem, and that is the key to this treatment.  Maybe she's afraid that if she admits to having bad brain chemistry, she'll be stuck being unhappy with no hope for the future.  I guess it's like having to admit you have an addiction; once you admit that, then you have to do something about it, and if you don't know what to do, you'll lose hope.

So, I guess I have to perfect this treatment before I can convince people it's alright to have bad brain chemistry because you can do something about it and finally allow yourself to be happy.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Feed Me, Seymour!

Lately I've been paying more attention to the cravings that impel me to eat (usually high calorie, high fat foods), and I've noticed that the cravings are not stopped by eating the preferred foods (chocolate, for example).  Yesterday at about 9:30 AM I ate some pumpkin bread that one of my coworkers brought.  (There's always some food available there, it seems, especially now at holiday time!)  I figured it would suffice as my snack, but one hour later I was hungry again, so I went ahead and ate what I had brought, a muffin with a teaspoonful of peanut butter.  That seemed to satisfy me, since I wasn't hungry at 11:45, when I ate my lunch.  Was it because of the protein that I was satisfied--protein I didn't get in the the pumpkin bread?  Maybe, but I'm not sure.

Earlier this week, in response to a craving, I had some candy.  I waited to see if that would satisfy the craving, and it did--for a little while. But only 15 minutes later I was wanting more of it.  I've talked about the quality of the craving in my eating blog--it feels like a burning sensation, and it's very insistent.  It takes my focus away from whatever I'm doing and so is difficult to ignore.  But if I give into it, before long it's back. In fact, the craving returns in a shorter and shorter span of time, it seems.  I'm reminded of the play, Little Shop of Horrors, where the plant cries, "Feed me, Seymour!"  (I can't help but think that this play is about addiction.)  I know that what I'm supposed to do is ignore the cravings, but why do I (and other people) have them to begin with?  And why do some people not have them?

I've been reading the book, Understanding Biological Psychology, in an effort to learn more about brain chemistry and its effect on the mind and behavior.  The author, Philip Corr, seems to share my way of thinking about the brain as hardware and the mind as software.  And he's talking about genetics and how they affect brain chemistry, something I definitely want to know more about. And in the chapter on Evolution, he's relaying that we are going to learn about how certain traits survived because they made the organism more able to survive and reproduce. I believe that the collection of traits I'm calling "hyperalertness" was in ancient times very effective at increasing survival, but has over the years become more and more troublesome.

So, I can't help but think that the high-calorie/high-fat-food-seeking behavior that could informally be called a craving is nothing more than a formerly adaptive mechanism that is currently causing the organism to fail to survive, especially if that organism is young.

We know that obesity is related to Type II Diabetes (what was once called late-life diabetes).  Because it has been for many years an affliction of middle-aged and elderly folks (developed after the child-bearing years), the genetic predisposition for Type II continues to be passed down.  Diabetes affects the survival of the individual, but only after he or she has already reproduced. (It seems that no one worries about passing down that particular bad trait, unlike hemophilia or sickle cell anemia.)

I think that the recent increase of Type II Diabetes  in children is a sign that the formerly (in ancient times) highly adaptive behavior of eating foods that will most efficiently sustain life (high-fat, high-calorie, low-bulk foods) in the face of a what must have then been an uncertain future has become maladaptive and will cause the organism to fail to survive and--because that individual might die young--fail to pass on his/her genetic material (including the tendency to develop Type II Diabetes) to succeeding generations.

From Nature's point of view, this would be considered a good thing: bad traits are not passed down and eventually become extinct.  Is that how we will get rid of Type II Diabetes?  Probably not, because we can't bear to let nature take its course, at least here in the U.S. 

But to get back to the idea of an ancient, formerly adaptive desire to eat fuel-efficient foods: at one time in our dim past it helped us, but it no longer does, at least not those of us in developed countries who don't daily engage in calorie-burning survival activities.  Despite the fact that it doesn't help, the desire still exists and expresses itself in the cravings we feel that we have a hard time ignoring.

If indeed this now maladaptive desire is imprinted in my brain and not likely to go away, what to do about it?  Well, I think my strategy for this feeling should be no different from the one I use for other pesky feelings conjured up by my brain.  That is: 1) recognize it for what it is and not what it seems to be (an emergency), 2) restrain myself from responding immediately, and 3) do something non-harmful to make the feeling go away.

All three parts are hard, unfortunately. But the beauty of this approach is that is it not reproachful.  The problem is a physical one and the solution is practical: to take up the challenge of maladaptive brain chemistry in the most effective way possible.  Find it, fix it, and forget it.

Today I'm mainly focusing on the first part: recognizing the cravings for what they are.  The next part is a little harder, I think--to find a way to not respond to the craving. The third part helps the second part; if I can find something to do that will make the feeling go away before I respond to it, I'll succeed.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Brain Chemistry and Addictions

Today I want to explore the connection between bad brain chemistry and addiction.  In the past, I've pointed to various self-destructive behaviors as being the BBC sufferer's attempt to fix the problem caused by his or her bad brain chemistry.  It's a form of self-medicating to binge on alcohol, food, tobacco, drugs, shopping, gambling, sex, video games, channel surfing, texting, hand-washing, hoarding, or even violent behaviors such as beating or killing or destroying someone or something.  (People who kill animals obsessively, for instance, are self-medicating, I believe.)

People use these forms of medication because they work--they make the bad feelings go away.  Unfortunately, even the relatively harmless remedies don't work for very long, and people find they need more and more of the medicine more and more frequently to obtain the same result.  In other words, they develop a tolerance for it, and as their tolerance builds so do the medicine's costs and debilitating side-effects.

There are treatment programs for the more well-known obsessions, and people are becoming aware of how many ways there are to become addicted, thanks to a number of shows currently on TV that depict such maladies.  One of the things all the treatment programs seem to have in common is that the addiction is a medical problem, something that can't be helped.  The two methods used to treat addictions involve either swearing off the behavior completely or gradually decreasing the incidence until it's at a reasonable level.  Both seem very difficult for the addict to accomplish.

The same serotonin uptake inhibitor drugs used to treat depression are often recommended for addictions, with the idea that bad brain chemistry is causing the addictive behavior.  I wonder, though, if there's a way to using cognitive therapy to fix addiction. I'm guessing it would be very difficult, but maybe it would work better than what is being used currently.

Let's think about that for a minute.  The addictive behavior is in response to the feeling state produced by the brain.  The logic goes like this: I feel terrible.  Doing X will make me feel better, so I need to do X so I can feel better.  And I need to do it right away.

The urgency of the need is indicative of its being brain chemistry induced.  It's not simply a desire, but a powerful urge, a craving that is out of the normal realm of desire.  And what kind of need falls into that category?  A life-or-death urgency.  When one is in a fight-or-flight situation, time is of the essence.  If you're confronted by a mountain lion about to pounce, you can't afford to wait until a more convenient time.  You need to respond now!

Does the brain create that need?  I don't think the brain is particular about what the person uses to respond to the apparent emergency.  Whatever works is what the brain will be satisfied with.  The need is for the pain (that comes from the fear) to stop.

I know, I know--it doesn't feel like pain.  For example, I was at a luncheon today and even though I wasn't hungry after the first several bites, I ate everything on my plate in addition to the candy appetizer.  There are a lot of theories about why I did that, but I'm satisfied that it's an addiction.  The clean plate is the signal to stop, not the full stomach.  (Shirley Simon talks about this in her book, Learn to Be Thin.)  But I don't recall any pain associated with my behavior.

But what produces that desire to see the clean plate?  That's the question that most intrigues me.  In order to change my behavior, I would have to know the answer; otherwise, it's just a matter of doing what I'm told--to respond to the full stomach instead of the clean plate--a task that seems like it should be easy.  After all, it's just a matter of doing one thing instead of another.

So, what produces the urgency to eat until the plate is empty?  It must be providing me with the medication that I need to make the bad feeling go away.  But what is the bad feeling?  I don't recognize it when it sweeps over me.  But I do feel anxious when I see that there is food that is not being eaten, on my plate or someone else's.  Where does that feeling come from? 

Let's look at my original premise: the brain produces the bad feeling for no reason other than its own hyperalertness.  I feel hungry and that frightens me, so I try to feel less frightened by eating.  At that point, my mind is keenly focused on food.  I'm not paying attention to other things around me becaused I'm distracted by the desire to eat.

But what happens when I do eat and I'm no longer hungry?  Why do I keep eating?  How is my brain producing this desire?  Clearly it's not related to physical satiety.  What is it related to, then?  Well, maybe it's just what I've learned to do to make the bad feeling go away.

Like right now I feel bad, but the reason (I tell myself) is that my sister is unhappy.  I want my sister to be happy, so I try to do something right away to make my sister feel better so I can feel better.  Did I start out with the bad feeling that then fixes on my sister's problems?  If my sister no longer had problems would I still need something to be worried about?

Perhaps that's an addiction like any other.  I feel bad->I look for a reason to feel bad->Finding a reason creates the need to find a solution->act on that desire by carrying out the solution.

So, if I apply this reasoning to my eating behavior, I have this.  I feel bad (brain chemistry solar flare); one of the ways to make myself feel better is to eat; when I eat, I feel better.  I might even keep eating until I'm sure I won't feel bad again.

But the fact is, any number of actions will fix the brain chemistry.  And by the way, sometimes the brain chemistry produces euphoria instead of dysphoria.  It doesn't matter, really, the response is the same--do something to get my brain back in balance.

Some people would say: oh, come on! Is there no good reason to feel bad in your world?  Yes, there are good reasons to feel bad.  It's reasonable to think that I would feel bad because someone I love feels bad.  But then my desire to do something about it has more to do with me than with my loved one.  I want my sister to stop feeling bad so I can stop feeling bad.  That's about me, not her.  And even if I do solve this problem for her, she'll come up with another one, and another one after that.  And I'm going to keep feeling bad with her until she stops feeling bad (never, apparently).

So, what to do? More on that later.