Craving or Addiction?

“Love and fear are the two most important emotional influences in our lives. One or the other motivates much of what we feel, think, and do every day”.-Jeane Segal Phd.

People who find it hard to resist chocolate or other high fat or sugary foods often blame their challenge on being addicted to their specific fix.

Addiction however, is characterised by an uncontrolled compulsion to use a substance, and the existence of withdrawal symptoms (such as anxiety and irritability) when access to the substance is prevented. Addictive behaviour, as displayed by co-dependent relationships, eating disorders, and people who are addicted to gambling, sex, pornography, work or anger outbursts, are all driven by the need to self-medicate painful emotions as well as unpleasant physical experiences. While most of us will agree that even though we feel better for a while after eating our chocolate (before the guilt sets in), we won’t really have withdrawal symptoms when we are prevented from eating it.

The term “food craving” is often more appropriate than “food addiction”.  A craving is "an intense desire to consume a particular food or food type that is difficult to resist." Some research suggests that cravings are a kind of survival mechanism which kicks in when blood sugar levels drop or when there is not enough serotonin in the brain.

Cravings, caused by restricted dieting and the skipping of meals, can often be blamed on lower blood sugar and serotonin levels and can be resolved by eating balanced meals which includes all the food groups and by splitting your meals over the entire day.

Resolving ongoing low levels of serotonin may require a more holistic approach. Serotonin is a feel-good brain chemical which helps to control appetite and cravings, enhances calmness, improves moods, and lessens feelings of depression. The need for serotonin increases when you are feeling stressed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that “desserts” is the word stressed spelt backwards!

Fortunately there are a number of actions we can take that may help to increase feel-good hormones and decrease stress hormones and, as a result, the chaotic eating caused by cravings.

Oxytocin is a bonding hormone associated with feeling loved, which is present at birth. It has a calming, relaxing effect and reduces stress by counteracting stress hormones. According to Dr. J Segal writer of “Feeling Loved”, oxytocin is triggered by nonverbal cues (the look, the touch, the tone of voice or the expression) of others who value and respect you. Slowing down and living more soulfully can enable us to notice and give nonverbal messages of care to each other. Never underestimate the benefits of a hug or a gentle touch when feeling stressed. Even hugging or stroking a pet can increase this essential anti-stress hormone and decrease low serotonin related cravings.

Serotonin levels could also be improved by including essential fats in your diet, by spending time outside in the sun and by regular, enjoyable exercise.

Exercise increases a person's feeling of wellbeing by raising the levels of endorphins, the bodies natural opiates. Exercise lowers and normalizes the stress hormone cortisol, and also lowers the arousal hormone dopamine and the hormone responsible for negative feelings, norephrine. Thirty minutes a day is more than enough to enjoy  the benefits of exercise.

Also remember that being thirsty could be confused with craving for something. Next time you reach for a chocolate, try to drink a glass of water first.

So to deal with your cravings, love more, fear less. Walk more, sit less. Eat healthy and drink more water.  Sometimes it is hard to overcome challenges on your own. If you have emotional difficulties which make it hard for you to manage cravings or an addiction is indicated, be wise and get help.

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