Mood, stress drive people towards binging episodes, can cause food addiction: Expert

“Mood and stress have been found to be the prime factors associated with change in eating patterns, which drive people towards overeating, binging episodes and craving highly palatable foods forming the basis of food addiction,” observed Dr Jitendra Kumar Sinha from the Department of Neuroscience at Amity university on a discussion on food addiction at the International Brain Research Organisation – Asia/Pacific Regional Committee hosted by Panjab University.

How does food addiction begin?

While everyone needs to eat to replenish their energy stores, people feel hungry even after they are full because the food may “taste so good,” which leads overweight or obesity, said Sinha.

Obesity reflects an imbalance between energy intake and its expenditure said Dr Sinha, adding that it can also be connected with neurobiology. “Obesity is also a risk factor for several neurobiological disorders including dementia, hypertension, sleep disorders. Obesity can be initiated by pathological conditions of brain and can also be mediated by learned behaviour and may therefore be better understood by disciplines concerned with cognition and behaviour,” he noted.

Explaining the technicality of the process of hunger, he said that people generally feel hungry when nutrient-depletion signals strongly activate neural mechanisms. Potential foods in environment are then perceived through visual, olfactory and auditory signals. And when food reaches the stomach, the GI tract starts sending signals to brain about not just quantitative but also the qualitative aspects of food. That is how re-flux systems begin and people vomit excess food or poisonous substances that they may eat.

“An area of the brain called Hypothalmus plays a crucial role in the process of food addiction. When mutations to MC4R gene– which is a key regulator of energy homeostasis, food intake and body weight– take place, they become responsible for genetic cause of inherited obesity,” said Sinha.

But when addiction is involved, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain– which consists of memory and reward regions has been seen to be more involved than the Hypothalamus. “What essentially happens is, while in a normal person, the body only tells them to eat when energy levels are down, food addicts are told to eat on and on which leads to binging. Craving is essentially driven by food addiction,” explained Sinha.

Key to addiction is craving

Dr Sinha also stressed on the importance of understanding the habit-loop cycle of weight gain and obesity while talking about food addiction. “We know habits are formed through different cues like positive, neutral, and negative and these cues stimulate the routine of a person. Here, the brain basically converts a sequence of actions into automatic routine,” he said

In this situation, food works as a reward to the brain. “Recorded as rewards, our brain remembers what they feel like and seek it out,” stated Dr Sinha, adding that key to habit formation then becomes craving.

Stress main cause of food addiction

While Sinha pointed out three reasons for food addiction including genetic diseases, the main and most commonly applicable in today’s word is stress.

After periods of prolonged and uncontrollable stress, the Hypothalamus axis becomes deregulated which leads to an increased intake of highly palatable food, he said.

The pleasurable experience of eating food can be equated with the pleasure of coitus, noted the professor saying, “Just as humans feel rewarded after fulfilling the need for furthering their species, the reward points from high-fat, high-carb foods also reinforce eating behaviour.”

Both activities trigger a release of dopamine, which acts like a hit giving loads of happy feelings to the brain.

Comparison with drug abuse

Drugs and food these days are giving same kind of hit to people. Refined foods do resemble the industrialisation of addictive drugs that yielded cocaine from cocoa and produce powerful changes in brain reward circuitry, noted Sinha.
But food unlike drugs is essential and thus, the addictive component of food has not yet been clearly defined.

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