The Biology of Cravings

Published on Wednesday, 20 February 2013 20:41

by Christina Santini, Certified Nutritionist specializing in Biochemistry

How To Fix The Biology of Cravings - once and for all!

One of the most typical issues I deal with in my work as a medical nutritionist, is helping clients break addictive behaviors around foods - especially high-carb foods. Cravings and out-of-control eating is always, always linked to brain chemistry imbalances, along with a series of other potential triggers that vary depending on genetic blueprint.

If you fail to recognize the underlying biochemistry imbalances, then you will struggle with this for the rest of your life. One thing I can promise you, is that if left untreated, it will only get worse. That is why 95% of all diets fail - they are not balancing your brain- and biochemistry, rather they are worsening the existing biochemistry problem that caused you to gain weight in the first place! Whether it be an imbalance linked to low metabolic rate (your dopaminergic neurotransmitter system), or it be one associated with addictive and binge behavior patters (your serotonergic neurotransmitter system).

Brain chemistry imbalances and triggers are highly individual and can be pin-pointed according to your genotype via specific lab tests, of which I’ll take you through the most relevant to detect what is causing your cravings. Keep in mind, cravings may be due to an isolated factor or multiple imbalances/allergies, and each one needs to be addressed, before they completely vanish. But vanish they will, once you focus on the cause - which is an imbalanced biology, rather than doing the same thing over and over again. White-knuckling it on one fad diet or another, yet you continue to expect a different outcome. Maybe this time, maybe Monday - it is wishful thinking and you know it.

So let’s go over the most common triggers associated with cravings, and why that cookie jar is oh-so appealing in the late hours.

Food Allergies

Make sure to get tested for milk and wheat as both produce an opioid like response due to their contents of casomorphines and gliadorphines, respectively. Both of which are highly addictive, and can offset cravings for carbs later big time for those sensitive to that. The component in milk that trigger the opioid like response is casein a1 - not the type found in goat’s milk nor in the original breed of cows, Guernsey.

However, unless you reside in some fancy place in California or New York, where access to specialty dairy products is readily available, then the regular cow’s milk you get at your local supermarket will be from cows crossbred that produce casein a1. Also worth mentioning, is the fact that casein a1 has been linked to colic in infants. When the mother drinks regular cow’s milk during pregnancy and breast-feeding, casein a1 carries over into the breast milk - causing indigestion, pain and - as many mothers can remember through the haze of sleepless nights - endless hours of crying spells due to colic.

Vitamin Deficiencies

Especially Vitamin D deficiency - many chemicals in skin care actually prevent your skin from utilizing the sunlight to produce the vital vitamin D. Another issue is your body-fat percentage. Too much body-fat drastically lowers your body’s ability to produce vitamin D. The answer, however, is NOT a low-fat diet. Your body requires healthy levels of specific dietary saturated fats that are of medium-chain length (such as those found in coconut oil) along with cholesterol to produce hormones such as vitamin D (the irony of calling a hormone a vitamin - I know, it’s somewhat confusing, my apologies).

B12/Folate has also been found to be associated with low levels of impulse control. Studies that have focused on subjects suffering with severe cases of out-of-control eating and purging, also know as Bulimia Nervosa, found significant drop in reported binging behaviors after supplementing with a combination of zinc, magnesium, B12/folate, niacin + tryptophan. This supplemental approach contains the key building blocks and co-factor nutrients that will directly target a serotonin-related brain chemistry deficiency and help calm an overexcited nervous system..

Mineral Deficiencies + Toxicity

Zinc deficiency is closely related to copper toxicity. This imbalance is well documented since the 1980s to be one of the most important in normalizing appetite along with a whole range of other health issues. It is more widespread than you may think, especially during this time, where many of us have completely cut out any and all sources of zinc from our diet in order to eat “healthy”. Yet cutting out the main zinc sources, such as red meat (grass-fed), egg yolks, and to a lesser degree pumpkin and sesame seeds (only issue with focusing overly on seeds as a good source of nutrients is that they are not eaten in a sufficient quantity to actually supply us with noticeable amounts of nutrients, aside from their high concentration per ounce of unsaturated fats), we ironically only aggravate just about every health issue.

Hormones, brain chemistry - every cell in your body - requires zinc for optimal functioning. And if you are cutting out on above dietary sources, you are not getting any.

You can get a hair analysis done to test your zinc and copper levels - it’s so very important, and yet no ordinary physician visit will ever look into this key aspect of heath.

Brain Chemistry + Amino Acids

Did you know that the reason why you crave carbs is linked to an imbalance in your brain chemistry? And that is why you can’t ever rely on willpower to achieve that six-pack, that you so desperately long for now with bikini season just a heartbeat away.

Willpower is fragile and changes with the wind. Humans are hedonistic creatures, and in the end we will do what makes us feel good. What feels good is anything that puts our brain into that state of bliss or euphoria. Different foods and macronutrient percentages will alter your brain differently and target uniquely different neurotransmitters. That is why we crave different comfort foods and prefer things that will target those neurotransmitters that we specifically are low in.

What’s on your plate reveals a whole lot about how your brain is wired. A carb binge will release a cascade of serotonin - putting you into a blissful state of relaxation, although shortly followed by a mind-blowing crash.

The vicious craving/withdrawal cycle has begun.

It is imperative to understand that specific nutrients and dietary strategies has an almost immediate impact on especially your serotonergic neurotransmitter system, and that you will be sensitive to any dietary regime with a negative effect - this includes one that is high protein, such as Atkins’ or a very high carb dietary regime, such as the popular raw vegan.

A high protein diet contains an abundance of competing aminos. The brain-blood barrier which will always favor the smaller aminos over the large and bulky tryptophan - the building block of serotonin - and thus tryptophan is never converted into serotonin. A vegan diet simply does not contain sufficient amount of tryptophan to restore an imbalanced serotonergic neurotransmitter system. That’s also why both diets offset cravings big time for those low in serotonin - these dietary regimes may be ideal for certain health issues, but as with everything: no size fits all!

Cravings is a sign of imbalance - it is not a sign of moral weakness nor is it something that you should be fighting for the rest of your life. It is a wake-up call for you to take care of yourself and address whatever deficits and/or sensitivities you have going on.

You will also want to avoid serotonin drainers such as aspartame (diet soda!), coffee and anything that produces excess cortisol (long-distance running/ stress etc.). Yes, your general lifestyle may need an overhaul as well: meditation and yoga are your friends in this regard - both of which proven to significantly boost serotonin and lower cortisol levels over time!

Eat, Breathe + Love,

Christina Santini



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Meet Christina Santini: Nutrition Doctor. Yogi. Writer. Gypsy + Domestic Goddess. Order depends on day.

Christina Santini is passionate about closing the gap between who you are and who you want to be - body, mind & soul.

Christina Santini has worked in New York, Asia and Europe specializing in nutrigenomics in the fields of anti-aging and addiction medicine, along with incorporating concepts of Chinese Energy + Ayurvedic medicine. Christina Santini has private practice in Los Angeles as well as an online health practice offering online metabolic typing, lab testing, life coaching, medicinal cooking classes, health/yoga retreats + corporate wellness.

What’s her cred?

-  Certified Nutritionist specializing in Biochemistry
-  Certified Naam Yoga & Meditation Teache
-  10+ Years working with natural medicine, brain chemistry, coaching & nutrigenomics

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