We are all addicts.
Our brain works by a system of rewards that are mediated by chemicals like endorphins, enkephalins and endocannabinoids. Pleasurable experiences "hit" these systems and provide a nice jolt — one we want to repeat. Thus, craving the experience of playing music, running or watching Dancing With the Stars (my personal yen) is a kind of addiction, especially if we feel withdrawal when we don't do these things or only feel "normal" when we do.
Because of the limits of our language, there is no descriptor for healthy and perfectly normal uses of the brain's reward system. The word "addict" is almost always used in the negative.
Nicholas Kristof writes about exercise addiction in the Oct. 30 edition of the New York Times. He references the work of David Linden at Johns Hopkins regarding pleasure-producing substances:
Professor Linden explains how drugs such as cocaine that light up these pleasure centers (there are several interconnected areas) actually rewire the brain to increase cravings. You can look at magnified photos of rat brains and tell which animal was given cocaine and which wasn’t.
Brain chemistry research also suggests that gambling and overeating can be addictive behaviors, analogous to narcotics addictions. In particular, foods with sugar or fat seem to trigger cravings that then rewire the brain’s pleasure circuitry to amplify that craving.
One study found that rats fed foods like cheesecake and chocolate showed differences in brain circuitry after just 40 days. The impact was that the pleasure centers of their brains were numbed, so they apparently needed to gobble even more cheesecake to generate the same satisfaction. Whether it’s sugar or heroin, the body steadily ratchets up the quantity necessary to provide the same high.
Kristof then asks, "Does this mean the end of free will?"
Far from it.
Such research gives us the knowledge and power to understand the things that control us, and to return the control where it belongs. Let's start with the premise that all pleasurable substances can lead to addictive behaviors. Let's also acknowledge that pleasure is an extremely important part of life and that lifestyles that severely limit enjoyment are likely doomed to fail.
In writing about his passion for running, Kristof says: "OK I confess. I might be an addict." But "addiction" to running is not a bad thing, and why should we look at it that way? Unless a runner is avoiding all human contact, blowing off his job, or running until he weighs 50 pounds, this kind of "addiction" is something that is basically positive. Perhaps we could call it a Positive Pleasure Experience.
It's also intuitively obvious that certain pleasure experiences are more intense and thus much more likely to cause destructive addiction. On this list are drugs, alcohol and almost certainly the "thrill" foods: sugar, starches and foods that combine fat with sugar.
Since we all need pleasure and judicious amounts of addiction, why not figure out how to control our doses? Why not also practice complete avoidance of those things that are dangerous and risky? We advocate this all the time for alcoholics and drug abusers, but are hesitant to come right out and tell overweight people to cut out the sugar, starch and thrill eating. Yet this approach works beautifully. Cut the drug and the cravings for it disappear. Play with the drug here and there and it will quickly reassert itself.
For those who do decide to cold turkey off S foods, the judicious use of alternate addictions is important. After I started to play tennis six years ago, I noticed that I began to get a little high every time I struck a good, powerful ball. I began to crave playing and began to feel intensely disappointed when games were cancelled (withdrawal). I had created a new Positive Pleasure Experience. When I was out on the court, the furthest thing from my mind was sugar and starch.
Can you create new PPEs? For certain! And you can be the one in control of this process. But you must be patient, because things only become pleasurable when you gain a measure of competence. This is why most dieters give up on exercise. They never get to the point where it starts to provide a "hit" to the pleasure centers.
PPEs can come from painting, writing, being in nature, meditating, conversing on meaningful topics and an endless host of other activities. Easier and more dangerous hits to the pleasure centers can be obtained through cooking, watching the Food Network, playing video games, signing up for world beer tours, and eating for fun.
It's your agenda and your life. Pick your drug.