In today's world we are bombarded with supplements. The supplement industry generates over 60 billion dollars a year (1) . Yes, you read that correctly, 60 billion ! So obviously America should be in good health, right? I mean if we are spending more than 60 billion dollars a year you would think that America as a whole would be healthier. You would think that the advent of the internet would have lowered obesity rates because let's face it, your average person in 2016 is much more aware than your average person from the 1960s. But here is the thing, the average American in 2016 is 24 lbs heavier than the average American from 1960.
So what gives? How on Earth could we be getting "smarter" but heavier? Well, people may be more knowledgeable today, however, that knowledge has come at a price. When we look at the human mind and body it evolved over millions of years without modern technology. In the last 100 years technology has advanced exponentially, but evolution hasn't. It moves very slow and 100 years in the eyes of evolution is a blip on its timeline. Unfortunately, this doesn't bode well for our health because modern technology, including food, takes advantage of these innate desires. There is a reason you can eat a whole pie of pizza and stay up all night watching Netflix. And it isn't your fault. We are designed to survive, meaning our bodies are designed to eat as much food as possible because at one point our ancestor didn't know when it would be their last meal. Most likely they would eat as much as possible before exploring new land and throughout that exploration they might run out of food and rely on stored energy i.e fasting. Now this article isn't about fasting, we will cover that another time, but it is important to understand that feast and famine was encoded into our DNA. Feasting is apart of us and it is very hard to turn off, but with proper training anything is possible. The key to learning how to turn off this feasting mechanism is through proper education and implementation. Yes, you can curb your appetite with proper education, but you must implement it or it is a waste of your time. Now in order to fully understand the desire to eat we have to get a bit nerdy, so strap in!
Have you ever wondered why coffee, specifically caffeine, makes us feel so good? Well when you drink coffee or an energy drink you are consuming a drug. That drug, the most used drug in the world is caffeine. When you ingest caffeine it increases your heart rate, blood pressure and wakefulness, hence why it is a stimulant. It is stimulating your mind and body. In addition, it also activates the neurotransmitter dopamine due to its blocking of adenosine. You see your body uses a thing called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to move all your muscles, it is the energy currency for the body. When your body uses ATP, it eventually breaks down and ends up as adenosine. As adenosine builds up in the brain, you become more tired because that build up of adenosine lets your brain know that you have used plenty of energy and it is time for you to sleep and recover. However, caffeine blocks this mechanism and instead produces dopamine.
Dopamine is responsible for curiosity, anticipation, motivation and wanting (2). This is why people become addicted to caffeine because it makes you curious, it makes you want more of that stimulus and the thought of having something tends to lead to pleasure. Also, most drugs (alcohol) operate on this mechanism. This is why people tend to have riskier behavior when they go out because the alcohol makes them more curious! But these drugs aren't the only thing that produce dopamine. Anything that is associated with anticipation (gambling) will produce dopamine, even the preparing of your food. This is why the thought of eating food can be better than actually eating the food. I am sure we all have experienced this before, at least I have. There have been numerous times where I become ecstatic at the thought of ordering food, but rarely does the food live up to its expectations that I conjured up in my head. The reason I felt this way was because of dopamine. The anticipation of the food triggered the excitement, not the actually food. But most people believe are stuck believing that the food is what causes the happiness, when in reality it isn't. Most of the time the food will actually leave you wanting more. Since we live in a time where food is readily available, this desire is easy to satisfy. You either order more food or you raid your kitchen. And it isn't our fault, our ancestors would have done the same thing due to our curiosity craving. That curiosity craving is what kept us alive and allowed us to survive for the last 200,000 years. In order to get us to find food we had to become motivated. So over the last 200,000 years of evolution the pleasure from anticipation and curiosity became apart of us. This is why we associate pleasure with food. And yes, we do receive pleasure from consuming food when we are hungry. However, in today's world most of us aren't starving. For the sake of the article, I am referring to overeating, the inability to stop eating even when you know you are full. In this case, I think it is important to realize that the pleasure isn't coming from the food, rather it is coming from the idea of consuming the food or from boredom. Therefore, instead of satisfying our curiosity with food, we should opt to satisfy the novelty with books, music, podcasts and of course exercise.
By far exercise is the most important one out of the four mentioned above due to its effects on serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for feeling content, obsession, and appetite. Most of the serotonin is produced in the gut, in fact, around 80-90% of it is(3). The latest research suggests that serotonin and dopamine share a reciprocal interaction meaning they can exhibit the same function or act in a back and forth manner. To put simply, you can express low levels of dopamine and low levels of serotonin. However, you can also express high levels of dopamine and low levels serotonin.(4).
The important thing to realize is that your genetics play a crucial role in neurotransmitter function (read more here) . For example, I suffer from a serotonin deficiency and am dopamine dominant. The high levels of dopamine make me want more and crave more, hence my love for knowledge and why I am so curious. But the low serotonin levels make me susceptible to addiction, obsession and impatience. It forces me to crave novelty and spontaneity. But we always must take science with a grain of salt because this research is in its infancy and we still don't fully understand the serotonin-dopamine relationship. Nevertheless, we do understand that exercise has a huge impact on serotonin levels due to its effect on increased levels of tryptophan in the brain (5) . We have all heard of tryptophan, most of us can recall it being said around thanksgiving time. The old wives tale is that the tryptophan in the turkey will cause you to be drowsy and eventually fall asleep. Like most wives tales, this is mostly incorrect. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and is the precursor to serotonin. An essential amino acid means that your body cannot create it; it needs it from an external source, i.e, turkey. Unfortunately, the tryptophan in the turkey doesn't convert into serotonin because of the other amino acid profiles (to learn more click here ). But this where exercise comes in to save the day! During exercise the body uses branch chain amino acids (protein) to help repair muscle damage which allows tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier into the brain and create serotonin, which increases serotonin levels and leaves you smiling. Hooray for exercise!
As stated above, exercise is one of the best ways to increase serotonin levels naturally. This is important in weight loss because when your serotonin levels increase, your novelty seeking decreases. When novelty decreases, you are less likely to eat unhealthy foods (6). Most people don't realize it, but, our genes play a huge role in our willpower and discipline. Serotonin is not the only mechanism at work. The human body is extremely complex and there are numerous hormones, endorphins, and neurotransmitters at work that reduce our cravings and leave us with a smile on our face. But for now the blog will focus on serotonin and its effects on diabetes.
At the beginning of this post I talked about the obesity epidemic and how we have gained an average of 24 pounds since the 1960s. This obesity epidemic is associated with a diabetic epidemic, where 1.4 million people are diagnosed with diabetes each year (7). There are two types of diabetes, type I and type II. Put simply, type I diabetes can't be cured because the body's pancreas has lost the ability to produce insulin and this is why diabetics are given insulin. On the other hand, type II diabetes is a condition where the body loses it ability to use insulin because of poor diet and health. Luckily, this condition is reversible and can be easily managed. And in my personal opinion , I believe that serotonin deficiency is the main culprit in our diabetic epidemic. You see, serotonin is one of the main regulators of insulin. Insulin is hormone that is made in the beta cells of the pancreases that controls how high your body's blood glucose (sugar) levels are. When you eat a meal high in glucose (sugar) the pancreas secretes insulin to drive the glucose into the cell. And if you do this too frequently without exercise and sleep then eventually you will become insulin resistant and develop diabetes. However, I think serotonin deficiency is the main reason for insulin resistance (diabetes) because serotonin actually controls insulin release! (8). Most people believe that serotonin is only stored in the brain and don't realize that it controls insulin regulation. This concept was proved in the study done on mice (8)...
As you can see from the quote above, serotonin plays a crucial role in regulating insulin and blood glucose levels. The reason we have an obesity and diabetes epidemic is not due to the release of too much insulin, rather it is due to an imbalance and deficiency of certain neurotransmitters. Most Americans have terrible diets that are too high in cheap proteins and don't sleep or exercise enough. A diet high in cheap protein (fast/ processed food) paired with lack of sleep and lack of exercise will lead to a deficiency in serotonin. This deficiency will lead to novelty seeking behaviors (i.e more unhealthy food) and eventually insulin resistance. Therefore, your goal should be to increase your serotonin levels to improve your insulin sensitivity (body's ability to use insulin) and to satisfy your cravings with books, exercise, and adventures instead of food.
* Use the guide below to increase your levels of serotonin.
How To Increase Serotonin Levels
- Reduce your BCAA (branch chain amino acids) supplementation
- Sleep 7 to 9 hours a night ( lack of sleep doesn't allow proper recovery of serotonin levels)
- Tryptophan or 5 HTP Supplementation