Have you ever had an allergy to something? Most of us have, and the reaction can range from mild to severe. We usually try to stay away from things we are allergic to. But did you know that your body often craves the very thing it is allergic to, and actually draws you towards it?
Craving a food to which we are allergic is apparently a fairly common occurrence in nutrition, and one that is documented by scientific research. According to studies, we become addicted to foods as a way of adapting to our allergic reaction to them.
Addiction is a chemical process, and this is a clear example of how our body takes one chemical reaction (the allergy) and responds to it by creating another chemical reaction (the addiction). Once the addiction is in place, then we start craving the substance (in this case the allergen) in order to avoid going through withdrawal symptoms. A cycle is set up so we keep exposing ourselves to the thing that makes us sick. It’s crazy, but true.
Researchers have found that most addictive people have problems processing sugar and carbohydrates and are very protein deficient. In some treatments people are taught how to recognize and modulate their feelings by paying attention to the foods they eat.
Certain foods can help produce serotonin. Carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates likes sugars, can change our mood from boo-hoo to oh-well for about an hour or two. That’s why we like candy or ice cream when we are feeling sorry for ourselves.
When you pair carbohydrates with proteins it actually restricts the production of serotonin. That is probably why addictive people are protein deficient. They instinctively know that it doesn’t help make them feel good.
Healthy foods that are known to increase serotonin levels include walnuts, many mushrooms, pineapple, banana, kiwi, plums, and tomatoes. Notice how many of these are tropical foods, and you know how pleasant the Pacific Islanders are. Maybe their natural food source wired them for more happiness than those of us from European descent.
Other researchers have shown that when we have high levels of the hormone cortisol because of too much stress, we tend to crave high energy foods like fats and sugars. These will cause an increase in abdominal fat which blunts our feelings of stress. There is something in the fat cells, researchers believe, that stops us from feeling stressed out.
It is fairly common knowledge that stress produces a ring of fat around the abdomen. I thought it was because the adrenal glands, which produce the cortisol, are located above the kidneys, which is right around the abdominal section. There is more cortisol around the mid-section than anywhere else.
I always thought the fat was caused by the cortisol. But this study suggests that the fat is a defense mechanism and an attempt to buffer the cortisol. This suggests that if you got rid of the belly fat but didn’t control the cortisol levels, you would actually feel worse without the fat than with it.
I am a believer in the cortisol effect on body shape. When I got rid of some of my stress I lost a lot of belly fat without even trying. I was glad to be done with it, but looking back now I feel a bit different about my belly because maybe it was there to protect me.
You’ve heard the saying “fat people are always such happy people.” Well maybe they are happy because their fat dulls the effects of stress-induced depression. Maybe there is a very sound biological reason for carrying some fat on us. If we want to survive in this stressed out world, it makes more sense to be a little fat than to be fashionably slim. Slim doesn’t give you any cushion against the stress of the world. A little chubby seems like it could be the perfect place to be.
But I digress. What I want to talk about is how we sometimes crave the very thing we are allergic to. A cycle is set up:
allergic reaction –> addiction –> craving –> exposure –>
allergic reaction –> addiction, etc.
To an outsider this cycle would look like very poor decision making. Why would someone keep going back to something that makes them feel bad? Well, because our chemicals tell us to.
I am increasingly in wonder at how much of what I call “me” is actually controlled by the chemical processes that my subconscious controls. I am beginning to understand why so many people, including me, do things that are contrary to their well-being. We are all a bunch of addicts, and we sometimes crave the very thing that will undermine our well-being.
Some of us are allergic to stress, and yet we crave it and keep finding it.
Some of us are allergic to attention, and yet we set ourselves up to be in the spotlight.
Some of us are allergic to fear, and we find ways to be afraid over and over.
We are all just a bunch of addicts trying to cope with our addictions. It helps me see people (and myself) in a more sympathetic light when I recognize that destructive behaviors are really just destructive chemical patterns.
It is fascinating that changing our diets has the potential to change these emotional addictions. Food is a direct link to our chemistry. It gets broken down in our stomach and gut into molecules which then react with other molecules to produce chemical reactions. Changing the molecules in our body will change the chemical reactions and maybe break the cycle of craving what is bad for us.
It is kind of ironic that I would come to this conclusion that one of the most direct routes of changing our body (and brain) chemistry is through food, because I have had a real aversion issue with food for several years. I don’t get much enjoyment out of food on a daily basis, and I find it a nuisance kind of chore to have to feed myself. Improving my nutrition has been at the top of my list for some time.
In a very real sense, food is medicine. The right kind of food in the right amounts and the right frequency is the key to feeling good. Everybody needs something different, I suppose, because everybody has a different chemistry that their brain is creating. That’s why one diet will never work for everyone trying to lose weight. There will always be as many ways to address the problem as there are people who have a problem.
When you get down to the core of what we are as biological systems, chemistry becomes King. That’s why pharmaceutical companies have grown so fast and gotten so big. Scientists get it that chemistry is everything, so they try to alter it with drugs. Sometimes they work very well. Sometimes they have really bad consequences.
I don’t think food alone can cure the diseases we face, but they are an influence. If we only relied on food to keep us healthy we would probably have a lifespan of about 40 years, like in the old days. In order to live 80 years in this stress filled world, we need some help. Drugs have given us many more years than our ancestors enjoyed. But I think most nutritionists would agree that we wouldn’t need so many drugs if we just fed our body with better food.
Ultimately, to break the allergy-addiction cycle a person has to first become aware that the cycle exists, and then consciously try to break the cycle in whatever manner works. Sometimes that will mean drugs; sometimes that will mean determined thought.
It is important that we have this discussion about craving the very thing we are allergic to. In the discussions I want to have in the coming days I will be referring to one example of this — being allergic to attention. In order to explain what I will be saying, I want you to understand what I mean when I say allergic to attention. It is the allergy-addiction cycle at work.
In some people you may find a pattern where they do things to attract attention to themselves, but actually are uncomfortable when a lot of attention is put on them. They are allergic to the stress of people putting a lot of attention on them (through expectations, obligations, or praise) but they act in ways that draw attention to themselves.
This allergy-addiction pattern is very interesting to me. It is a cause-and-effect pattern that is scientifically proven, and I want to see if it applies to emotional patterns as well. I think it does.
I think it is part of the Geography of Life. It adds one more piece to our understanding of why some people (including me) behave the way we do.