Written by: Kevin Cann
Obesity has a strong link to mental illness, and mental illness has a strong link to obesity. An epidemiological study performed by Becker showed that obese women had the highest rate of mental disorders overall (Becker, 2001). People with mental disorders have increased risk for becoming obese. What do obesity and mental disorders have in common? The answer is deficiencies in neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters can be defined as hormones for the brain. They are chemical messengers that send signals from the neuron to the synapse of another cell. Optimal health requires all of these neurotransmitters to be in balance. When functioning properly, our body assures this. We have a checks and balances system with the neurotransmitters. For example, if catecholamines are released, our body will also release serotonin and GABA to counter it. Through poor diet, stress, and genetics this system can become out of whack and wreak havoc on our health.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, but they are also the precursors for our neurotransmitters. If we are not consuming adequate amounts of amino acids in our diet it can lead to neurotransmitter deficiencies. Also, if we have poor digestion we will not breakdown all the protein into its usable amino acids. Low stomach acid is a common digestive problem I run across in my practice, and stomach acid is necessary for the breakdown of protein.
Stress can lead to depletion of neurotransmitters. For one, stress raises insulin, blood pressure, and increases oxidative damage. All of these cause damage to neurons. Also, during stress we release catecholamines to free up glucose into the bloodstream. In response to the release of catecholamines we then release serotonin and GABA to counter it. Remember that checks and balances system? Just like with insulin and leptin, too much serotonin and GABA and our cells will become desensitized to them. This throws our balance of neurotransmitters off as well and it can also leave us deficient in serotonin. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. This also causes the catecholamines to dominate and this can lead to hyperactivity (ADHD), cause anxiety, and also cause damage to neurotransmitter receptors (Killeen, 2010).
Nutrient deficiencies are another cause of neurotransmitter deficiencies. Amino acids are the precursors, but they require other nutrients to convert the amino acids into the neurotransmitters. For example, tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin. In order for tryptophan to be converted to serotonin we need adequate amounts of B6, B12, folate, and zinc (Killeen, 2010). Zinc tends to have a high amount of deficiencies in our population as well.
Hypoglycemia is another cause of neurotransmitter deficiency. This primarily has to do with a lack of energy to fuel the brain and create them. Eating too many carbohydrates can also interfere with the conversion of amino acids into neurotransmitters (Plesman, 2010). One reason is the carb choices we are choosing are highly processed and require increased amounts of magnesium for us to digest them. Many people are already deficient in magnesium, further their deficiency by food choices, and magnesium is required to convert phenylalanine into noradrenaline. This can lead to decreased amounts of noradrenaline which can cause diminished energy and lack of motivation. Both of which we need to exercise, prepare meals, etc. How does this all tie into obesity?
New research is leaning towards obesity being caused by foods eliciting a strong response from our reward system. This works the same way as drug and alcohol addiction. Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt elicit a response from our neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters make us feel good and are responsible for our cravings. Some of them even have a calming effect on us by down-regulating the HPA axis. Eating high amounts of these foods can cause us to become desensitized to the neurotransmitters and throw our balance off leading to a number of issues and also leading to us becoming addicted to these foods.
The Alliance for Addiction Solutions is a non-profit group of doctors and nutritional therapists that use nutritional therapy and amino acid support to treat addiction. They have a belief that addiction is a form of self-medication. They believe that our neurotransmitter deficiencies lead us towards certain drugs that will balance us out and make us feel “normal.” Blum and colleagues hypothesize that glucose cravings and obesity are due to a lack of dopamine receptors in the brain. Due to this deficiency the person will seek out glucose to increase dopamine (Blum, 2006). Pam Killeen explains this same concept for drug choice and addiction in her book Addiction: The Hidden Epidemic.
The biggest obstacle my patients face when beginning a paleo diet is the ability to stay away from those addicting foods, a relapse if you will. What if we treat the obese patients the same way as an addict? Opioid antagonists have shown the ability to help people lose weight in studies. Also, practitioners such as Julia Ross have successfully treated addiction with diet and amino acid therapy for decades. Maybe neurotransmitter deficiencies should be addressed from the start when instituting a weight loss diet via amino acid therapy. This would help curb cravings and normalize the balance of neurotransmitters. I believe this would increase the success rate of people taking on a paleo/Weston A Price diet as well stabilizing mood in a population that tends to be unstable.
Killeen, Pam (2010). Addiction: The Hidden Epidemic. Kindle Edition
Becker, ES (2001). Obesity and mental illness in a representative sample of young women. UK Pubmed.
Blum, Kenneth (2006). Reward deficiency syndrome in obesity: A preliminary cross-sectional trial with a genotrim variant. Advances in Therapy.
Plesman, Jurriaan (2010). Interview with Pam Killeen in Addiction: The Hidden Epidemic.
Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.