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.
Flying Pig says
This is an interesting article. Would you include eye diseases like glaucoma and intraocular hypertension in this as well? I was diagnosed with intraocular hypertension when I was 25 years old, and it doesn’t run in the family, no African descent, so the only thing I can think of is years of a poor diet (fast food vegetarian) and lifestyle. I am now paleo and hope I will never develop actual glaucoma (though obviously I go for check-ups, but doctors don’t seem interested in any kind of holistic approach).
Jonathan Swaringen says
I highly recommend Jack Kruse’s blog he also has tons of good health information there. I’ve seen forum members talk of improved vision eating on the Epi-Paleo template which basically means more seafood.
There are tons of good blog posts I recommend reading them all as they are all linked in some way but you can start with
First blog is an introduction. The rest is a variety of topics. Almost all the chronic conditions are mentioned and many focused on in several blogs including osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc.. etc….
Hmm, what to say about Kruse…
It’s a love-hate relationship. Initially, when I was just getting into the Paleo movement, I stumbled across his blog, loved it, and devoured all of the posts. He is very smart and has great detail about a variety of topics. On the other hand, his stream-of-consciousness posts can sometimes get ahead of him. He does not often cite any references beyond wikipedia, and while many times he is right (the post you linked about the Epi-Paleo Rx is one of his good ones), there are other times where he makes unsubstantiated claims. Now, his claims are unlikely to hurt anyone, but his (addictive) enthusiasm can mislead people into thinking that cold is some kind of miracle cure for diabetes/muscle recovery etc, but he ignores some evidence like “hey, heat does cool things too…”
He makes some amazing connections, however, which I think merit further research. I would definitely take the recommendations with a large grain of salt, but if you find anything particularly interesting do a google-scholar search for the real research behind it to find out whether he actually read a biochemistry mechanism about it or not (the brain gut series seems to be pretty solid so far, diet seems very similar to GAPS and Terry Wahl’s MS-curing diet, but I think the GAPS diet is more precise than Wahl’s or Kruse’s).
For example, my issues: Cold thermogenesis. BAT is not that big of a deal, because it comprises a very small portion of fat in humans, whether or not you “convert” some WAT to BAT with cold. Cold making you live longer by extending telomeres: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-tall-tail-of-telomeres/#axzz26qMsxzhz
Also, his explanation of how membranes change their PUFA content is extremely lacking (and thus his urging of seasonal eating based on length of light is similarly inadequate). I could go on a bit, but I’m tired haha. Good luck
very interesting indeed! i incline to the “nutritional-deficiency hypothesis” of obesity and disease myself, but hadn’t approached the subject from the neuronal point of view before….
I heard that fasting induces an increase in catecholamines – perhaps that can be used to jump start a paleo diet and curb cravings. But anyway, the general population would probably benefit from an occasional fast, despite vast nutritional deficiencies (magnesium, zinc etc..), maybe it wouldn’t make them so dumb. Great work Kevin.
How long would it take to recover from the types of neurotransmitter deficiencies described in this article?
Is it possible for some changes to be permanent?
Kevin Cann says
With amino acids, changes can be seen in just a couple of minutes
Yes, changes can be seen in a couple of minutes, but you will need to take the proper amino acids for weeks to months to get your brain balanced. You also need to correct your diet to get lasting effects.
George S says
I agree! One of the most popular obstacles is will power. Staying away from foods that are high in calories and bad for us is difficult. Mostly because they are all around us. Everywhere we go we find these foods. There is a fast-food joint on every corner and the selection of healthy foods is slim. However, staying tough and sticking with your diet program will pay off in the end. Do some research and find healthy food alternatives. They are out there. This site is a good source of information. I also write for a site called Free Diet Source- They have a lot of interesting posts about healthy eating as well.
Very interesting post! It would certainly explain why some people (myself included) have a much harder time resisting certain kinds of food than other people whose neurotransmitter system is working properly. It will be interesting to see where this research leads.
Skinny Laura says
I really appreciate this blog. Although I do not suffer from mental illness, I do have epilepsy which also affects the neurotransmitters. I have been struggling with being underweight or overweight all of my life and it is hard to understand exactly why. Thanks for the info and I will be sure to eat carbs in moderation (as usual per my neurologist).
I’d also like to see some discussion about leaky gut and its role in serotonin deficiency. If the gut does indeed produce most of the body’s serotonin, and if a compromised gut lining reduces serotonin production, there are definitely further implications with regards to obesity and depression. 🙂