Addictions and Cravings*
Many people find it hard to distinguish cravings for essential nutrients from cravings for addictive or harmful substances. The problem is that we think of our sense of taste as an inborn, preprogrammed mechanism over which we have little control. People say such things as, “I would stop drinking coffee, but I love the way it tastes.” It is as though we were going against the laws of nature to deny ourselves anything we crave or, for that matter, to sample a new food with an unfamiliar taste. Let us attempt to shed some light on the mechanisms by which beneficial and harmful substances affect our sense of taste.
The Sense of Taste
The word taste has a number of meanings. It can refer to the ability of the tongue to distinguish sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. In addition, it can include smell. Or, taste can abstractly refer to a discernment of beauty. Here we will be mainly concerned with the processing and perception of oral and nasal sense data.
Although true, the following statement may seem false: Our sense of taste is totally acquired. An infant is born without any sense of taste—only a sucking instinct and a tongue and other sense-data-collecting-and-processing apparatus. Also, the infant experiences discomfort whenever there is a direct physical threat to its well-being and experiences a sense of well-being in response to a beneficial physical stimulus. Not that an infant lacks a highly developed consciousness. It is just that this consciousness has not yet fully connected to the bodily sensory apparatus of smell, taste, and vision. This connection did not develop in the womb before birth as with hearing and touch.
When an infant instinctively sucks milk from the mother’s breast, this milk has a physiological effect because it contains nutrients such as sugar (lactose), protein, minerals (calcium, magnesium, etc.), and vitamins (A, B, C, etc.). Moreover, these nutrients affect the tongue and nasal passages, the sensory cells of which send nerve impulses to the brain. If, as in the example of the milk, the physiological effect is beneficial, that effect will be processed by the brain and experienced as a sense of well-being. As time goes on, the brain processes the effects on (1) the sensory cells of the tongue and nose; (2) the digestive tract, the muscles of which are stimulated to move and the glands of which are stimulated to secrete digestive enzymes; and (3) the entire organism (organs, muscles, glands, nervous system, etc.). These effects comprise the experience of drinking milk. Since the nutrients in milk are physiologically beneficial to the organism, and since this effect is experienced as a feeling of well-being, milk will have a correspondingly good taste.
Similarly, when we eat too much of a certain food, we later experience a revulsion for it. The interesting feature is that the revulsion seems to be for the food itself. This revulsion for the food rather than eating too much of it is because our awareness is not sufficiently developed to enable us to identify and isolate each consequent negative physiological effect. For example, our stomachs may have been over-stretched or a gland may have been called upon to uncomfortably over-secrete a digestive enzyme. How many of us are aware of our pancreas secreting insulin?
We are like concert-goers who have no musical training. Unable to distinguish the individual instruments, we merely experience music as sound. However, many trained musicians can so easily hear and recognize individual instruments that they can later write down the complete orchestral composition. With specialized training, it is even possible to hear the sound emitted by an individual instrument in terms of its harmonic structure. Similarly, you can become correspondingly attuned to and aware of your bodily processes such as your stomach emptying or your pancreas secreting insulin.
Consider the sense of taste in its most general meaning, namely discernment. Our sense of taste for art, music, literature, theater, or dance is developed over time. It requires repeatedly listening to and experiencing music while bringing to bear training, awareness, and analysis.
Analogously, our sense of taste for food can change and evolve. It can become educated, or it can become perverted. Our desires may become unbalanced if our awareness is solely focused on the immediate stimulating effects of food, sex, music, etc., without any thought for their long-term effects. We may crave such things as coffee, alcohol, chocolate, salt, spices, vinegar, and refined sugar.
There are two reasons we develop a craving for these and other substances: (1) They cause a short-lived “high” followed by physical distress or mental depression. (2) We tend to be more aware of the immediate effects of stimulating substances than their long-range ones.
Take coffee as an example. Our first experience with its stimulating effect produces a “high” that prompts us to overdraw our “energy account.” About five or six hours later, when the stimulating effect wears off, we become tired and depressed. Then, we employ more coffee (instead of sleep) to mask the “low.” The delayed, negative after-effects are not associated with drinking coffee hours ago. Thus, when energy dwindles, we simply experience the low—not as a feeling of tiredness i.Tiredness:and caffeine,;or depression—but as a craving for coffee. We experience this craving without any knowledge of its mechanism.
There are two main kinds of addictions: (1) addictions to poisonous substances and (2) addictions to excesses of nutrients.
1. The Physiological Mechanism of Addiction to a Poison.
Definition. A poison is a substance that has harmful physiological effects in the body in any amount..
When a poison is taken in, the body first attempts to expel it (sneezing, coughing, vomiting, diarrhea), dilute it (salivation), or float it away (secretion of mucous, tears). If these attempts are insufficient and the poison is absorbed into the blood stream, the appropriate organs—liver, skin, lungs, kidneys—work to eliminate the poison through metabolism, perspiration, respiration, and urinary excretion, respectively. However successful this elimination may be, some of the poison will have been absorbed into the cells and, while present, disrupts the cellular processes. To offset this disharmony, a series of compensating changes occur to produce a new chemical balance with the poison present. Thus, the affected cells can continue to function even though the poison is present. If the intake of the poison is terminated, increasing quantities of the poison will be removed from the blood by the eliminative organs, and the poisons will move from the cells, where their concentration is greatest, into the blood, where their concentration is lower. From here they are eliminated. The removal rate is proportional to the concentration of the poison in the blood. During the time that the poison is in the body, it may damage cells, and extra energy is required for the transport of materials to compensate for the chemical changes produced by its presence; for repair of cell damage (when such damage is reversible); and to make up for the resulting inefficiency due to impaired cell functioning.
If the same poison is repeatedly taken and each dose is absorbed, a condition develops in which the cells continually contain substantial concentration of the poison. The eliminative organs continue to remove the poison from the blood in proportion to its concentration. If, however, the regular dose is suddenly withdrawn, the concentration of the poison in the blood will tend to drop, and the cells, wherein the concentration of the poison is higher, will release the poison into the blood stream. Now the cells will become deficient in a chemical, which even though poisonous, was present in balance with other chemicals, and energy must be supplied to transport other chemicals to restore balance. If either the precise chemicals for replacement or the energy required for their transport is not available, the organism will be adversely affected and suffer distress. Since these effects of withdrawal can be stopped by another dose of the poison, there is a craving for it.
The following commonly used substances contain or are themselves addicting agents: coffee, alcoholic beverages, carbonated beverages, tobacco, salt, antacids, laxatives, and spices. In fact, even food substances to which you are allergic can be addictive.
2. The Physiological Mechanism of Addiction to an Excess of a Nutrient.
Definition. A nutrient is a substance that is required by the body for its well-being when taken in appropriate amounts.
Addiction to excess. When a normally beneficial substance is taken in excess, the body first attempts to store it in its present or in altered form. If storage is impossible, the substance must be excreted. When excesses of such substances are repeatedly taken, the glands or organs involved in handling the excess become increasingly capable of handling the larger volume of the substance in excess. That is, they become habituated to a strong functioning at regular intervals. When a smaller than usual amount of this substance is then taken, the organs are activated to their habituated degree and may excessively lower the level of that substance. Thus there is distress and a craving for the substance, and this craving is temporarily relieved by more of the substance.
It is to be noted that the addicted person experiences cravings and withdrawal symptoms as though they were natural, not pathological. This lack of recognition is because the effects of poisons on the addict mimic those of nutrients. In both cases, the need for the poison or nutrient, respectively, is vital to the survival and functioning of the cells.
For example, the craving for tobacco is experienced much like a natural and beneficial hunger for food. To the addict “But I like the taste” is as good a reason to take a poison as to take food. The reason for this deceptive experiencing is that poisons and excesses of nutrients to which we are addicted affect body cells in the following common manner: In both cases, our well-being depends upon consuming the substance in question. In the case of poison, the well-being is momentary despite the harmful aftereffects. Because poisons and excesses of nutrients mimic the effect of nutrients in beneficial amounts, psychologically, it is very difficult to be objective or to reverse the addiction. That is why Alcoholics Anonymous insists that its members come to grips with their addiction to the point that they consider themselves to be alcoholics for life.
How to Identify an Addiction
In the absence of objective testing done by medical professionals, the following are ways of identifying possible addictions:
1. Unexplained Cravings for Foods. Foods that you crave at regular intervals are suspect. Common items are cheese, wheat, and peanuts.
2. Sneezing. Foods that make you sneeze a few times in a row (usually three times) are suspect.
3. Headaches. Foods causing headaches are suspect.
4. Fasting. If all foods are withdrawn for a day or more, a food to which you are allergic often causes an evident reaction when reintroduced. Eating foods one at a time after fasting makes it possible to unscramble the effects produced by eating foods in combination. See article on fasting.
How to Withdraw
Whether your addiction is to tobacco, salt, sugar, caffeine, cheese, wheat, etc., keep in mind that your body has adjusted to these substances over a long period of time. To suddenly withdraw them will cause distress and possibly even permanent harm. Moreover, change will be difficult to sustain if it is initiated too suddenly. Therefore, it is necessary to gradually re-educate both body and mind. When you understand the mechanisms involved, the persistence of your expectation to gradually change will assure success.
*From Robert Chuckrow, The Intelligent Dieter’s Guide, Rising Mist Publications, Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1997.
©Copyright 1997 by Robert Chuckrow
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