Sugar Sensitive Comfort
Because of this heightened response, we are drawn to things that evoke beta-endorphin: alcohol, opiate drugs such as
morphine, heroin, percodan, codeine, sugars, fats and white things. The things we call “comfort foods” are usually the ones that are evoking a beta-endorphin response in us.
Sugar-sensitive people are more attached to these foods than other people are. We find more emotional comfort in these foods because we are getting a bigger beta-endorphin “hit” from them. We not only feel good at the moment, but
our body “remembers” that beta-endorphin means “safe.” The feelings of comfort and emotional safety become linked.
As many of you have been reading Potatoes Not Prozac, you have really come to understand how powerful an effect beta-endorphin has on our behavior and our eating. But the story is bigger than you may have realized.
More to the Story than Food
The comfort and numbing effects of beta-endorphin can become cumulative over time. When emotional trauma or “numbing” occurs repeatedly, the soothing quality of the beta-endorphin that is evoked shifts into something really problematic. The numbing from trauma (or from long-term, heavy use of sugars) becomes generalized into what is called learned helplessness.
Those of you who suffered childhood abuse, molestation or incest, or who have experienced any kind of adult trauma get a triple whammy. Bad things happened and your brain literally kept you alive by cushioning you from the mind-blowing reality of your pain. You were flooded with the soothing protection of beta-endorphin. The flood of brain chemicals numbed you in the face of things that you had no control over.
You learned to be helpless in two ways. One, you literally were helpless in the face of the bad things that kept happening and two, the biochemical reaction which was saving your life also generalized into the biochemical pattern of learned helplessness.
You survived the bad things that happened over and over, but the learned helplessness remains encoded in
your body. The pattern will be both unconscious and deeply affected by what you are eating and what you are doing.
Learned Helplessness in Action
Our many discussions about foods and sugars have taught you the impact of eating sweet foods. If you have comfort foods, you get triggered and you want
more. If you try to stop, you experience withdrawal. And if you are using a lot of them, you feel overwhelmed and hopeless. This is learned helplessness in action. It may be a feeling that is very familiar to you.
However, you may not realize that there are other things besides foods that can trigger these feelings and activate a global sense of learned helplessness.
As an adult you may have intuitively found ways to recreate this feeling of beta-endorphin “safety” not just with substances, but with activities. The bad news is that the activities you may be drawn to are harmful. That is, you may unconsciously recreate the early trauma in order to get the beta-endorphin
release that will make you “safe” from your pain and reinforce your feelings of helplessness.
You can unconsciously be drawn to abusive situations because the abuse evokes the comfort of beta-endorphin. You may even create bad situations like having your utilities turned off or your credit taken away because inside the “bad” experience is coded with the biochemical memory of of beta-endorphin
The more these bad things happen, the more helpless and inadequate you feel. You simply feel “done to” and have no idea that you are unconsciously participating in creating these situations as a way to stay in a familiar and safe pattern. And the more helpless and inadequate you feel, the more you want to eat ice cream and chocolate. So the spiral goes down and down.
As you start taking care of the food, you assume that things will get better. You cannot understand why you keep slipping into old and perhaps abusive situations at the very time you are committed to being so intentional about your healing.
The Drive For Beta-Endorphin
Beta-endorphin withdrawal will drive you to get beta-endorphin, even at the price of abuse. Learned helplessness will wind its sticky little arms around you. And you will feel terrible shame because now you think you “should” know better. You may not understand this at all. You may assume it’s a personal problem. You may either feel victimized or totally inadequate. You may not have a clue about the biochemistry of it, and may feel that the
only way out is years of therapy. Even then, therapy can take care of the “feelings” but not the biochemistry.
The joy of the biochemistry is that you can change it fairly quickly. You can start to see that learned helplessness is one of those sugar feelings. It may be deeply encoded, it may be sticky, but the reality
is that you are in charge.
That Which Causes The Problem Can Heal It
Learn about beta-endorphin and you can set yourself free with a sense of purpose and power that you could never have imagined. You have started to learn that there are many things that raise beta-endorphins (BE’s) other than abuse.
Exercise, prayer, meditation, sexual intimacy, playing with your pets, healthy food and laughter, enjoying your grandchildren, holding babies, and music. Lot’s of options! But you have to choose them to take them.
Learned helplessness usually means that your first line of action is to retreat and isolate which are the
worst things you can do. Healing requires one choice at a time, BE’s the good ways. BE intentional (be beta-endorphin-intentional) when you feel overwhelmed. Hold off on the ice cream and CHOOSE from the list above of healthy beta-endorphin-evoking activities.
For Further Reading:
Maier, SF et al, The opioid/non
opioid nature of stress-induced analgesia and learned helplessness .J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Process , 1983 Jan:9(1):80-90.
Miczek KA et al, Opioid-like analgesia in defeated mice .Science,1982 Mar 19; 215(4539:1520-2.
Segato FN, Sucrose ingestion causes opioid analgesia .Braz J Med Bio Res , 1997 Aug:30(8);981-4.
Tejedor-Real P, et al, Implication of endogenous opioid system in the learned helpless model of depression.Pharmacol Biochem Behav , 1995