By now, you know that sugar has addictive properties, particularly when it comes in the form of processed foods and sweetened beverages. But can high levels of sugar intake actually affect your level of happiness? In his newest book, "The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains," Dr. Robert Lustig explains the relationship between diet, especially sugar, and levels of dopamine and serotonin in the body.
What are dopamine and serotonin?
Dopamine is the “pleasure” neurotransmitter. Levels increase in response to rewarding stimuli, giving you a feeling of pleasure. Sounds great, right? The problem is that over-stimulation of these pathways weakens your response over time. This means you will eventually need higher levels of a stimulus to feel the same level of satisfaction.
On the other hand, serotonin is your “happiness” neurotransmitter. According to Dr. Lustig, this is your long-term happiness moderator. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. What’s the catch? Dopamine decreases serotonin, fueling addictive pathways in the brain. And, to make matters worse, stress depresses both.
Why do we care?
This can turn into a vicious cycle when it comes to our food choices. For example, sugar stimulates dopaminergic pathways and drives down serotonin, leaving you wanting more.
Are there other ways to change levels of dopamine and serotonin? Dopamine synthesis requires the amino acid tyrosine, and serotonin synthesis requires the amino acid tryptophan. Some have suggested that eating foods high in tyrosine or tryptophan will increase dopamine and serotonin levels. However, there is little evidence to support this theory.
The Bottom Line
It is important to keep levels of dopamine and serotonin in check. So what can you do? For starters, cut the crap! Reducing the amount of sugar and processed foods from your diet and replacing them with real, whole foods eventually leads to fewer cravings and gives you more energy.