It’s mid-afternoon. You’re not hungry, but you find yourself tempted to have those brownies someone brought into your office. “Nah,” you say to yourself, “I’m not even hungry. I just had lunch two hours ago.”
But they keep calling you, and calling you, and calling you…and you have a few, maybe more than a few.
You feel bad afterward. Sluggish, and mad at yourself. “Why did I do it again?” “What’s wrong with me?” you ask yourself in a condemning tone. You’re a disciplined person. You get to work on time. You get the oil changed in your car. You pay your bills on time. You have your life mostly under control. But brownies, cake, cookies—you just can’t stop yourself sometimes!
“That’s it, no sugar!” you boldly declare. There, you’ve sworn off sugar, again. And it sticks—for a few days. Then you’re back it it, kind of like a junkie. You just can’t stop. Yeah, you really do feel like a junkie.
You see a report on the news that sugar is as addictive as heroin. “Aha!” you proclaim. You knew it all along and now you have proof.
Well, this is the part of the article where I either burst your bubble or give you really good news, depending on your perspective: You’re not a sugar addict and sugar isn’t even addictive (and I can prove both of these facts to you). My proof: soldiers and rats.
Let’s start with soldiers. During the Vietnam War, United States soldiers become addicted to heroin in droves. When these soldiers left the war and returned home, very few of them continued to use heroin at all, let alone addictively (1,2). If heroin was addictive and they were heroin addicts, there’d be no way they could just stop. But they did, without intensive drug rehabilitation. All they did to stop was leave the war and come home. (1,2)
War is as stressful as life gets. You think your to-do list is daunting; imagine one like this:
- Make your bed.
- Clean your rifle.
- Kill Vietnamese people.
- Hold your friend while he dies in your arms.
- Breath in napalm.
We experience stress whenever we fail to meet our needs. Being at war is about as far as a person can get from meeting their needs. War is inhuman. It could be the definition of inhuman. Very few human needs are being met for anyone at war.
Something very important happens when we meet our needs. The levels of reward chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, etc.) in our brains, in our bodies, in us, go up. This feels good.
When we don’t meet our needs, of course, our levels of these reward chemicals drop. For those soldiers in the Vietnam War, their levels of reward chemicals were crazy low. This feels bad. Really bad.
These reward chemicals are very powerful. They’ve driven human behavior for millennia and helped ensure our individual survival as well as the survival of our species. In other words, it’s part of our nature to do that which boosts our levels of these reward chemicals.
What do you thinking taking heroin does? It rapidly and powerfully boosts a person’s levels of reward chemicals.
Here’s what happened with these soldiers:
- They were living in an extremely high-stress environment that failed to meet their needs as people.
- Their levels of reward chemicals dropped precipitously. They felt bad.
- They were offered a substance which, when ingested, dramatically boosts one’s levels of reward chemicals.
- They tried the substance and it boosted their levels of reward chemicals. They felt better.
- War continued to be stressful and failed to meet their needs. Their levels of reward chemicals dropped repeatedly. They felt bad.
- They took the substance again and the cycle repeated. (They were addicted to the substance.)
- They left the war and returned home. This new environment was relatively low stress and mostly met their needs. Their levels of reward chemicals were consistently relatively high.
- Their cravings for heroin went away.
- They stopped taking heroin.
Were these soldiers addicts? Perhaps they were situational addicts. They certainly weren’t always addicts or they wouldn’t have been able to stop taking heroin so easily when they returned home.
Is heroin addictive? Perhaps it’s situationally addictive. It’s certainly not always addictive or the soldiers wouldn’t have been able to stop taking it so easily when they returned home.
Perhaps there are addictive situations? Addictive environments?
Now let’s talk about rats, lab rats. For years, researchers conducted various studies in which they’d bring lab rats heroin and observe what happens. The rats would, in fact, become addicted. Once rats were given heroin, they’d keep taking it. If it was taken away, they would exhibit signs of withdrawal. Numerous scientific studies showed similar results. The researchers had all the evidence they needed: Heroin is very addictive.
In comes pioneering researcher Bruce Alexander. He made an observation: All the rats in these heroin studies were living, as lab rats tend to do, in cages. They were living in large columns and rows of cages. This meant their daily lives included no contact with other rats. They only people they saw were the people who brought the food, water, and, um, heroin, a few times a day for a few minutes of total time. Alexander hypothesized that this might have an impact on the results of heroin studies. (3,4)
Rats are used in scientific studies because their behavioral, biological, and genetic characteristics are similar to those of people. Rats are social creatures, just like us. We all know what happens when a person goes into solitary confinement; they basically lose their shit and go crazy. Like war, solitary confinement is one of the most stressful environments there is. And these rats were effectively living in solitary confinement for their entire lives. Again, Alexander thought this was important. (3,4)
So he made Rat Park. In his laboratory, he designed and created an area for rats to live. They had lots of space to move around. They had other rats to socialize with. They had plenty of food and plenty of water. They had toys rats love to play with. (3,4) Their needs were met.
Then he gave them heroin. (3,4) What happened?
- Almost all of the rats tried the heroin. (3,4)
- Most of the rats never took heroin again. (3,4)
Just like the soldiers from the Vietnam war, when they were in an environment that met their needs, heroin wasn’t appealing. They were quite content. Sure taking heroin felt good. But not any better than making out with other rats and playing with colorful toys.
Again, we can observe not addictive “people” (rats in this case) or an addictive substance, but an addictive situation, an addictive environment. These examples show us that war and solitary confinement, stressful situations, foster addiction. They also show us that situations that meet our needs lead to freedom from addiction.
The results of the Rat Park studies, which were conducted in the 1970s, were validated in a 2010 study of a similar nature (5). Here’s what the researchers from that study reported in their study article:
“Adult Wistar rats housed in short-term isolation (21 days) consumed significantly more morphine solution (0.5 mg/ml [milligrams per milliliter]) than rats living in pairs, both in one-bottle and in two-bottle tests. No differences were found in their water consumption. This effect was observed in both males and females and the results were also replicated after reversal of housing conditions.”
“We also found that as little as 60-min [minutes] of daily social-physical interaction with another rat was sufficient to completely abolish the increase in morphine consumption in socially restricted animals.”
Back to you and the brownies: Could this same phenomenon help you? I hope I have you at least considering the possibility of your long-sought freedom. If a rat hanging out with his/her rat friend for one hour can eliminate morphine cravings, certainly there are ways you can get free from your sugar cravings.
I witness it every week with my clients. I witness my clients getting free from “emotional” eating rapidly and powerfully. How do they do this? By meeting their needs.
“Meet your needs”, I know, sounds like the tagline for an all-women’s pampering retreat in the Berkshires. It sounds fluffy and intangible, I get it. But meeting your needs changes you “physically”. It changes the chemistry within your body. It gives you abundant levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and other reward chemicals. Just like it did for the soldiers when they left the war and came home and just like it did for the rats when they were released from solitary confinement and put up in luxurious Rat Park.
The most common unmet needs that lead to “emotional” eating are sleep, rest, time in nature, and connection. Contemporary Western culture is a petri dish of these unmet needs, so if this speaks to you, know you’re not alone. Imagine a person who got six hours of sleep, commuted for an hour by themselves on the beautiful (sarcasm alert) highways outside a major city, then put their earbuds in and got to work coding and occasionally instant messaging with their “team” in Pakistan. Shit, if that was me, I’d have a cupcake in the afternoon too. Sugar cravings and binges, however, can be nicely attenuated by simply making some changes to the environment in the petri dish you swim in. Creating a life with consistent good sleep and rest is huge. Add a regular dose of nature, even simply getting outside for 10-minute breaks during the day will help a lot too. And connection, that’s where the magic happens. Connection boosts levels of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and other reward chemicals like nothing else.
I’m in the business of reading, writing, and talking about scientific studies, not designing and implementing them, but If I were going to run one, here’s what I’d do. I’d recruit 1,000 subjects who really struggle with “emotional” eating and put them in two groups, an experimental group and a control group. The subjects in the experimental group would get eight hours of sleep per night. They’d also get two hours of rest per day on workdays and six hours of rest per day on weekends. They’d eat one meal per day together in a group of five. They’d exercise four days per week doing the type of exercise of their choice. They’d have the option of exercising with others if they wanted to. The men subjects would participate in a men’s group that met once per week. The women subjects would participate in a women’s group that met once per week. All subjects would take a course in tantric sexuality and be encouraged to practice with their lovers. The subjects in the control group would continue living their lives as they were. Measures of “emotional”-eating levels would be taken from the subjects at baseline, three months, and six months (post-study). Measures of dopamine level, serotonin level, oxytocin level, endorphin levels, and levels of other reward chemicals would be taken from the subjects daily.
My hypothesis is that the subjects in the experimental group would have much lower levels “emotional” eating and much higher levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and other reward chemicals. (They probably wouldn’t want to go home either.)
This study is unlikely to ever be conducted because it wouldn’t get through an ethical review board because it might impose excessive enjoyment of life (my sarcasm is flowing today; please excuse me) on the experimental subjects.
In any case, you could try this experiment in your own life. Perhaps you can’t live in my study paradise with me, but you could replicate it as best as you could (i.e., get more sleep and rest, spend more time in nature, and cultivate great connection).
The beautiful thing about this approach is that not only does it not have any side effects (that’s the trying-to-be-benign term pharmaceutical companies use for side problems), but it has side benefits. That is, enjoying more sleep and rest, enjoying more time in nature, and rocking your relationships won’t only curb your “emotional” eating, it’ll make literally everything in your life better. That’s thriving. As far as I can tell, that’s the real “go big or go home” we’re here for.
Author’s Note: The phenomenon of situational addiction relates to behavior addictions like being addicted to gambling or exercising, not only to substance addictions like heroin or sugar. These behaviors, like these substances, boost one’s levels of reward chemicals. in a person who’s not meeting their global needs, these behaviors can become situationally addictive and these people can become situational addicts.
Author’s Note: I put “emotional” in quotes when using the term “emotional” eating throughout this article (and with the word “physically”) because there’s no separation between our “physical”, “emotional”, and “mental” existence and our “physical”, “mental”, and “emotional” processes. This is made abundantly clear by the effect experiences like those described in this article have on chemicals (undeniably “physical” in nature even by those who hold on to the notion of division of a person into parts) that are us.
Author’s Note: Throughout this article I’ve referred to sugar instead of processed sugar because it made for less-clunky and sexier (to me anyway) writing. However, processed sugar is what we’re technically talking about here. No one I know is complaining of cravings for or binging on bananas, kiwis, and raspberries which are loaded with sugar. Sugar is a nutrient that naturally occurs in many real foods that are very nourishing.
(1) Narcotic Use in Southeast Asia and Afterward. An Interview Study of 898 Vietnam Returnees. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1975, 32(8), 955-961.
(2) How Permanent Was Vietnam Drug Addiction? American Journal of Public Health, 1974, 64(12S), 38-43.
(3) The Effect of Housing and Gender on Preference for Morphine-Sucrose Solutions in Rats. Psychopharmacology, 1979, 66(1), 87-91.
(4) The Effect of Housing and Gender on Morphine Self-Administration in Rats. Psychopharmacology, 1978, 58(2), 175-179.
(5) Social Isolation Increases Morphine Intake: Behavioral and Psychopharmacological Aspects. Behavioural Psychology, 2010, 21(1), 39-46.
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.
There’s a place below to share your feelings on this article if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you.