Are we more or less at the mercy of our desires for food because the brain releases the happiness hormone dopamine? Partly yes, scientists say, because food intake primarily serves to supply the body with energy and nutrients, which means that we should only eat when we are really hungry and the body demands nutrients. But everyone knows that this is an illusion.
If we were all to eat only as much as we need, overweight would hardly be an issue. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Who hasn’t “rewarded” themselves with a good meal, a bar of chocolate or an ice cream for something? Who hasn’t eaten more or less healthy things because he was sad and wanted to feel better again? Or simply out of habit, almost unconsciously, stuffed himself in front of the TV with chips, popcorn and the like? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolic Research in Cologne have now got to the bottom of the phenomenon that controls our eating habits.
Research group leaders Marc Tittgemeyer and Heiko Backes have proven that there is a continuous exchange between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain and that the brain controls our appetite or our desire for food with reward stimuli. The scientists offered milk shakes to the study participants and in parallel measured the release of dopamine in the brain using a new method.
The measurement results showed that the happiness hormone is released in two phases: The first time when the food is in the mouth, the second time when it reaches the stomach. “Previous experiments with mice have shown that it is reported to the brain when food reaches the stomach. Our results show that this also happens in humans and, in addition, which brain areas are involved,” explains Tittgemeyer .
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craving for dopamine
Of course, the release of dopamine also depends on whether and how good it tastes to us and how great our desire is for a particular dish or drink that we consume. In the study, the brains of participants who had a particular craving for a milkshake released more dopamine when the drink was in the mouth. Once it reached the stomach, however, less dopamine was released. “Our data show that our cravings are closely related to dopamine. If the second release of dopamine through the stomach fails to occur, we may continue to eat until it occurs,” explains Backes.
It’s no secret that food intake and energy consumption should ideally be balanced. But since food also has a reward value, this balance is often upset: “If the reward signals are stronger than the equilibrium signal, we eat more than necessary. This can lead to overweight and obesity,” says Backes. So would a controlled release of dopamine be a possible key in the fight against obesity?
“Unfortunately, it’s not that easy,” emphasizes Tittgemeyer. “How our body signals influence our actions and how we can influence them, for example through cognitive control, is not yet really understood. There is still a lot of research needed.”
Cover picture: Pixabay