When you hear “craving,” do you think sweet, salty…or serotonin?

We all experience cravings from time to time – a piece of fudge, one more handful of potato chips, or another slice of that heavenly apple pie. These cravings might not be due to the temptation of all the goodies we have gotten used to over the holiday season. They might be due to the neurotransmitters involved in food cravings, including serotonin, dopamine and glutamate.

chocolateSerotonin is involved in appetite and hunger.  When carbohydrate-rich foods are consumed, insulin raises brain tryptophan levels, which increases the rate of production and release of serotonin.1 Low serotonin levels can trigger carbohydrate cravings, which uncontrolled may lead to weight gain. Supporting serotonin may help decrease carbohydrate cravings.1

In a previous entry, we discussed glutamate and dopamine as part of the pleasure/reward pathway. As part of the pleasure/reward pathway, dopamine and glutamate are associated with cravings.

When we eat something delicious, dopamine is released from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain and sent to the nucleus accumbens. The size of this dopamine release is measured and glutamate instructs the prefrontal cortex to remember which foods produced more of a dopamine release. Since a burst of dopamine creates pleasure, the body then is wired to crave the food that increased the dopamine level. This is how cravings begin.2

One specific addiction seen frequently, especially in America today, is compulsive eating. Foods we typically find ourselves craving include those that contain a lot of sugar. In fact, sugar has addictive properties similar to opioids and psychostimulants.3 Acting on these cravings may lead to unwanted weight gain.

Imbalances in serotonin, dopamine and glutamate may be making it more difficult to make the right food choices. Correcting these imbalances can help control cravings and potentially aid in weight loss efforts. If cravings are a chief concern, balancing neurotransmitters is a vital first step on the way to feeling happier and healthier.

Guest author: Tricia Walz is a member of the Clinical Support & Education Department at NeuroScience, Inc. and the resident expert in metabolic issues.

(1). Wurtman, RJ., Wurtman, JJ. (1995). Brain Serotonin, Carbohydrate-Craving, Obesity and Depression. Obes Res. 3(4):477S-480S.
(2). Kalivas PW, Volkow ND. (2005). The neural basis of addiction: a pathology of motivation and choice. Am J Psychiatry, 162(8):1403-13.
(3). Gold, MS., et al. (2009). Food addiction? J Addict Med. 3: 42-45.
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