“The opposite of addiction is connection” – Gabor Mate
Today, connection is at our fingertips. With advancements in technology and access to anyone, at any time, one would think that addiction would be a thing of the past.
In this article, I will discuss a functional medicine approach to addiction. We will dig a little deeper to get to the common root causes of this, often deadly, affliction.
Addiction is a problem that plagues tens of millions of people, including some of the most successful people on the planet. People can be addicted to a variety of things including; drugs, sex, alcohol, food, exercise, social media, shopping, and work.
Why is it that intelligent people make such self-destructive choices?
To understand this growing problem, we must first have a better understanding of the biology of addiction and reward.
One of the main chemicals involved in addictive behaviors is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is also known as “The Motivation Molecule”. It’s the chemical that gets us to take action, stay focused on our tasks, and feel rewarded when we have finished. Low dopamine is a condition that is overlooked by both patients and clinicians. It can be a very low hanging fruit that can result in significant breakthroughs.
People who are struggling with low dopamine will experience the following symptoms:
- Addictive behaviors (drugs, pornography, sex, video games, alcohol, social media, exercise, work)
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Self-destructive thoughts
- Anger and aggression under stress (short temper)
- Hard time getting going in the morning
- Hitting snooze
- Inability to finish tasks
- Cravings for chocolate
- Starting and stopping projects
- Having a hard time staying focused
- A million tabs open on the computer
- Shiny object syndrome
- Desire to isolate from others
- Unexplained lack of concern for family
Since dopamine helps us feel rewarded, it also helps with habit forming. I’ve had many clients come to the office that knew precisely what they needed to do to get healthy but struggled with staying on their protocol. They were not “bad” patients; they simply had issues with dopamine.
Clinical Pearls for Low Dopamine
I know a patient has low in dopamine if I am more excited about their accomplishments than they are. I’ve had numerous occasions where a client has lost 20 pounds in a month and was barely excited by it. This was a clear indication that their reward system was broken and needed to be addressed immediately.
Another red flag of low dopamine is when a patient has seen several other healthcare providers, and they failed to see results despite a high-quality treatment plan. They just couldn’t stick with it long enough to realize the benefits or fell off shortly after starting. Many of them were too embarrassed to even go back to their doctors because they feel like such failures.
Another telltale sign concerning low dopamine is when a patient rewards themselves with sabotaging behaviors. For example, 2 weeks after sticking to their diet, losing 20 pounds, and feeling amazing; the first thing the patient wants to do is have a cheat meal to “reward” themselves.
These stories are all indicators of a broken reward system that needs to be addressed if they are going to even expect long-term change and consistency. Gone unnoticed, the patient is typically pegged as being non-compliant or even worse, lazy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The patient is lacking the feeling of reward that makes them feel good about their accomplishments and therefore does not reinforce their behaviors. This leads to always trying new things instead of being consistent over a period of several weeks or months.
The above scenarios can be very frustrating for both patients and practitioners. Patients may go on to feel hopeless and feel like failures…likely falling back into their old habits.
How can we best assess and address the issue?
First and foremost we must recognize that addictive behaviors quickly raise dopamine levels for a short period. Think of the guy pounding away at his desk then taking a smoke break to “reward” himself or think about the group of girls that go to Starbucks right after their Yoga class or co-workers at happy hour after work.
Why were these intelligent individuals compelled to engage in seemingly destructive behavior? Shouldn’t they feel rewarded for the work they just accomplished? Were they lacking connection during the day and compensating for it elsewhere?
The feeling of reward comes from 5 main factors:
- The significance of the work we do and the joy it provides
- Task completion followed by a corresponding reward
- Feeling connected to others
- Gratitude and appreciation
- The ability to make dopamine
Let’s explore these ideas further.
1.The significance of the work we do
Only you can decide if the work you do has intrinsic value. Does it inspire you? Does it develop a gift that you have? Does it have a positive impact on society? Is the work valued by others? Do you only do it for the money?
How would you honestly answer these questions?
I encourage my clients to pursue a vocation that inspires them, develops a gift that they have, has a positive impact on society, is valued by others, and they would gladly do it for free.
As impossible as it may seem to create such a life, that is the only one you were meant to live. If you only work for the money, expect your addictive tendencies to be high. Most people get the same paycheck every week. No matter how hard they’ve worked, they get the same old amount wired into their bank accounts. There may be a vast discrepancy in their effort and the corresponding result. Further breaking their reward system.
So here’s what happens…
You work your butt off at a job that gives you little satisfaction, where you are barely appreciated, where you are developing a skill that has little carry over in your personal life, where your reward for good work is more work…oh and your house is never big enough, and your car is never new enough.
This scenario is the exact recipe for addiction and is the nightmare that most people live out every day. They can’t wait for the end of the workday so that they can partake in their addictive habits (have that glass of wine, or smoke that cigarette, or pound the chocolate).
When we cannot create dopamine (feel rewarded) from the work we do, we may seek destructive ways to get our fix.
By asking a few questions and getting a better understanding of a person’s life, you can get significant insight into why they have addictive tendencies.
2. Task completion followed by a corresponding reward
Whenever I set a goal, I make sure that I have a corresponding reward that reinforces the behavior I want to strengthen.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Buying new clothes when you lose weight instead of having a cheat meal
- Getting a massage when you go to the gym consistently
- Completing projects around the house instead of going to the bar
- Cleaning out your closet instead of going shopping for useless stuff
If you find yourself rewarding your success through sabotage, it might be time to modify your goals and strategies. I find that it helps to have accountability and connection with others who share the similar goals and aspirations as you.
3. Feeling connected to others
Feeling a connection with others is a human requirement. It is essential for us to have meaningful relationships with people that share the same core values as us. Nowadays, many of us have online communities or online friends with whom we may have more in common with than the person sitting right next to us!
When I am surrounded by others that have different values and interests, I find myself wanting to go on my phone to connect with my online friends. Does this mean I am addicted to my phone or does it mean that I am searching for connection?
When I am at a conference or connecting with my tribe, I feel no impulse to reach for my phone. My connections are right in front of me. My “addiction” vanishes in the presence of meaningful relationships and conversations.
We often vilify people for being addicted to their phones when what they are reaching for is a connection that they may not be getting elsewhere.
This is one of the reasons we’ve created our Living Proof online community. It’s a place for like-minded people to connect and share ideas.
You can join us here: www.lpicommunity.com
4. Gratitude and Appreciation
There is so much science that demonstrates the positive impact of the gratitude on the brain. Gratitude is also essential for our reward mechanism. This day in age we are often “rewarded” with bigger targets accompanied by a constant feeling of being inadequate (from our parents, society, employer, and marketing).
Taking a moment to reflect on your accomplishments will give you little hits of dopamine throughout the day. I love having a checklist of items that I can cross off at the end of the day, month, and week.
My friend Chip Franks showed me a great little hack. I set a gratitude alarm for 7 pm every night. At this time of day, I am home with my family having dinner. We each spend a moment to share what we are grateful for and one thing that we appreciate about the other person. This simple practice has made an enormous difference in my personal life. I suggest you try it for a week and see how you feel.
Another simple activity that you can do is write in a gratitude journal. I’ve used many journals over the years, but I enjoy The 5-Minute Journal best for its simplicity and daily inspiration.
5. The ability to make dopamine
It’s always important to explore the above mechanisms of reward before we dive deeper into brain chemistry. While this might be the simplest area to address, I feel that more in-depth work is often required to have a meaningful, long-term impact on a patient’s life.
Imagine yourself putting together furniture; you’ve got the instructions in your hands and all the right tools to get the job done. As you start putting the furniture together you realize some pieces are missing. Despite your best intentions, it would be impossible to get the job done right.
For your body to make dopamine, you need all the parts to make it. There are several factors to take into consideration when it comes to making neurotransmitters in the brain. These include:
- Healthy diet with the right amount of protein/amino acids
- Healthy digestive function to absorb amino acids
- Healthy blood sugar balance to shuttle the amino acids into the brain
- Healthy levels of co-factor nutrients (iron, B6)
- Proper sleep and rest
- Chronic inflammation and stress
It’s critical that we have the right nutritional status and the right environment for healthy levels of dopamine production. When we are under chronic inflammation/stress, sleep deprived, or battling blood sugar issues; our dopamine levels will be significantly impacted. Specifically, we need adequate amounts of the amino acid tyrosine, B6, and iron.
Besides taking a thorough history and asking the right questions, functional lab testing can clue us into nutrient and dopamine status. While there is no accurate way to measure neurotransmitter levels in the brain, we can measure the breakdown of them in the urine.
The test that we have found to be most accurate is the Organix by Genova Diagnostics. Think of it this way; I can tell what someone’s diet is like by sifting through their trash and looking at the packaging. This test measures breakdown products in the urine to determine neurotransmitter metabolism.
There are several markers that can clue us into dopamine levels, the main one being Homovanillate. Here are my personal results below.
From my findings, you can see that I have a rapid metabolism of dopamine. Clinically this indicates that I could benefit from dopamine precursors since I burn through so much of it. I would want to be sure I get enough protein and amino acids in my diet, and that I pay close attention to my sleep, and inflammation levels.
I know if I start getting short tempered, feel unmotivated, or start seeking instant gratification that I need to go back to the basics or supplement to fill the gap. As you can imagine, each person would have different levels and personal circumstances, so it’s hard to have a one size fits all approach. I know if you’ve taken the time to read this entire article, you’re probably looking for help in this area, so I’m going to throw you a bone.
My favorite supplement to increase motivation, break free of addiction, re-wire habits, and get sh$t done, is DopaBoost. This product contains a plant-based extract (mucuna pruriens) that easily converts into dopamine. This product is a “hack” because it bypasses all the effort I highlighted above. I encourage you to do the “work” but if you need something to kick-start the process, this is it.
At less than $30 for a month’s supply, this is one of the best investments in your quest to break your addictive habits and live our your best life. To save an extra 10% off your entire order, use coupon code LPI10% before you checkout!
If you’re struggling with addiction, you’re struggling with connection or chemistry. You are not a bad person, and you can be helped. It’s not always easy to do the deeper work that’s required, but I promise that your life will be significantly better after addressing these issues. In the meantime, start by finding your purpose, connecting with others, practicing gratitude, and investing in a bottle of DopaBoost to rewire your ability to make dopamine so you can get stuff done (and feel good about it).