When we think about addiction, the first things that usually come to mind are alcohol, drugs, and nicotine. Maybe also sex and gambling. Yet, the addictions I want to talk about in this piece are a bit different. Most of us are quite aware that we have them; we just don’t care enough to do something about it. Usually, we’re not even sure how they work. We think we’re in control. We think we’re free in our choices and completely capable of resisting the pull towards certain seemingly harmless substances or behaviors. Speaking in big-ass clichés – we’re young, wild, and free.
I’m the kind of person who thinks that everything’s important. I give a fuck, and I’m proud of it. Therefore, I give a fuck about the ways my brain reacts to some substances I use or used to use without much thought. To put it poetically, I want to be conscious of my consciousness. So let’s dive into the wide world of the brain and see what we do to it when we reach for a few common things: coffee, milk, sugar, and our smartphones.
COFFEE (also tea, energy drinks, and coca-cola)
Superstar chemical: Caffeine
Withdrawal symptoms: headaches, lethargy, nausea, irritability, general crappy mood.
How does it work?The fact that caffeine is chemically addictive was established by scientists in 1994. First things first: how does it work? Well, after you consume caffeine, it gets into your bloodstream. Because caffeine is both, fat and blood soluble, it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain. Caffeine resembles a natural molecule in the brain called adenosine, which is a product of many processes, happening in the cell. Basically, it‘s the result of the cell‘s work. It‘s tired little exhalation. So, after adenosine locks into the brain‘s receptors, it produces tiredness. Caffeine blocks adenosine off by taking its place in the receptor. When that happens, you feel more energized. But that‘s not it. There‘s also dopamine – brain‘s own natural stimulant, that also works more effectively when adenosine is blocked. And there‘s more. After adenosine is out of the game, it floats around in the brain, which cues the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline. So by the time you finish your cup of coffee, there‘s a wild party happening in your brain. But caffeine basically is not a stimulant itself. It just creates the perfect conditions for our natural stimulants to run wild and free.
The tricky part is that frequent caffeine usage actually changes our brain, which means that brain cells grow more adenosine receptors. Therefore, it takes more caffeine to fill them. And it goes on and on. You need more and more of your innocent drug to do its usual job. This explains the withdrawal symptoms.
As someone who has quit coffee, I can tell you, the withdrawal was legit, and once I had a couple of cups after a year and a half of „coffee-sobriety“, I felt like a big-ass rocket took me to outer space. Not in a good way.
Superstar chemical: Casein
Withdrawal symptoms: headaches, crappy mood, digestive issues.
How does it work?
This one’s controversial. But as someone who had also quit dairy, I can tell you that in the beginning, the craving was real. Now, the idea of having a glass of milk with my cookies or pancakes doesn’t sound that appealing.
Casein is the chemical that causes the buzz. It’s a protein in milk which, surprise surprise, crosses the blood-brain barrier and becomes casomorphin, which is an opioid. It’s nature’s way to make the calves enjoy their mothers’ milk and come back for more. Human milk also has casein—2,7 grams per liter, to be exact. Meanwhile, cow’s milk has 26. Almost ten times more. I get it; we’re different species. But since humans are the only ones who drink the milk of the members of other species, they also deal with the chemical side of it. Since it takes, for example, ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, imagine the amounts of casein in that.
We’re not talking about major opioid dependency here. But that feeling you get when you want something milky, like cheese, yogurt or a glass of milk may not be as innocent as you think.
Superstar chemical: Fructose
Withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, fatigue, confusion, behavior changes, poor sleep.
How does it work?
To understand how hazardous sugar can be, let’s play a game. It’s called sugar vs. cocaine. Let’s start with a very well-known case. In 2007, researchers of the University of Bordeaux performed a very interesting experiment on mice. The mice had an option to choose between two levers: one lever gave them an intravenous hit of cocaine, and the other gave them 20 seconds to drink as much sweetened water as they wanted. Rats got to sample both levers before beginning the test. Once the test started, 94% of the rats chose the sweetened water over cocaine. According to recent studies, sugar is not only as addictive as cocaine but even more so. Yet, unlike cocaine, sugar is EVERYWHERE. Your “healthy” afternoon granola, your “nutritious” breakfast cereal, all the condiments, yogurts, and other seemingly innocent products. It’s like the food industry is trying to get you hooked. You know what they say… If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck… Just sayin’. Food manufacturers use more than 30 names to mask the most common sugars in the products. Once you get hooked on sugar, even thinking about it makes your brain release dopamine. Preparing to have a sugary meal is even more pleasurable than actually having it.
Meanwhile, the sugar you enjoy is slowly killing you from the inside. Since common sugar is made of glucose and fructose, the organs that deal with it are the liver and pancreas. Glucose is what gets your pancreases to make insulin. Among other things, it causes your body to store fat. Your liver deals with the fructose. But it cannot handle the quantities that we throw at it (in the Western world, people usually consume about 95 grams of added sugars per day when the recommended amount varies from 20 to 30 grams for adults AT MOST). The excess sugar (which gets turned into fat just like the amount that your liver could handle) backs up in your liver cells as fat. In time, it may create insulin resistance. Your body secretes more and more insulin in response to the carb-filled foods you enjoy. The fats build up all over your body. Not only your liver but also your arteries. Some doctors call this condition metabolic disturbance. Your body can no longer regulate itself, which is its main job! So eventually, this process might kill you.
Giving up sugar is hard. The withdrawal symptoms are intense and may last for up to two weeks. And the cravings are ridiculously mind-consuming. But it can save your health and, eventually, your life. Take time to read more about sugar addiction and ways of breaking it, and if you want everything laid out for you in a simple and fun manner, watch “That sugar movie.”
Superstar chemical: Dopamine
Withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, depression, self-devaluation, irritability, impatience.
How does it work?Instant gratification is the reason social media is flourishing. You post something and you get an immediate response. It makes you feel good and you want more of it. Just like many other addictive substances we’ve already talked about, that little heart on Instagram can get your brain to release dopamine. And, hey, if the response is not what you expected it to be, you can just delete the post. Simple.
Since humans are creatures of habit, the human brain is a pro at creating patterns and relying on them whenever you enter the auto-pilot mode. And you do it often. And that’s ok. Imagine how complicated everything would become if you had to think about the position of your every finger as you typed something or every single move it took you to brush your teeth in the morning. The problem with that is that the brain will rely on patterns even when we’re performing important tasks. Let’s say, you work every day to achieve a goal. Everyone knows it takes time to achieve something big and no overnight success stories actually happen overnight. So you have to make a choice – go after something big and opt for delayed gratification that might change your life and truly make you grow. Or choose something more simple and get instant gratification. Isn’t that why we swap important papers, projects, and creative work for a nice Instagram-scrolling session which gives us that flashy enjoyable dopamine rush?
One of the most well-known studies regarding delayed gratification is the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Children were left in the room with one marshmallow and were promised that if they could go 15 minutes without eating it, they would get two marshmallows in return. In the long run, the test proved that the children who managed to resist the temptation for instant gratification were more likely to succeed in their future when it came to their standardized test scores, educational prospects, BMIs and more.
Instant gratification addiction is the reason why so many people delete their social media apps when they have a deadline looming or are working on their exams. People always say that good things come to those who wait. But we are slowly giving up on waiting. Now or never is the motto of our Insta(nt) generation. And we desperately need to slow it down. It‘s ok to rely on those old neuro pathways when you‘re brushing your teeth. But creating your life… Well, that‘s a whole another story.