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According to the latest research published in the journal Cell, those of us who want to be healthy have a new reason to hate the sun (you know, besides the fact that the sun’s rays are deadly cancer causing poisons): Sunlight is addicting and stimulates the pleasure center of your brain–the same part of your brain that addictive drugs like alcohol and cocaine stimulate.
One of the researchers had this rather mindless interpretation of the results of his study:
”It’s surprising that we’re genetically programmed to become addicted to something as dangerous as UV radiation, which is probably the most common carcinogen in the world… In the current time, there are much safer and more reliable sources of vitamin D that do not come with carcinogenic risk, so there is real health value in avoiding sunlight as a source of vitamin D.” (1)’
The itself study found something incredibly interesting–the rather remarkable finding that our brains are wired to respond to sun exposure by lighting up the pleasure center of our brains. Now, where things got problematic is that without much deeper thought at all, the researchers interpreted this finding as weird and pathological–the equivalent of being addicted to illegal drugs like cocaine–and simply suggested to avoid sun exposure and just use a vitamin D supplement instead. You know, since of course, vitamin D supplementation isn’t a horrible carcinogen like sunlight is, and surely your little bottle of vitamin D is just as good as getting outdoors, right? Nevermind the findings of many recent studies that show that sunlight exposure specifically is linked with reduced mortality, (2) while getting vitamin D in other ways such as supplementation or UV tanning beds does not decrease mortality (suggesting that the links between vitamin D levels and health status may be confusing correlation with causation, and suggesting that the benefits of sunlight exposure extend far beyond simply vitamin D). (3)
No no, none of that matters, according to these researchers. “Take your vitamin D and stay out of the sun at all costs!” And then we see article headlines like this: “Sunshine can be addictive like heroin: Bathing in the sun has a similar effect on the human body as heroin and is highly addictive.”
By now, I’m sure you’ve also heard the news about sugar–you know that it too stimulates the pleasure circuitry in your brain in much the same way that cocaine and heroin do.
After all, how could you not have heard about it? Since pretty much every low-carb guru out there tries to paint a picture of how eating sugar is the equivalent of being a crack addict. Here’s the title of a recent article on Huffington Post: “What’s Worse For Your Brain: Sugar Or Cocaine?” The article starts with this introduction to the topic:
“Think cocaine is bad for your brain? Then you might want to change the way you think about sugar. Eating high-sugar foods lights up your brain on an MRI “like a Christmas tree,” Dr. Mark Hyman, M.D., founder and medical director of UltraWellness Center, said during a recent interview on HuffPost Live. The part of the brain that lights up is the very same part of the brain that’s triggered by cocaine or heroin, according to research by Dr. David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D.” (4)
And there’s this from another similar article: “We’re finding that a sweet tooth makes you just as much an addict as snorting cocaine.” (5)
The basic underlying premise of this logic is that sugar is bad for you because it–like drugs like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol–stimulates the pleasure center of your brain. Makes sense, right? Anything that stimulates the brain in a similar way to what those nasty drugs do must be bad for you! Therefore, if you don’t want to activate the same areas of your brain that crack addicts do, you better avoid that nasty pleasure center stimulating sugar!
I’ve decided that this logic is so brilliant that it should be the basis of a new paradigm of health. The new paradigm is simple:
If you want health, avoid all things which stimulate the pleasure center of your brain.
So I’ve decided to compile a list of all the other things that we should be avoiding due to the fact that they too stimulate the pleasure circuitry of our brains:
- SEX – Sex stimulates the pleasure center of the brain very powerfully. Why do you think we find it so pleasurable and fun? No more sex for you if you want to be healthy.
- CARBS – Of course, as we’ve heard from many a low-carb guru, those nasty insulin-spiking carbohydrates stimulate a nice strong reward response in our brains. No more carbs for you.
- FATS – Oh, and by the way, dietary fat also stimulates a pleasure response in your brain in much the same way that sugar does. But the low-carb gurus certainly don’t want you to know about that. They would much rather that you believe that this is something completely unique to that evil sugary stuff. In fact, they go out of their way to cherry pick the studies and ignore the fact that fats do the same thing. (6) (7) (8) This is why ad-libitum high-fat diets promote overfeeding and fat gain as well or better than high-carb diets, which you can see from the literature review HERE. Like I said, fat is nasty stuff. Maybe even worse than those evil carbohydrates. No more fats for you.
- WATER – Yes indeed, good old water stimulates the reward center of the brain too. Why else do you think having a nice ice cold glass of water feels just so nice on a hot summer day? (9)
- SUNLIGHT – As mentioned above, sunlight exposure stimulates the reward center of the brain, and if you sunbathe frequently, you’re basically no better than a crack addict. Take a vitamin D supplement and stay indoors at all costs to avoid that nasty cancer-causing sunlight.
- SPENDING TIME IN NATURE – Shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, has been thoroughly studied in Japan for its myriad health benefits. But unfortunately, immersing yourself in nature and enjoying the beautiful sights also stimulates the pleasure center of our brain, so no more going out in nature for you.
- MEDITATION – Meditation is also a good way of stimulating the reward center of your brain. It’s probably best that you avoid that too. (10)
- MUSIC – Of course listening to music you really love stimulates the reward center of your brain very powerfully. Better avoid any of that too. (11)
- DANCE – Yup, dance and really any kind of play stimulate the pleasure center of your brain very strongly. No more of that nasty stuff. Matt’s hero Flynt Flossy is just a junkie.
- MOVEMENT AND EXERCISE (a.k.a. NOT SITTING) – Moving your body and doing exercise is known to stimulate the reward center of your brain–you know, just like heroin does. (12) You don’t want to stimulate the same part of your brain that heroin does, do you? I didn’t think so. No more exercise for you. It’s probably best that you just sit in a chair all day and avoid any prolonged period of standing and moving your body.
So hopefully you noticed something as you read through that list: The things that stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains are the essential ingredients for optimal health. That is the very reason that evolution has programmed us to find carbs, fat, sunlight, and sex so pleasurable–without these things, we don’t stay alive so well.
And as it turns out, regular stimulation of the pleasure circuitry in our brains is essential for learning, motivation to achieve, and pretty much everything we do to keep ourselves alive. Without regular stimulation of the pleasure circuitry of our brains, we become dull, lifeless, and apathetic.
The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that in recent years there has been a dangerous reductionist tendency to pathologize anything which stimulates the pleasure center of our brains. If something stimulates the same area of the brain that drugs do, we rush to equate doing that thing with being a crack addict–it immediately becomes pathological, harmful, and unhealthy. Eating potatoes, white rice, or a fruit salad with a bit of honey means you’re a junkie and that you need to “detox” off those cocaine-like carbs that you’re addicted to. Sunbathing regularly is an indication that you have a pathological addiction to the horrible carcinogenic sun. These interpretations are misguided and they result in terrible health advice like “Avoid sunlight and take a vitamin D supplement” and “eat low-carb” and “fight all your cravings for fat and sugar, for they are pathological signs of addiction.” We are pathologizing the very things upon which our health, and our very life, depend. And as a result of this sort of thinking, we have lost touch with simply following our instincts and listening to our body’s cravings–many of us our now afraid to eat a potato or a bowl of fruit for fear of the evil “fat-storing” hormone insulin.
Now, there are of course some kinds of stimuli that can stimulate the pleasure center of our brain in ways that eventually become pathological. We must be careful to distinguish between the pleasure-stimuli that are essential to our health, and the pleasurable stimuli which are not compatible with the neurological systems that have been wired into us by evolution–“superstimuli,” which light up the pleasure center of our brains in such an intense and forceful way that it exceeds our brain’s natural tolerances.
Examples of this sort of superstimuli include crack, cocaine, heroin, concentrated alcohol, highly processed foods that are a combination of fats and sugars concentrated to a degree that is not seen in whole foods (along with artificial flavors and flavor enhancers), and pornography involving acts that rarely or never take place inside the bedrooms of most humans. These things can hit the reward center of the brain in a way that is unnaturally intense. And in response to that extremely forceful stimulus, our brains try to compensate by turning down the volume a bit–that is, by decreasing the sensitivity of the reward system of the brain in order to tolerate these new unnaturally forceful stimuli. Thus, engaging in these superstimuli frequently results in a raising of the reward threshold in the brain. And that’s where things get problematic. For one, you need more of a given substance to feel the same amount of pleasure. And two, the more usual pleasures of life become duller.
This raising of the reward threshold (and downregulation of dopamine receptor sensitivity in the brain) is in fact, linked with depression and anhaedonia–“a loss of interest or pleasure in all or almost all usual activities and pastimes.” (13) That fruit salad just isn’t nearly pleasurable enough anymore–you need three slices of cheesecake, tons of fried bacon, a whole box of doughnuts. More mild altered states of intoxication like what one gets from a glass of wine just aren’t enough–you need lots of hard liquor or cocaine. To get off sexually, you start masturbating five times a day to videos of crazy freaky porn involving a multitude of people and the simultaneous utilization of more than two orifices, while more normal sex with your spouse just doesn’t do it for you anymore. Ultimately, this raising of the reward threshold contributes to things like drug addiction, chronic overconsumption of calories and obesity, and all the stuff this guy mentions HERE:
You crave the pleasure that only those superstimuli can give you now. And this is indeed very problematic.
But just because some types of rewarding stimuli can cause problems doesn’t mean that we should rush to pathologize anything which lights up the pleasure center of our brains. We might be smarter to approach things with the simple question “Are there any intelligent reasons why this thing might be stimulating the pleasure center of our brains–is it a healthy pleasure stimulus, or an excessively intense superstimulus?”
If we ask such a question, we are much more likely to arrive at good health advice rather than terrible health advice.
Perhaps we might find that it’s not a coincidence that carbs and fat stimulate the reward center of our brains. They are in fact, the best sources of fuel by our cells. This is in fact why these foods taste delicious to us–that is our brain’s intelligent way of getting the fuel it needs to sustain a vital, healthy, and energetic body.
We also might find that it’s not a coincidence that flirting, courtship, and sex stimulate the reward center of our brain rather powerfully. For if we didn’t find these things especially exciting and pleasurable, the human species would rapidly go extinct.
We might also find that it’s not a coincidence that we find movement to be so pleasurable, for last time I checked, it’s rather difficult to hunt, gather, and cultivate food without moving our bodies.
And we might find that it’s also not a coincidence that we find exposure to sunlight rather pleasurable–for without sunlight, we would be filled with stress hormones, have severe vitamin D deficiency, our circadian clock would be thrown off (resulting in all sorts of nasty metabolic side effects), we would have a deficiency in the red light that is needed for efficient cellular metabolism, and eventually, our bones and organs would waste away.
I hope that you can now see that there is nothing inherently pathological about doing things that light up the pleasure center of our brains. In fact, not only are the above things not pathological, they are essential to our health, our vitality, our positive mood, our motivation to do things in the world, our enjoyment of life, and our very survival. Any intelligent discussion related to dopamine or the pleasure center of the brain should always be grounded in this context, and you should be very skeptical of sensationalist claims that try to pathologize something solely by virtue of the fact that it “stimulates the same area of the brain that cocaine does.”
We are pleasure seeking organisms, and the things that give us pleasure also give us life.
The ideal for health is probably something along the lines of this: You want frequent and strong–but not unnaturally intense–stimulation of the reward center of your brain. This will allow you to feel pleasure as often as possible while still maintaining a high dopamine receptor density/sensitivity in the brain and avoiding the brain turning down the volume on life’s more typical pleasures.
Pleasure is good! Engage in pleasurable things as often as possible. But make sure those pleasure are of intensities that are aligned with your biology.
So eat carbs, eat fat, listen to music, dance, spend your days pursuing your deepest passion, immerse yourself in nature, sunbathe, and have lots of sex.
Ari Whitten is a fitness and nutrition professional and bestselling author of the book, Forever Fat Loss. Visit Ari’s website for more cutting-edge information, including his extensive Metabolism Supercharge video series on bodyfat regulation, metabolism, and weight loss. www.ariwhitten.com
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