There are many benefits of following a Paleo Diet.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 The majority are aware of the physical effects of moving from a Western diet (full of processed foods, grains and sugar) to a Paleo Diet (rich with nutrients, anti-inflammatory fats, and healthy sources of carbohydrates).7, 8 However, most are likely unaware of the effects of diet on dopamine levels, and your brain.9, 10, 11, 12, 13 Numerous studies have examined the relationship, and all of the studies have fairly interesting results.14, 15, 16, 17, 18 One study showed mice fed a high fat diet during pregnancy had an increased preference for sucrose and fat.19 It must be noted, however, that what researchers refer to as a ‘high fat diet’ is instead a ‘high sugar and high fat diet.’20, 21, 22 On top of this, the diet consisted of poor sources of sugar and fat, not sweet potatoes and coconut oil.23
Wang, Gene-Jack et al. “Imaging of Brain Dopamine Pathways: Implications for Understanding Obesity.” Journal of addiction medicine 3.1 (2009): 8–18. PMC. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.
Volkow et al. “Overlapping Neuronal Circuits in Addiction and Obesity: Evidence of Systems Pathology.” Biological Sciences 363.1507 (2008): 3191.
More interesting, however, researchers ultimately found that diet actually altered the gene expression of dopamine and opioid-related genes.24 That is a pretty big find. Another study looked at the effect skipping breakfast had on dopamine levels.25 The authors of this study found breakfasts consumed with normal to higher amounts of protein, had increasingly positive effects on both dopamine secretion and reduced food cravings.
Ahmad, S. Omar et al. “REDUCED NUMBERS OF DOPAMINE NEURONS IN THE SUBSTANTIA NIGRA PARS COMPACTA AND VENTRAL TEGMENTAL AREA OF RATS FED AN N-3 POLYUNSATURATED FATTY ACID-DEFICIENT DIET: A STEREOLOGICAL STUDY.” Neuroscience letters 438.3 (2008): 303–307. PMC. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.
If you’re having a hard time swallowing the idea that diet alters dopamine levels, this was only first “discovered” by researchers in 2003.26 Other researchers have stated that excessive intake of dietary fats leads to diminished brain dopaminergic function.27, 28, 29, 30 What must be noted here, again, is that they are not referring to healthier fats, but rather poor quality ones. By contrast, one can extrapolate that healthy fats (such as those included regularly in a Paleo Diet) will improve, or at the very least normalize, dopamine levels.31, 32, 33
As other researchers have also noted, sugar and fat bingeing have notable differences in addictive-like behavior.34 This, again, suggests we should avoid a Western diet at all costs, especially the unhealthiest versions, if you want to maximize dopaminergic function in the brain. Researchers have also found that the lack of opiate-like withdrawal signs after fat bingeing underscores the importance of opioid systems in differentiating sugars and fats and their subsequent effects on behavior.
While fat may not have the same effects on the brain as sugar,combining the two in one’s diet (especially in their worst forms) is akin to putting your brain in the freezer, or maybe even throwing it out in front of traffic.35, 36, 37 Healthy fats, like the omega-3 fatty acids found in abundance in a Paleo Diet, will help to maximize dopamine levels, as well as neuronal and physiologic functioning.38, 39, 40, 41, 42
Teegarden, Sarah L., Eric J. Nestler, and Tracy L. Bale. “ΔFosB-Mediated Alterations in Dopamine Signaling Are Normalized by a Palatable High Fat Diet.” Biological psychiatry 64.11 (2008): 941–950. PMC. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.
In summary, proper dopamine levels are vital to leading a healthy life. A Paleo diet helps to optimize dopaminergic and neuronal health, meanwhile providing the multitude of healthful benefits. Check out the brand new The Real Paleo Diet Cookbook and check out over 250 delicious, healthy recipes that will help fuel your brain!
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 Kuo LE, Czarnecka M, Kitlinska JB, Tilan JU, Kvetnanský R, Zukowska Z. Chronic stress, combined with a high-fat/high-sugar diet, shifts sympathetic signaling toward neuropeptide Y and leads to obesity and the metabolic syndrome. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1148:232-7.
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 Hoertel HA, Will MJ, Leidy HJ. A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs. high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese “breakfast skipping”, late-adolescent girls. Nutr J. 2014;13(1):80.
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