In his book “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains,” Dr. Robert Lustig reveals the corporate scheme to sell pleasure, driving the international epidemic of addiction, depression, and chronic disease. “There has been a plot by some industries to obfuscate the link between their products and disease, and willfully confuse the concepts of pleasure and happiness” he says.
While researching the toxic and addictive properties of sugar for his New York Times bestseller Fat Chance, Robert Lustig made an alarming discovery—our pursuit of happiness is being subverted by a culture of addiction and depression from which we may never recover.
Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains we want more; yet every substance or behavior that releases dopamine in the extreme leads to addiction. Serotonin is the “contentment” neurotransmitter that tells our brains we don’t need any more; yet its deficiency leads to depression. Ideally, both are in optimal supply. Yet dopamine evolved to overwhelm serotonin—because our ancestors were more likely to survive if they were constantly motivated—with the result that constant desire can chemically destroy our ability to feel happiness, while sending us down the slippery slope to addiction.
In the last forty years, government legislation and subsidies have promoted ever-available temptation (sugar, drugs, social media, porn) combined with constant stress (work, home, money, Internet), with the end result of an unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression, and chronic disease. And with the advent of neuromarketing, corporate America has successfully imprisoned us in an endless loop of desire and consumption from which there is no obvious escape.
Reviewing Lustig’s book Dr. Mercola notes: “The book discusses how many try to bolster their happiness through certain food choices, but this actually does not work, and Lustig provides compelling arguments that the foods you crave drive up dopamine and drive down serotonin. Rather, it’s experiences that make you happy. People can make you happy. You can make yourself happy. In his book, Lustig outlines a number of different strategies to become happier. Ultimately, the goal is [to increase] your serotonin,” he says. There are four ways to boost your serotonin, and they’re all free. First and foremost is making human connections.
“Social media generate dopamine, associated with pleasure, and hence can drive addiction. The main problem is that when dopamine goes up, serotonin goes down. So, online communication is actually a major causative factor of unhappiness. Lustig also elaborates on how companies — both food manufacturers and electronics companies — capitalize on the biology of dopamine versus serotonin to get us addicted to their products.
“It’s important to realize that the dopamine (or reward-generating) pathway is the same no matter what your source of pleasure is. It can be a substance, such as nicotine, alcohol, heroin or junk food; or it can be behavior, such as internet surfing, shopping or pornography. The problem, in a nutshell, is that dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and in excess is neurotoxic. When dopamine is released, and the neuron on the other side accepts the signal, it can damage that neuron. Over time, excitatory neurotransmitters can cause cell death. To protect itself from damage, the postsynaptic neuron employs a self-protective mechanism — it downregulates its receptors.
“By having fewer receptors, the dopamine cannot do as much damage. So, each time you get a “hit” or rush of dopamine, the number of receptors decrease. As a result, you need increasingly larger doses or “hits” to get the same rush. Eventually, you end up with tolerance, a state where even a large dose produces no effect.
The point that you need to know is that it takes three weeks for the receptors to repopulate. The cravings can go on for upwards of a year when you’re addicted. This is a long-term process that sometimes requires medical intervention and medical management by physicians who understand addiction medicine,” Lustig says.
“Once the neurons start to actually die off, you’re a full-blown addict. Serotonin, on the other hand, is not an excitatory neurotransmitter. When it acts on the serotonin-1a receptor (the “contentment” receptor), no damage occurs. Hence, happiness does not lead to addictive behavior. Keep in mind that dopamine downregulates serotonin, so it’s basically impossible to achieve happiness (related to serotonin) through pleasure-seeking behavior (related to dopamine).
“One of the cheapest pleasures that stimulates dopamine is sugar. Many reach for sweet junk food when they feel down, thinking it’ll help them feel better, but neurochemical science reveals this simply cannot happen. Add the stress hormone cortisol to the mix, which downregulates the serotonin-1a receptor, and you have a recipe for both addiction and depression.
“A big part of the happiness equation is to increase serotonin by optimizing tryptophan. However, the dilemma is that most of the serotonin produced in the gut is used there locally. It does not enter your brain. Lustig explains:
“There are many diversions for tryptophan away from the brain. It can be metabolized in the intestine itself. It can be metabolized in the platelets. It can be turned into kynurenine, which is a secondary metabolite in the liver. It may not be transported across the blood-brain barrier because of phenylalanine and tyrosine taking up the aromatic amino acid transporter.
In addition, of course, your serotonin neurons must be functional. There are things that will kill off serotonin neurons, including party drugs. For instance, MDMA, or Ecstasy, is a famous dopamine and serotonin killer … Once you’ve lost those serotonin neurons, it’s pretty hard to get any sort of happiness signal.”
So, how do you boost systemic tryptophan? One of the keys is to eat real food, and to make sure you include high-tryptophan foods, the highest of which is egg whites. You also need omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, which is a component of every cell in your body. More than 90 percent of the omega-3 fat found in brain tissue is DHA.
“Omega-3s are probably the single most beneficial thing you can put in your body. They are anti-inflammatory. They are anti-Alzheimer’s. They increase membrane fluidity. Therefore, they increase neuronal distensibility, which means it’s less likely that any given neuron will die,” Lustig says.
“We are now seeing the advent of the post-truth society because of how the Supreme Court chipped away at our own individual rights,” Lustig says. “By doing so, corporations have affected our ability to experience pleasure and happiness. They’ve actually inserted propaganda into our limbic system, our reward generating system, so that we constantly seek reward at the expense of our own happiness.”
Robert H. Lustig, M.D., is professor of pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology and a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at University of California, San Francisco.