As you know, I’ve been re-reading the Bright Line Eating book. It’s a good book. I highly recommend it. Nothing I’ve ever read on eating disorders has come close to explaining food addiction this well, never mind proposing a realistic plan for overcoming that addiction. I’ve just finished the section on addictability, which is a subject I find fascinating. Although SPT warns that spending too much time exploring how or why you became an addict is a rather poor use of time – if not accompanied by real action to get that addiction under control – it’s still something I can’t help wondering about.
Nature vs Nurture
It seems that nature and nurture (genetics and environment) both contribute to addictability, at least in rats. I don’t know that there’s any direct evidence for this in humans, but it makes sense. Most traits that aren’t strictly genetic – like hair or eye colour, or the ability to roll your tongue – seem to fall into this category. Height, intelligence, creativity, risks of all sorts of chronic diseases. Assuming it’s the same for addiction susceptibility, I think there’s some value in figuring out what mix of circumstances, exactly, has made me the way I am.
Maybe I should leave well enough alone
There are several arguments against this viewpoint. Whatever is genetic obviously can’t be changed. The environmental influences are probably going to be difficult to pinpoint, and more difficult to resolve. Even if I could resolve the issues, I can’t change the past: the damage has been done, and I am an addict. I have to deal with the brain I have, and BLE does that. It takes my messed up brain and starts to heal it – as far as that’s possible, through lowering insulin levels and reversing dopamine receptor downregulation – and gives me the tools to avoid being controlled by the old patterns. I don’t need to know why my brain is more addictable than others’ in order for this to work. So why bother?
I’m a Scientist
Curiosity, for one. How could a person not wonder what went into making them who they are? For goodness’ sake, I have to live with the person I am for the rest of my life. I want to understand it.
Second, if any of this is environmental, it’s important to know. From a medical perspective, if you have a disease that is environmentally influenced, there is obvious utility in understanding that influence. You may not be able to go back in time and undo the initial trigger, but you can certainly clean up those toxins from your current environment – or if that fails, remove yourself from the environment itself. If you have lung cancer, knowing that smoking caused it can’t help you go back to 40 years ago and choose not to start the habit. But it may help you quit now, and give you a better chance of survival. If you do die of the disease in the end, at least you know you did your best. And even if none of that is possible, you can stop the cycle from repeating. You can help change things for the next generation, and give others a better chance. Knowledge is power, even if that power is limited.
Third, let’s consider the worst-case scenario: say it’s completely genetics. Say I never had a chance. It’s in my genes, my programming, and has been from the moment I was conceived. It’s still not the final word. So much of what we’ve been learning in the field of genetics in the last couple of decades has pointed to the fact that genes are not the immutable things we once thought they were. Aside from random mutations (which are overwhelmingly harmful), our genetic expression – whether genes are turned on or off – is regulated by other parts of our DNA (formerly thought to be useless junk) and through environmental influences. This has sparked a whole new field called epigenetics. More and more, we are realizing that we can overcome faulty genetics through carefully targeted therapies, often dietary. And even more promising, though we can’t control the genes we pass onto our offspring, we can significantly influence their expression through our own lifestyle choices, from before conception right up until birth, and even in the months after.
I am going to be a naturopathic doctor. I will be counselling patients about how to make the healthiest choices for themselves and their children – current or future – so of course I want to understand what made me this way. I want to save others as much of this pain as I possibly can.
The Raw Ingredients
My personal genetic makeup – or at least the pool that I came from – seems unremarkable. My parents are probably both somewhere in the middle of the susceptibility range: my mom at the low end, my dad at the higher end. I suppose it’s reasonable that one of their 4 children would be high on the susceptibility scale, simply due to random mixing. Still, I’m a 10. A solid 10. That seems more unlikely than say, a 7 or an 8.
I do wonder if my epigenetic makeup could be less than optimal – compounding the effects of less than ideal genes. My mother grew up in a mill town, which is also where I was conceived and carried, born and raised for about the 1st year. If pollution is heavy enough to cover a town in a sulphurous smell, my guess is it is causing some physical stress on the people living in it. And we know that all kinds of stresses lead to altered genetic expression. At the very least, this couldn’t have been helpful.
Still, if genetics and epigenetics were all there was to it, I would expect to have seen signs of high addictability from a very young age. And I don’t feel like this was the case. I wasn’t always this way.
I was a healthy, happy kid. Unlike SPT, I wasn’t obsessed with food. I liked eating, but I didn’t overeat. I did occasionally sneak an extra cookie from the cookie jar. I didn’t steal a whole bag. And I felt very much in control of what I ate. I distinctly remember a moment in grade 8, when I was beginning to learn about diet and weight and wondering if I was healthy. I looked around my classroom, and my eyes landed on the one girl in my class who was slightly chubby. And I thought – without meanness or a sense of superiority, because I still envied this girl her blond hair and pretty face – that if I ever became that chubby, I would just eat less. The idea didn’t cause me any anxiety. It was a simple problem, with a simple solution. Not one that I ever had to deal with, until years later.
When did that change? What happened to me that left my brain susceptible to addiction? I didn’t witness any traumatic event. I wasn’t abused. I grew up in a loving family, where my mom cooked and we ate meals together. No one around me was preoccupied with food or weight, consumed with other addictions, or even indulging in acceptable vices – there was no smoking, no drinking.
To be honest, I really don’t know what it could have been. And that bothers me. I now understand what is going on in my brain that has kept me addicted to food for all the years I’ve been trying to quit it. But I don’t know why it happened to me.
Maybe, as I start to recover, I’ll be able to think more clearly. Maybe I’ll start seeing a pattern in a history that, right now, appears unremarkable. Make some sort of breakthrough, come up with a rational explanation. For now, I’m in the dark. Haunted by demons that I can’t see.
Maybe there’s nothing there. I could be searching for something that doesn’t exist. But if I don’t look, I won’t know. And here we come to another cleaning metaphor: I need to know that I’ve looked in and cleaned out every nook and cranny. That there’s no corner where dirt could be hiding, spiders spinning, or – worst case scenario – mould growing, infecting the air I breathe.
It’s going to take some time. But this isn’t over.