The Pleasure Pathway:
Picture watching the sunset on a beach, with a balmy breeze and your favorite person. Or, winning a game with your teammates – high fives, cheers, and flowing beer. The smell of freshly ground coffee beans. Biting into fresh bread. Your favorite song. New underwear.
The brain is wired to seek pleasure. Neurologically, we feel rewarded (via a flood of dopamine in the brain), leaving us with the thought “I need that again.” These choices lead to repetition, which turn into habit, and eventually, can create a lifestyle based on receiving this feeling of reward – even if negative consequences ensue.
Pleasurable things are not always good back to us. And many times, the higher the reward, the deeper the negative impact could be. Thinking specifically of food: the most desirable things – salt, fat, and sugar – are the most harmful when eaten in excess. However, we still need a healthy amount of these things (just as we do pleasure). A diet void of fat would lead to severe constipation. A long-term, low-carbohydrate diet can be damaging to the kidneys and liver. And eliminating salt, which is vital to the heart and nervous system, could lead to a coma and even death.
“On one end, our brains train us to over consume unhealthy food via the pleasure-reward pathway. On the other end (perhaps to combat these difficult-to-curb cravings), many of us adopt extreme diets that excessively reduce and/or eliminate necessary components to our wellbeing.“
On one end, our brains train us to over consume unhealthy food via the pleasure-reward pathway. On the other end (perhaps to combat these difficult-to-curb cravings), many of us adopt extreme diets that excessively reduce and/or eliminate necessary components to our wellbeing. How do we find balance?
Dopamine & The Brain-Gut Connection:
First, a bit more on how we make food choices.
Picture a life without pleasure. Sounds dull, right? More importantly – without a sense of reward, what would encourage us to make decisions? Dopamine is a feel-good chemical, but it also plays a role in motivation. If we don’t find something enjoyable, we probably won’t repeat it, we won’t learn it, we won’t eat it, etc. Lab rats with a deficiency in dopamine will actually starve to death; they have no desire for food.
In humans, dopamine not only motivates us to eat, but also trains our preferences for what we eat. Here’s how: any food that is high in calories (e.g., animal protein, fat, sugar, etc.) signals information to the brain saying: “this food is rich in metabolic power and will keep me alive.” Dopamine then floods the brain and gut, creating a sense of pleasure, and therefore a preference for that particular food, increasing the likelihood it’ll be eaten again.
“Food cravings are a survival mechanism created via this process. But if we’re not legitimately starving, are these cravings a trustworthy indication of what our bodies need?
Food cravings are a survival mechanism created via this process. But if we’re not legitimately starving, are these cravings a trustworthy indication of what our bodies need? It depends. Please read more on food cravings and what they might be telling us here. In consideration of the highly-processed, calorie-dense foods available these days, our biological wiring is bound to steer us in the wrong direction. As a result, much of our population is suffering from maladaptive food addictions and related health issues.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, humans have had a tendency to be mislead by their psyche for thousands of years (not just since the invention of fast-food chains, and not only with diet!) Food choices often deviate too far in any direction, whether that be with excessive meat, dairy, alcohol, salt, sugar, and even raw vegetables, or along the continuum toward deprivation. Not unlike modern theories, Ayurveda teaches people become driven by the environment in their gut, which communicates with the brain and vice versa.
The “Gunas” or bio-characteristics:
So what is the “environment of the gut”? Western nutrition teaches us to think of food in terms of vitamins, calories, macro/micro nutrients, etc. Focus is on the food and what it contains – not the particular body or gut it’s interacting with. In contrast, Ayurveda first considers gut health and digestive ability (your Dosha is a good indicator of this). Food recommendations then follow, which are geared toward creating balance within the digestive system.
The Vata Gut imbalance is:
Dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, and clear.
The Pitta Gut imbalance is:
Hot, sharp, light, liquid, mobile, and oily.
The Kapha Gut imbalance is:
Heavy, dull, cold, oily, smooth, soft, static, cloudy, hard, and gross.
“Cravings usually perpetuate, rather than balance, a poor gut environment.”
The above descriptors are called “Gunas ” or Bio-Characteristics, which are also used to categorize food. Each Guna has an equal and opposite extreme (e.g., hot vs. cold). As a general rule, opposites create balance while like creates more of the same. Here’s where our psyche (and gut) will steer us in the wrong direction: cravings usually perpetuate, rather than balance, a poor gut environment. For example, a person with Vata imbalance (i.e., dry gut) will crave dry foods, when they should be eating oily foods. Inappropriate food choices can lead to a host of medical issues specific to each Dosha (see here).
Below are the 10 pairs of Gunas with examples:
Increased temperature and spicy ⇨ cleansing and stimulates metabolism & circulation; ex. chili peppers, warm liquids and soups
Decreases body temperature and slows metabolism; ex. cucumbers, root vegetables, fruit, avocados, cilantro
Fattening ⇨ nourishing and moisturizing to body tissue; ex. animal fat, vegetable oils, ghee, bone marrow, nut butters
Lack of fat, crunchy, dehydrated ⇨ pulls moisture out of tissues, diuretic; ex. dried fruits, granola, crackers, popcorn
Increased density ⇨ weight gain, sluggishness, sleepiness; ex. meat, cheese, sugar
Airy and small ⇨ weight loss, energizing, insomnia; ex. raw vegetables, rice cakes, vinegar, sprouts
Gooey and/or gelatinous ⇨ increases gastric juices and other secretions, helps with wound healing; ex. oatmeal, dates, wheat, flax
Intense and deeply penetrating ⇨ fast acting on the body; ex. medicinal spices, mustard, black pepper, cayenne
As stated ⇨ promotes healing of tissues, easily digested, moisturizing; ex. milk, oils, creamed/pureed foods, nut butters, young coconut, avocado
Dry, scraping, coarse ⇨ cleanses and absorbs water through the digestive tract; ex. beans, crisp apples, dark greens, cruciferous vegetables
Similar to dull and oily; ex. strawberries, bananas, soft cheeses
Relevant to hard minerals, metals, and animals parts like bone
Grounding qualities ⇨ physically and emotionally stabilizing, produces inflammation; ex. meat, cheese, and salt
Diluting and/or dissolving ⇨ reduces viscosity in blood and prevents stagnation; ex. coffee, water, alcohol
Slow ⇨ reduces movement through the digestive tract, promotes stability and healing; ex. unrefined sugars, pumpkin, squash, all grains (quinoa, oats, rice, etc.)
Fast ⇨ improves motility; ex. coffee, meat, wasabi, horseradish, onions, allspice, ajwain seed, hot peppers, artichoke hearts
Uplifting, light, ethereal, spacey ⇨ highly psychological effect; ex. marijuana, alcohol, LSD, other drugs
Dense, heavy effect ⇨ obstruction, clogging (mentally & physically), obesity; ex. meat and cheese in extreme excess
Purges toxic build-up ⇨ cleanses the body, blood, and digestive tract; ex. raw honey, dandelion leaves, aloe vera, turmeric
Lack of clarity and perception; ex. dairy, excessively sweetened foods
A different Concept for the Term “Balanced Diet”:
Ayurveda’s idea of balance is a bit different than what we learn in Western Nutrition. It’s more about food’s texture & consistency, and how this might affect each unique digestive system. While this may seem negligent of nutritional composition (i.e., vitamins, minerals, calories, etc.) – realize the gut must first be healthy in order to absorb these things. Also, Ayurveda considers balance a state of being, reflected in our physical and emotional wellness. “You are what you eat” is a fundamental concept of this practice, meaning diet can either lead to health & happiness, or disease.
Here are some of the benefits of eating well:
- Sustainable energy without caffeine
- Healthier tissues: skin, hair, nails, muscles, and bones
- Improved digestion and gut health
- Boosted immune system
- Healthy body weight
- Happy mood & mental clarity
The pleasure-reward pathway can be a loud influence on our life decisions. Amidst this noise, it’s difficult to decipher what we need. The practice of Ayurveda guides us in traveling the right path: choosing foods, activity levels, and wellness strategies to reach and maintain balance.