Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Your Brain's Impact on Cravings ... [and fat loss]

When most people think of metabolism, body fat reduction, nutrition and fitness, they don't usually think of the brain.

One of the major differences between fat loss and weight loss has to do with the brain hormones and how they impact hunger, mood, cravings, energy, motivation, and focus.

As we've said in the past, weight loss methods focus on calories, completely ignoring the dramatic impact the brain has on body change. 

Fat loss on the other hand focuses on hormones and therefore seeks to address all the hormones responsible for body composition, including the brain hormones or neurohormones (AKA neurotransmitters).

The 4 Major Neurotransmitters

There are four major neurohormones those striving for body fat reduction need to understand. 

  1. Dopamine (DOPE-AH-MEAN)
  2. Acetylcholine (AH-SETTLE-COE-LEAN)
  3. GABA (GAH-BAH) and
  4. Serotonin (SARAH-TONE-IN).

Together these four brain chemicals interact to influence personality traits, energy, and fat burning. 

Dopamine and Acetylcholine can be thought of as stimulating/energizing chemicals while GABA and serotonin are more relaxing.

In a several email series, we'll cover these 4 key brain chemicals and how they may impact your fat burning efforts.

As you read, see if you can identify or relate to any characteristics or tendencies in the descriptions. 

As a note of caution, be mindful NOT to immediately label yourself on being too low, or too high in a neurotransmitter, or to feel deficient if a tendency resonates with you.  The point in this series is perhaps to provide a possible solution, if in fact you might be low in one of neurotransmitters.

On Monday, I'll give you a short survey to help you identify what foods and supplements you can consume to support balanced neurotransmitters. 


Dopamine is perhaps the most important neurohormone in terms of your ability to burn fat. 

Dopamine energizes the brain and is key in allowing us to experience pleasure.  Dopamine allows us to stay focused, energized, and motivated.  It keeps us from procrastinating and allows us to feel enjoyment from the world around us.

People with healthy dopamine signaling tend to be focused, hardworking overachievers who seem to be able to eat whatever they want and not put on much weight. 

However, too much or too little dopamine can cause problems. 

Those with too little dopamine have lower energy levels, poor focus, and find it difficult to stick to a schedule. 

Because of this they will use food and stimulants to self-medicate.  Sugar in the form of candy or chocolate and stimulants in the form of soft drinks and coffee are frequent cravings of those with low dopamine function.  They crave the brain stimulation these things provide.  Unfortunately the stimulation is short-lived leading to repeated cravings and overindulgence.  Over time, though the consistent use of these compounds, dopamine signaling becomes weaker and weaker, leading to a vicious cycle of uncontrollable cravings. 

Those with higher than normal dopamine signaling are often overly focused perhaps to the point of compulsion.  They too tend to seek out stimulants to jolt them up even further.  

The goal for fat loss is to have a dopamine signaling system that regulates and balances the system with sustained energy, focus and motivation. What many people fail to realize is that brain chemistry is not about total levels of one neurohormone.  Instead, it is how the brain hormones relate to one another that makes a difference.  The balance of chemistry is key. 


Acetylcholine is another energy producing brain chemical.  It is mainly involved in processing speed of the brain and manifests itself in the ability to recall events, numbers, and names, as well as quickly solve problems, and a capacity to resist brain fatigue.

Those with low acetylcholine function will frequently forget numbers, be unable to recall a name despite knowing a face, and may often forget where they left their keys or wallet.  These individuals will often crave fat since fat is a rich source of choline, one of the building blocks of acetylcholine.  A craving for fried foods, hamburgers, and pizza, as well as a love of creamy desserts like cheesecake and ice cream may be a sign of low acetylcholine. Eggs, Avocado, and nuts and seeds are good acetylcholine foods.


Serotonin is one of the relaxing chemicals in the brain which also impacts how we feel about ourselves and the world.  People who have balanced serotonin function wake up, look into the mirror and  like who they see.  They look outside and appreciate the day.  Serotonin gives us a sense of well-being and confidence in the world.

Low serotonin can cause insomnia, depression, and low self-esteem.  Low serotonin often manifests as cravings for starches and salt, examples include bread, pasta, chips, and pretzels. Often those with very low levels have difficulty tasting food at all and may pile more salt on a piece of pizza or potato chips. These cravings are usually strongest at night with some low serotonin people claiming they cannot sleep without something to eat.  They often feel unsatisfied if starch is not part of the meal and struggle more than others if they attempt a low carbohydrate diet. Low serotonin people are the constant pessimists and are unable to accept coaching or feedback from anyone.  Another tendency, nothing and no one is ever good enough for those with low serotonin function.  Low serotonin tends to manifest as depression, overweight, insatiable craving for carbs and generally an untrusting, skeptical, paranoid disposition.


GABA is another relaxing brain chemical. It gives us the ability to quickly shut down and relax.  Those with a strong GABA personality don't seem to stress much, tend to be more care free, and often seem content and relaxed compared to others.  These are frequently the people who sleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. They rarely if ever feel anxious and usually feel little need to overindulge. 

Those who have low GABA function feel an inability to shut down and often suffer from anxiety.  They tend to be shy and unsure individuals who play it safe.  They also tend to eat way too much and way too fast. GABA is also involved in pain management so those with low GABA function may be sensitive to pain and often deal with conditions brought on by stress or anxiety.  Stress headaches, irritable bowel, and heartburn can frequently be an issue. People low in GABA frequently seek out starch but are really content eating anything as long as there is a lot of it to fill them up.  Low GABA people are emotional eaters in the truest sense of the word.

If you want to know what neurotrasmitter you may be low in, take this brief 5-question quiz.  Choose the one letter in each question that best describes you. If none describe you than leave the question blank.  If more than one describes you choose them all.

If you've found this to be helpful, print it out, see if you might have a tendency or pattern, and then the next post will offer some ways to balance the brain chemicals.

Your friend in fitness,

Brian Calkins

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