What is Reward Deficiency and What it as to Do With Food Addiction?

Food is a source of pleasure for most people, and the source of pleasurable sensations originates in a part of the brain called the dopamine reward center. Dopamine is the brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. Anything that provides pleasure affects the dopamine reward center.Normally, the brain’s hard-wiring works in your favor, motivating you to repeat activities that are life-sustaining by connecting those activities to feelings of pleasure or reward. If something feels good you want to do it more. This explains why sex and eating are generally pleasurable: they perpetuate the survival of the human species. However, this mechanism can go awry.

Food addiction may be explained at least in part by changes in the function of the dopamine reward system.

For people without food addiction, binge eating or emotional eating, eating normal amounts of food provides enough pleasure, and overeating occurs only on occasion (Thanksgiving, for example). But if you have a food or eating addiction, binge eating or emotional eating, you may not feel the same amount of pleasure when you eat normal quantities of food, or when you eat foods that are not your “food fixes”—that is, those foods that you crave and have difficulty controlling.

Even eating that isn’t really about survival at all (eating to nourish your body) can be driven by the reward-equals-survival dynamic.

When you use food to provide comfort or to numb yourself from emotional pain, this behavior locks into the same mechanism that drives you toward life-sustaining activities. But in these instances, it’s the need for comfort or relief from emotional pain that drives you to overeat. You may feel like you’re craving a certain food when, in fact, you are craving a certain feeling or lack of feeling (numbness) that you’re using food to provide. Once again, the result is that you are obsessed with eating, and you may binge on foods that modify your emotions.

Reward Deficiency syndrome (RDS) involves a failure in the brain’s dopamine reward system.

Researcher Kenneth Blum described  reward deficiency syndrome (RDS) as a syndrome defined by difficulty experiencing feelings of pleasure or satisfaction.   If you have RDS, your brain has a harder time “detecting” the pleasure signal carried by dopamine, leading you to want to “turn up the volume” by doing more of the thing you hope will bring pleasure. Low D2 receptors in the brain may make you more prone to emotional eating and to bingeing.

Underlying dopamine regulation issues may explain why many people with binge-type eating disorders (and food addiction) have a higher risk for another addiction, such as alcohol use disorder.  You may have read about individuals who have had weight loss surgery only to develop another addictive behavior - alcohol abuse, gambling or sex addiction.

Do you have RDS?  Take the quiz below:

  1. Playing poker is more fun for me than playing chess.
  2. I enjoy high-risk or adventurous activities.
  3. Given the choice between getting a small reward now or waiting for a larger reward, I prefer not to wait. I want it now.
  4. Most people describe me as having an excitable personality.
  5. At work I could not get my job done without coffee.

If you answered "yes" to 1 or 2 of these questions, you may have a mild form of RDS.  If you have 3 or more "yes" answers to these questions, you are highly likely to have RDS.

Learning about RDS can help you understand why some things are harder for you than for other people. A better understanding may help relieve some of the suffering you’ve experienced in constantly trying to change your impulsivity and compulsivity, and feeling as if you’re getting nowhere. If you understand that some of these behaviors and traits are related to your RDS, you can begin to accept that and then find ways to work with the cards you’ve been dealt, instead of working against them.

To learn more about RDS, check out my upcoming podcasts on RDS and the next newsletter.

All the best,

Dr. Carolyn

PS - don't miss your opportunity to learn to make peace with food and your body.  Schedule a free consult NOW!