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The Effect of Sex and Love Addiction on Your Brain and Body (And How to Change It!)

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Those who debate against the existence of sex and love addiction use the claim that because there is no substance taken in, there is no clear physiological basis for addiction.  But interestingly enough, research on brain scans of self-identified sex and love addicts show similar damage to those of cocaine addicts.

Our brains change over time based on what they are exposed to and what self-rewarding patterns they form.  In order to understand sex and love addiction more fully, it is important to know more about what particular neurochemicals are at play.

Dopamine

Have you ever gotten the rush of joy when you hear your favorite song on the radio?  How about when you eat a delicious meal?  The chemical that creates that reaction in your brain is dopamine.  Dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, causing a rush of good feelings when you do something exciting or rewarding. This rush can be intoxicating, leading to a desire to continue whatever activities caused it.

Sex is one of the greatest generators of dopamine, giving a boost of euphoria.  Dopamine increases the sex drive, is released during orgasm, and activates the brain’s pleasure centers. During sexual activity, dopamine floods the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in impulse control and decision-making. When the dopamine system is active, pain and displeasure are numbed.

According to Stefanie Carnes, dopamine plays a role in the escalation of addiction. As the addict engages in more risky sexual behavior, tolerance for dopamine begins to grow.  It takes more risky behavior to continue feeling the same effects.  This flood of dopamine can impair judgment, particularly in young adults under the age of 25, whose prefrontal cortex is not fully developed.

Chronic exposure to compulsive sexual activities can reduce natural levels of dopamine, and non-sexual ways of receiving dopamine become less effective. At the same time, the addict gets a more intense “high” from their behaviors because his or her brains is highly sensitized to the neurotransmitter.  The more often the addict turns to compulsive sexual behaviors, the more that pattern of getting dopamine gets engraved into the neural connections in their brain.

Oxytocin and Vasopressin

The hormone oxytocin works as a neurotransmitter in the brain.  It is produced by skin-to-skin physical contact, which means it abounds during sexual activity. It is also present in the early stages of relationships and falling in love.  It promotes bonding in relationships and feelings of associated with long-term commitment.  It can increase empathy and provides an antidote to depressive feelings.

With all the benefits of oxytocin, no wonder it is a powerful stress reliever and can add to the addictive pull.  When compulsive sexual behaviors happen, this rise in levels of oxytocin can cause the sex and love addict to continually seek out that rush of closeness felt in the early stages of a relationship.  As a new physical relationship starts, oxytocin leads to forgetfulness of previous bonding experiences.

Vasopressin is a neurochemical similar to oxytocin released in order to create greater experiences of bonding in romantic relationships.  This fosters protectiveness and pair bonding.

Delta Fos-B

When the rush of dopamine and oxytocin hits, the brain begins to change.  Researchers have noticed greater sensitivity in the addict to triggers and cravings, which intensifies the response to the addictive substance. The reason for his may be ∆ Fos-B, a protein that accumulates after compulsive use of sexual behaviors. This protein accumulates each time the addictive behavior is practiced, and it can cause changes to the dopamine system.  The buildup of this protein affects lack of enjoyment of the addictive sexual activities, as well as cravings that linger even after years after maintaining sobriety.

How Do I Change my Brain?

Fortunately, the same neuroplasticity that caused the brain to adapt to the changes brought about by an addict’s behavior contradicts the idea that once an individual becomes an addict, he or she is always an addict.  In the same way that neuronal connections were made in the first place, those same neuronal connections can be changed as you begin to practice new behaviors and stop using the old patterns.  There is hope for those who are willing to work to change their compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts.

The first step involves identifying non-addictive sources of dopamine or oxytocin.  As Paula Hall discusses in her video about sex addiction recovery, you can think of your brain like a map, where the road to addictive behaviors is deeply carved into the landscape.  You need to begin looking to take other roads to receive the emotional boost that dopamine brings, like practicing self-care or engaging in hobbies you enjoy.  Oxytocin comes from physical touch, so increasing amounts of physical touch in your life through your spouse, children, family, or friends may be a helpful way to receive that oxytocin.

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Have you felt stuck in addictive behavior for a long time, and are feeling hopeless about ever changing?  Does it feel like your brain is working against itself?  Are you tired of feeling like your compulsive sexual behaviors are ruling over you?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services tailored to your specific recovery journey.  I love to walk alongside my clients to help them find hope and encouragement as they seek to life fulfilled, addiction-free lives.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Self-Care Saturdays: Nourish Your Body

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Welcome to Self-Care Saturdays, a series of bonus blog posts that will be released on the last Saturday of each month.  In a world where we are constantly faced with demands on our time and energy, it can feel impossible to slow down enough to pay attention to our own needs and take steps to care for them.  These articles are meant to get you thinking about one small step you can take today to practice kindness and care for yourself. 

For most of us in the US, we’ve just finished off a massive meal on Thanksgiving Day.  Thoughts surrounding food can go one of two ways.  On one side, food can provide an unhealthy source of comfort.  It can lead to overeating, obesity, or weight gain.  In extreme cases, an eating disorder can develop.

But food can be used for self-care as well.  Food is meant to nourish our bodies.  The right kinds of foods help our brains to work better and stave off the effects of mental illness.  Staying fed and hydrated gives us the energy to make it through the day.

I would love to change the way we think about food.  We might see food as something we manipulate to gain or lose weight, or to make our bodies look a certain way.  Instead, I would love to see food as a tool for our health.  Food can provide self-care as long as it isn’t the only means through which you receive comfort.  I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with eating a piece of candy, as long as it doesn’t become a binge (which is good, because I love candy!)

Here are some ways to practice self-care with food.

Make a delicious meal.

Several years ago, I loved Olive Garden’s delicious risotto dish with shrimp and asparagus.  It was my go-to meal at that restaurant…that is, until they took it off the menu.  I was heartbroken, but one day I stumbled across a copycat recipe for the meal online.  Within a few hours, I was able to make a delicious dish that was a near imitation of my favorite!

Take some time at home to make a copycat recipe for one of your favorite restaurant foods, or make a home cooked meal that reminds you of a certain time in your childhood.  If you’re not much of a cook, treat yourself to a meal at a restaurant that you love. 

You can also make a meal with your loved ones.  Cook with your kids, and set aside any worries about how messy the kitchen will get.  Make a meal for someone you love, like a friend who just had a baby, your spouse, or your parents. 

Eat mindfully.

In an earlier post, I discussed several ways to use mindfulness exercises to reduce anxiety.  These same exercises can be used while eating to remain connected and present.  In particular, I like using the 5-4-3-2-1 senses exercise.  Smell the food as it cooks and as you take your first bite.   Listen for the sounds of sizzling in the saucepan.  Listen to music while you’re cooking or eating.  Look at your plate of food.  What textures do you see?  Does it look appetizing?  What colors do you see?  Notice the taste and the texture of the food in your mouth as you chew, paying attention to if it is warm or cold.  Notice the taste: is it sweet or sour, bitter or flavorful?

Be mindful as you bake or cook a slower dish.  This is easier when you have time set aside to take as long as you need.  This past Thanksgiving, I decorated an apple pie with the shape of a turkey, and I knew I was able to have fun because I set aside a whole day to do it.  While this might not be practical for every day, it is a great idea to set aside a chunk of time to cook or bake.

Pay attention to your body.

Mindfulness extends past the present moment of cooking or eating a meal to the way you feel throughout the day.  Pay attention to how your body feels after eating.  Did you eat too much and feel overstuffed?  Are you still hungry?  How is the food sitting with you?  Are you thirsty or well-hydrated?

One way I love to pay attention to how much water I’m drinking is the Plant Nanny app, which encourages you to track your water intake by “watering” a plant on your phone.  Notice how increase in water intake or eating of different foods makes you feel throughout the day.

Learn about new foods.

Pick up a cookbook from your local library or read an article in a magazine for a new recipe.  Learn about the nourishing qualities of food by reading studies about the effects of different foods on your body.  I love to watch Food Network to learn about new recipes and techniques to try.  As a baker, I’m currently reading through a baker’s cookbook to learn about the chemistry behind how ingredients combine.  Learn about and follow health guidelines for food and portions.  In particular, pay attention to the foods you eat after exercise, such as taking in more protein.

Care for your allergies and sensitivities.

As you observe your body’s response to foods, you may notice the effects of a gluten allergy or sensitivity to dairy, or you might see how eating greasy food wrecks your stomach.  Think about the foods to which your body doesn’t respond well.  It can be self-care to give yourself something that is not so hard on your body.  When I worked at a Starbucks, I learned that dairy-milk lattes affected my stomach.  I switched over to soy milk, and it’s made all the difference.  Yes, that means that when I go in now to order a drink, I have to pay and extra 60 cents for my soy milk, but it’s worth it because it makes my stomach feel so much better (and it tastes delicious!).

Be aware of your mental attitude toward food.

When dieting comes into the picture, our food intake can become harshly restricted.  When we have endless rules about what we can and cannot eat, it’s easy to fall off the wagon.  Dieting focuses energy on thinking about our weight such that we pay more attention to it, which discourages us and can lead to emotional eating .  Instead of becoming wrapped up in following a certain diet and then feeling guilty and shame-filled when you break it, set realistic expectations and don’t beat yourself up.  Take baby steps.  Celebrate the little victories, looking more at the positive than the negative.

If you have difficulties around food, seek professional help.

If you struggle with an eating disorder, binge eating, obesity, eating to escape or self-medicate, insecurity about your weight, or guilt or shame about food, it is imperative that you get professional help.  You deserve to see food as a self-care comfort rather than a burden for you.  If you notice this article is triggering for you, or you identify with a difficulty listed above, seek help.  You deserve it.  You can call the hotline for the National Eating Disorder Association at 1-800-931-2237 or look at their resource page for a trained professional in your area.

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Do you often feel insecure about your eating habits?  Do you tend to run away from painful emotions with food?  Have you tried several diets and failed?  At Restored Hope, we believe food should be a source of nourishment and energy, not of shame and guilt.  We offer counseling services at our Novi and Ann Arbor therapy offices, and we’d love to meet with you to make a plan for your relationship with food.  Give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to hear more about how we can help.