Food Addictions: The Role Trauma Plays

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Food- we need it for survival! It has existed as long as humans have and has developed a symbiotic relationship with us. It is true that we can go for long periods of time without it but it is still a part of our ability to survive and function on a daily basis. For tens of thousands of years humans have been hunter gatherers and have survived on wild life from animal and plant sources. When we look at food, we can say with confidence that it is a good thing and that it is part of primitive life on the planet.

Things have changed tremendously when it comes to the role food plays in the nourishment and survival of humanity since the early to mid-twentieth century. Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, humanity has and continues to find ways to change many aspects of the natural rhythms of organic life, particularly when it comes to food. The primitive connection humanity has had with natural and organic food sources has been replaced by industrial human made foods that is creating a domino effect to our health today in the modern industrial world.

We know that enjoying and desiring food is based on primitive human instinct, however, the industrial food industry is taking this primitive mode of human existence and finding ways to shift us away from natural living and eating fresh, organic and nutrient rich foods to eating foods that are far from anything we can actually call “real food.” Thus, food addictions have been born!

This is a lengthy topic which we will break into a 3 part series:

  1. Part I: The role trauma plays into food addictions.

  2. Part II: The industrial/man-made foods that fuel the addiction. Click HERE

  3. Part III: The advertising industry that manipulates our food desires. Click HERE

The goal of these articles is to make you or someone you know see that food addiction is both a psychological and physiological reality. Also, that these two are fueled by the big food industry, marketing strategies, advertisement and sociological aspects as well. The hope is that you see that there is a way out of food addition but that it takes a multi-faceted approach to overcoming what many health professionals are calling a disease. As a word of caution, we must not think we have become victims in this matrix outlined above because you do have the ability to overcome this growing epidemic. It just takes time, a will to change, support from others, removing any distractions getting in the way and many other lifestyle changes that will lead you towards a healthier and happier life.

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The relationship between trauma and food


There is not enough conversation regarding the relationship between traumatic events we experience and the relationship it has with food addiction. In order to gain a better understanding about how trauma and food addiction relate, we must spend time in this section discussing the brain’s neurological effects from these events and how it wires people to gravitate towards maladaptive behaviors like food addiction to cope with these events.

You will gain an understanding of how trauma effects certain areas of the brain and ways to rewire your brain to reduce unhealthy behaviors like over eating (even though some people do under-eat). We have to see how the brain and body are intricately connected and realize trauma effects our whole being. The hope in this section is to help you see that you are not stuck and that you can rehab your brain so you can overcome food addiction.

There will also be certain types of therapies discussed in this section so you can utilize those to help this process as well. Addressing trauma takes treating the brain and body, again, your whole being.

Trauma takes on many forms as early as the birth process; during infant and toddler years with abandonment/neglect; emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse growing up, witnessing traumatic events, warfare, personal injuries, near death experiences, toxic relationships, witnessing traumatic events, and the list goes on. In our current technological era, we experience more stimuli than ever of images, sounds, languages, etc., that augment our past traumatic experiences that is leading many down a path towards numerous addictions like food addiction to cope with those events.

So how do these events that are repeated in our minds effect our brains?

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How the brain is affected by trauma


The First Region

The first region of the brain affected by trauma is called the, “Hindbrain: Flight or Fight… or Freeze.”  The hindbrain is located between the brain stem and the midbrain (discussed next), it is the most primitive part of your brain but the least evolved part of the brain. The hindbrain’s mechanism to cope with stress is through musculoskeletal contraction.

When you experience stress or anxiety you may experience symptoms like headaches, high blood pressure, digestive problems, neck tension, etc. This is not the workings of the hindbrain since the brain does not contain any pain receptors but through the stimulation of sensory nerves in blood vessels at the base of the skull that causes them to change diameter.

When these physiological pathways take place they cause us to either flee, fight or freeze in a stressful event. This may occur when you have experienced a traumatic event and current stimulus gives you flashbacks. It is your sympathetic nervous system that creates the fight or flight response in our bodies which makes up the autonomic nervous system and has been a part of our survival as a human race.

The problem comes when we have experienced repeated traumatic events that stimulate this part of the brain and autonomic nervous system. When we experience repeated/long-term trauma, the body and brain find it difficult to bring you back to a state of rest. You may experience panic attacks, times of withdrawal from others, anxiety, depression, repetitive bodily movements, angry outbursts, etc.

These traumatic events are stored in the hippocampus and any time you experience any triggers that bring flashbacks, the cycle continues repeatedly. These ongoing occurrences over time disrupt the workings of the hindbrain. These events can bring you to a place of hopelessness and powerlessness and this is where the gravitation towards food finds its place in addiction. The excess consumption of food is a way to numb your emotions/feelings from acute distress, especially for those who tend to flee from this current state of being. Besides the use of medications, food becomes an outlet to treat the ongoing symptoms.

The Second Region

The second region of the brain trauma effects is called, “The Midbrain.” What we find in the midbrain is the limbic system. The limbic system is the center of our emotions and feelings. The limbic system allows us to balance out pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

When you have had any trauma in the past, you may unconsciously show signs of stress and anxiety through certain bodily habits like biting your nails, bouncing your leg up and down, rocking back and forth, etc. Some tend to gravitate towards unhealthy food choices when the limbic system is overly stimulated. You are experiencing unpleasant feelings stored in the hippocampus and use food to cope with the psychological and physiological states of acute anxiety caused by current triggers and/or flashbacks.

One important area in the limbic system is the hypothalamus, the area of the brain where serotonin is produced. When you experience triggers over and over again through any sensory medium, the hypothalamus becomes more and more depleted of serotonin. The direct effect of low serotonin in the hypothalamus leads to psychological conditions like depression. It is not uncommon for those who have experienced trauma in their lives to experience short to long-term episodes of depression.

In times of episodic depression, yourself or others may gravitate towards eating unhealthy foods that are filled with sugar or any processed food. These foods stimulate the dopamine pathways in the brain that give you feelings of instantaneous gratification. The cycle of maladaptive behavior leads you down a path of food addiction. Once again, food becomes an opiate just like illegal drugs, sex, or any dopamine stimulus you can get your hands on.

It is no surprise that anti-depressants, in particular, SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are some of the most prescribed medications in America today. With the depletion of serotonin in the hypothalamus, these drugs are designed to keep whatever serotonin you have left in the brain to linger longer between synapses that send and receive serotonin to give you a greater sense of well-being and reduce depressive symptoms. However, these drugs like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and Lexapro only treat the symptom, just like the sugary and/or processed addictive foods.

The brain has the ability to balance itself between serotonin and dopamine, however, in trauma related depression and anxiety disorders, this remains out of balance. Later on in this section, we will discuss how to bring a better balance between these two important neurotransmitters in your brain through therapy and other lifestyle practices.

The Third Region

The third region of the brain trauma effects is called, “The Neocortex: Happiness and Fear.” The neocortex or what also can be called the “frontal cortex” is the executive center of your brain. When you are getting adequate amounts of “frontal cortex” stimulation/activity, you will have the ability to improve learning, make better decisions, have better impulse control, and emotional modulation.

We can divide the neocortex/prefrontal cortex into two distinct parts. The “left prefrontal cortex (LPFC) which is linked to emotions of happiness and enthusiasm. The “right prefrontal cortex (RPFC) which holds negative feelings such as fear, sadness, and anxiety.

The latter does help us regarding our survival. When we find ourselves in a situation that causes fear, the amygdala regulates how responsive you are to the highly charged emotional events. However, trauma and those who continually have flashbacks have more activity in the RPFC than the LPFC. When you have triggering experiences, the immediate feelings of fear, anxiety or sadness take over and you may reach for the comfort foods once again.

When you experience trauma, the stress hormone cortisol and corticotropin-releasing-factor (CRF) can damage neurons leading to a decrease of cells in the LPFC. Chronic emotional stress is toxic to neurons and leads to a loss of total brain volume.

Experiencing any type of trauma and having constant flashbacks leads to more cortisol production and depletion of LPFC cell density, serotonin and other happy neurotransmitters leading to depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, etc. Once again, you may gravitate towards the comfort foods to increase the production of dopamine to make up for the loss of serotonin in the brain. As a result, you may end up with depleted serotonin and dopamine and lack the ability for your brain to create the balance between the two if this becomes a long-term chronic issue.

Life is a balancing act and you can create that balance with the proper therapy and lifestyle habits. Over time, this will give your brain the ability to experience pleasure and happiness (both are distinct based on where they function in the brain) in proper balance controlled by your neocortex/prefrontal cortex. This will bring you to a place where past trauma or current triggers no longer have the power to create poor impulse control and will empower you to make healthier decisions like food choices to avoid drowning your feelings in comfort foods.

Now that you have gained a better understanding of how all three regions of the brain are effected by trauma and conditions some of your current behaviors, let’s take a look at certain therapies and lifestyle practices that create the biochemical balance your brain needs to help you overcome food addiction.

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Treatments to overcome food addictions


There are times where you are in an acute mental state and are in need of inpatient hospital care. If you ever find yourself in an acute state and are feeling suicidal, please seek help from the mental health community. Mental health facilities can provide a place of safety in these times of acute distress and give you time to make decisions that will impact your mental health for the better in the long term.

There are times when medication is appropriate and is a part of someone’s new lifestyle because you or others may find themselves in a place where making decisions to better your mental health is too difficult and medication sometimes can help you to get to that place. There should be no shame involved if you need medication. This is where our medical system is of benefit to you. We should be grateful that there are acute inpatient mental health facilities that people can go to when they need it, especially in times of crises.

It is necessary to spend a few paragraphs speaking about acute emergency situations because past trauma triggered by current events may occur in your life or others that require such treatment.

Treatment Option 1 “DBT” (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy)

The first type of treatment is what is called, “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy,” (DBT). This therapy was introduced in the 1980’s by Marsha M Linehan. DBT was designed specifically for treating those with borderline personality disorder but is now being used for many different types of mood disorders. One of the things about trauma is that it completely de-regulates the emotional center of the brain mentioned above and this therapy is designed to help that area function more efficiently, including a possible mood disorder that fuels the food addictive lifestyle. DBT is now being used to treat eating disorders, sexual abuse survivors, chemical dependency (addiction), people who inflict self-injury (like cutting) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

So what does DBT do?

DBT combines different types of cognitive (thinking) therapies to help regulate your emotions. It helps you to see how much tolerance you currently have to withstand negative emotions and/or physical discomfort and any behavioral acts that manifest themselves from any negative stimulant.

When these stimulants occur, they often times manifest in impulsive behaviors like the excess consumption of foods to cope with the current stressor(s). The body and mind are both connected and when you experience trauma that lingers for years your thoughts and feelings become manifest in automatic maladaptive behaviors like food addiction. DBT explores those aspects of post-trauma and helps you to become more emotionally stable.

DBT takes you to a place of acceptance. Acceptance that trauma has occurred in your life and this becomes the first step in rehabbing the emotional and decision-making centers of your brain. When you have spent years coping with past trauma through food addiction, acceptance helps you to realize you are not a victim but that these experiences occurred beyond your control or fault and that they no longer have to control over your life.

Acceptance is not disregarding what happened to you but your acknowledgement that it has happened and are ready to incorporate healthier habits in your life when current events trigger those past events.

Once you have reached a state of acceptance, then you are able to incorporate what is called, “mindfulness” or “mindful awareness.” When you experience moments where you are triggered by past trauma in the “now” state, it helps you to develop the skill of acknowledging the thoughts and feelings without sending you down a path of impulsive behaviors like excess food consumption.

In a nutshell, DBT focuses on living in the present and giving you the mental and emotional tools to not allow past trauma to condition your current states of being. This therapy helps to reprogram the brain regions discussed earlier. As a result, you should have healthier emotions and thoughts because you have put your trauma in perspective and no longer let it control your life.

Treatment Option 2 “EMDR” (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

EMDR has been a proven effective treatment for trauma. It incorporates many different types of treatment approaches. There is a three pronged protocol in this treatment option:

1. Past memories

2. Present disturbances

3. Future actions

The goal of this therapy is to process completely the experiences that are causing current states of distress. Processing should be understood to mean setting up a learning state that will allow past experiences to be digested and stored appropriately in the brain. What ever is useful from the traumatic experiences will be learned and stored with appropriate emotions in your brain and guide you in positive ways in the future. The inappropriate emotions, beliefs and bodily sensations will be discarded. Your negative emotions are generally caused by the lack of processing them and putting them in perspective and this therapy helps you to do process them under the care of a trained professional.

There are 8 phases of treatment:

  1. History and Treatment Planning
  2. Preparation
  3. Assessment
  4. Desensitization
  5. Installation
  6. Body scan
  7. Closure
  8. Re-evaluation

EMDR therapy incorporates the mind and body with each step of the process. Trauma takes on psychological and physiological effects and until you address each of them, it becomes difficult to reach a place where maladaptive behaviors like food addiction no longer becomes an issue. Besides the brain storing memories, the body stores them as well. EMDR helps you to get a place where the mind and body are healthier and higher functioning. Bringing the hindbrain, midbrain and frontal cortex to a state of equilibrium.

Those who want to seek treatment for trauma often times utilize EMDR before using DBT. EMDR will help you to work through the hyper-sensitivity you have neurologically and physiologically to the trauma you have experienced in the past and de-sensitize these ongoing acute states, so that you can work through the methods of DBT described above with greater ease.

Treatment Option 3 “CBT” (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)

You have seen how DBT’s main emphasis is on emotions, acceptance and mindfulness. EMDR’s main emphasis is on the broader psychological and physiological effects from trauma. CBT works a little different.

When you experience events that trigger a past trauma you more than likely have developed automatic negative thinking patterns as a result.

Negative thinking patterns take many forms: all or nothing thinking, personalization, mind reading, catastrophizing, filtering, emotional reasoning, etc. You learn what these and other types of negative thinking patterns mean during the therapy.

The goal of CBT therapy is to stop these automatic negative thinking patterns by becoming aware of them when they occur in your mind. Once you begin to practice this new skill, then you learn ways to replace automatic negative thinking patterns with positive thoughts. Whether your thoughts are negative or positive they stimulate feelings and based on those feelings they take the form in some healthy or unhealthy action(s).

In other words, a way to think about this is through the proposition, “thoughts lead to feelings and feelings lead to actions.”

You may have found yourself going to a dark place as your automatic negative thoughts triggered by current events lead you to a path of anxiety, depression, despair, etc. A way to cope with these negative thoughts is through excess food consumption.

CBT is a way of acknowledging the automatic negative thoughts and prevent the negative thoughts and feelings from becoming active in any unhealthy form.

There is a commonality between all three of these therapies and that is they focus on your present state of being and help your brain and body to no longer be conditioned by past traumatic events. DBT and CBT do not spend time having you rehash the past like traditional psychoanalysis does but focuses on the now and future by placing these events in perspective so they no longer have power over you.

You do have the opportunity to take advantage of these three therapies to address your trauma. If these do not sound like something you are interested in then here is a short list of other therapies to think about.

  1. Traditional talk therapy with a licensed professional counselor
  2. Grief Counseling
  3. PTSD specific therapy (keep in mind DBT, EMDR and CBT are options for this)
  4. ECT (electro-convulsive therapy)
  5. Medication therapy
  6. Trauma support groups

All of the therapies mentioned above should be spoken about with any trained and licensed therapist, clinical social worker, physician, psychiatrist or psychologist before deciding which therapy may be good for you to do.

Trauma experiences cover a wide range of human experience, so making sure you make an informed decision on which one to choose, speaking with a professional is imperative. People do choose to do more than one since some build on the process of others, so utilize as much therapy as you can.[/fusion_text][title size=”3″ content_align=”left” style_type=”single” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”20″ class=”” id=””]

Lifestyle habits that assist the brain and body

[/title][fusion_text]Here are some other lifestyle habits that can assist your brain and body to reprogram itself biochemically and physiologically to help you overcome food addiction.

  1. Cardiovascular exercise
  2. Meditation/ Prayer
  3. Journaling
  4. Attending support groups weekly (there is power in doing this with the support of others)
  5. Limiting exposure to harmful stimulants that can trigger negative and impulsive behaviors
  6. Be mindful of who you spend your time around and choose wisely who to relate to in a more authentic way

The beauty about the brain and body is that they are malleable. They have the ability to create new pathways to reset and reprogram their specific functions. All of these therapies and lifestyle practices will allow you to achieve this newly discovered scientific truth. You are not stuck, there is a way to experience better mental and physical health. It just takes time and a desire to get better. These are not quick fixes so give it time to work for you. Part 1 has shown you therapies on how to do just that. Become free of food addiction through therapy!

Give us your feedback regarding part 1 on “food addiction!”

What did you learn from reading this section?

What stood out to you the most?

Do you or someone you know need any of the therapies mentioned in this section?

What did not make sense to you?

If you have experienced trauma, what steps are you going to make to get the help you need?

What types of lifestyle changes are you going to make to begin the process of trauma recovery?

The beauty about the brain and body is that they are malleable. They have the ability to create new pathways to reset and reprogram their specific functions. All of these therapies and lifestyle practices will allow you to achieve this newly discovered scientific truth. You are not stuck, there is a way to experience better mental and physical health. It just takes time and a desire to get better. These are not quick fixes so give it time to work for you. Part 1 has shown you therapies on how to do just that. Become free of food addiction through therapy!


Ready for Part II: The industrial/man-made foods that fuel the addiction? Click HERE


To Health & Vitality,

 John Nardozzi

Enzyme Nutritionist & Blog Writer


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2 Replies to “Food Addictions: The Role Trauma Plays”

  1. Thank you for writing this article and sharing this information. I am a bit confused however about what you’ve said about the parasympathetic nervous system. My understanding is that stress and trauma activate the sympathetic nervous system and trigger the “fight, flight or freeze” syndrome. All three of these symptoms (fight, flight, freeze) arrest the normal functions of the body as the body moves into “all hands on deck” survival mode. The “freeze” referred to here is not activated by the parasympathetic nervous system and its effect on the other systems in the body is no different than either “fight” or “flight”. When the parasympathetic nervous system (often referred to as “rest and digest system”) is activated it reverses and relaxes the tension created by the sympathetic nervous system and allows the rest of the body’s functions to return to normal.

    You could also mention Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as EFT or Tapping, as another means of treatment that, once they understand the protocol, one can do on their own to help deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

    1. You are correct. It looks like a typo. It is the sympathetic nervous system that activates fight or flight. I just spoke of a few therapies but there are others. Thank you for the correction and offering other therapies.

      John Nardozzi

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