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dnaMD- Do You Crave Salty or Sweet?

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Do you find yourself craving salty or sweet? Or, maybe both? The secret to your cravings is actually much deeper than you might think.


Craving sweet food is often a signifier of low serotonin levels. On the other hand, craving salty foods is often a symptom of low dopamine levels. While food cravings may seem insignificant, imbalances in serotonin and dopamine can lead to serious consequences.

Serotonin:


Serotonin is a natural mood stabilizer. It helps to reduce depression and anxiety, and produces an all-around good mood. Most of us know that when serotonin levels are low, it can lead to anxiety, depression, panic disorders, and compulsive behaviors. But many people may not know that a low level of serotonin can also lead to food cravings, specifically sweets and carbohydrates.


Low serotonin leads to sweets and carbohydrate cravings through the following process:


  1. After a carb-rich meal, the pancreas releases insulin to remove blood glucose to store in the muscle, liver, and fat tissue.

  2. Insulin also decreases levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) in the bloodstream and moves them into the brain.

  3. BCAA’s compete with tryptophan, an amino acid that is a building block of serotonin, for entrance into the brain.

  4. When there are equal levels of tryptophan and BCAA, the brain favors BCAA, which will lead to low serotonin.

  5. To combat this, when serotonin levels are low, your body will crave carbohydrates and sweets in order to lower BCAA levels and allow more tryptophan to enter the brain.

  6. This will result in an uptick in serotonin levels.

In conclusion, your body craves carbohydrates and sugars in order to allow more serotonin production. Multiple studies have demonstrated this cycle to be true. Research has proven that serotonin levels are raised after a meal high in carbohydrates and lowered after a meal high in fat and protein. Studies have also suggested low levels of tryptophan can increase hunger and drive food cravings, especially for foods high in the amino acid. Foods with high levels of tryptophan include: chocolate, milk, bread, cheese, fruit, and canned tuna. These cravings usually happen around the time you go to bed, as serotonin levels are naturally higher at night to induce sleepiness.


Genes affecting serotonin:


The most research has been done on the TPH2 gene. TPH2 codes for tryptophan hydroxylase 2 and helps produce serotonin. Some variants of this gene can lower the activity of TPH2, which will result in lower serotonin production. These TPH2 variants have been linked to mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder and suicide.


If you have a TPH2 variant or think you have low serotonin levels, you can try using a 5-HTP supplement (after being prescribed one by your medical professional) or try some of these ways to naturally boost serotonin:

  • Eat a balanced diet, like the Mediterranean Diet

  • Exercise

  • Spend time outdoors in the sunlight

  • Take vitamin B6 and Zinc

  • Eat a diet with sufficient protein

  • Eat blueberries

  • Take probiotics and prebiotics. A large percentage of serotonin is made in the gut.


Dopamine:


Dopamine is a brain chemical released when we engage in rewarding behaviors or pleasure-inducing behaviors. These behaviors can be anything from shopping to seeing family and friends. Dopamine is also known as the “feel-good” hormone. But dopamine does more than making us happy, it also contributes to motor function, mood, and decision-making. This is why low levels of dopamine can impact your entire body. Low dopamine can lead to back pain, constipation, sleep disorders, depression, and fatigue. Insufficient levels of dopamine can also result in food cravings, specifically salty foods.


Food cravings when you have low levels of dopamine are mostly foods high in an amino acid called tyrosine. Tyrosine is an essential component of dopamine. Tyrosine is found in a wide range of foods, including dairy, proteins, and non-dairy foods that have been aged. Foods with high levels of tyrosine include:

  • Cheese

  • Beef

  • Milk

  • Red Wine

  • Eggs

  • Corn

  • Chicken

  • Fish


When your body is low in dopamine, it will crave the above foods to regenerate its supply of tyrosine, thus raising your levels of dopamine. Studies have also found that low dopamine levels can lead to cravings for salty foods. This is because salty foods can be highly addictive, and eating them releases a flood of dopamine in the brain. But eating salty foods will not help your brain produce more dopamine, but will rather just release what is stored. Eating salty foods is seen as a reward which triggers the release of dopamine.


Genes affecting dopamine:


There are several genes that impact your dopamine levels and production:

  • DRD2- This gene is a dopamine receptor that regulates the synthesis, storage, and release of dopamine. Variants in this gene can lead to the inhibition of dopamine production and activity. DRD2 variants can result in psychiatric and psychotic symptoms and an increased risk of addiction and neuropsychiatric diseases. DRD2 receptors are inhibitory, meaning having more of these receptors will lower overall dopamine levels.

  • COMT- This gene codes for an enzyme that breaks down certain neurotransmitters, including dopamine. Variants of the COMT gene can lead to either too little or too much dopamine. This is problematic because too little dopamine can lead to depression and mood disorders, while too much dopamine can lead to stress-related disorders.

  • ANKK1- This gene is very closely intertwined with the DRD2 gene. It is also a dopamine receptor that regulates dopamine levels in the brain. Certain variants of ANKK1 have been linked to unhealthy eating behaviors and obesity. This is because ANKK1 variants can lead to increased cravings for carbohydrates and fast foods.

If you have a dopamine lowering variant in the DRD2, COMT, or ANKK1 genes, you can try supplementing with tyrosine (after receiving a prescription from your medical practitioner). You can also try one of these ways to naturally boost dopamine levels:

  • Eat a diet high in protein

  • Consume less saturated fats

  • Supplement with probiotics

  • Exercise

  • Get enough sleep

  • Listen to music

  • Meditate

If you find yourself often having strong cravings for sweet or salty foods, it’s likely that your genetics and their impact of serotonin and dopamine are a contributing factor. The first step in overcoming these cravings is to undergo genomic testing to determine what unique genetic variances you may have. For more information on genomic testing, click here.


Once you determine your genetic variances, you can move forward with proper supplementation and dietary alterations. Click here to contact us for more information!


The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!

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