Why is it so hard to make permanent changes to your habits, your health, and your happiness? Some of the most difficult struggles in life involve losing weight (and keeping it off), overcoming addictions, and recovering from depression. Many diets and therapies deliver great short term results, but the most common pattern appears to be relapse. It often seems that you are destined to fulfill some biological program — that you are stuck with a high body weight set point or an addictive or depressive personality that cannot be escaped in the long run.
This pessimistic message is prevalent among those who have investigated the track records of the “helping” industries: the weight loss companies, the addiction recovery centers, and the various schools of psychology and psychiatry. Unlike the advocates, those who investigate them often find the results are less than what the practitioners might want you to believe. In the arena of dieting and weight loss, books such as “The Dieter’s Dilemma” (Bennett and Gurin, 1982), and “Rethinking Thin” (Kolata, 2008) echo the original set point theory first propounded by Gordon C. Kennedy in the 1950s; they conclude that your body weight is largely predetermined by a biological set point that is handed to you at birth, plus or minus about ten pounds. I do agree that sustained weight loss cannot be achieved through sheer will power alone, or simply by using diet and exercise in order to create a calorie deficit. Yet, while there is some plausibility to the set point theory, I am convinced that it is wrong because it overlooks some important factors. I’ve already given some of my reasons for my disagreement with set point theory in other posts on this blog (Flavor control diets, How to break through a plateau). But in this post I’ll present some strong evidence for an alternative theory, based on the homeostatic regulation of cellular receptors for hormones and neurotransmitters. This is a variable set point theory which I call the receptor control theory. This theory proposes a mechanism that controls appetite and body weight, as well as regulating the balance of energy and pleasure in your life. It provides practical tools to lose weight and keep it off, overcome addictions without relapse, and move out of depression into happiness.
But first, let’s consider some common approaches for dealing with three different health issues:
- Obesity/Diabetes. To lose weight, reducing diets are employed that create an energy deficit. The most effective of these diets work by actively modulating the levels hormones such as insulin or leptin, by modifying the type of food we eat (low glycemic or low carbohydrate are best), or the size and timing of meals. In the case of advanced diabetes (an insulin deficiency), exogenous insulin is administered periodically in a controlled manner. Alternately, diet pills or other appetite suppressants are used to moderate certain hormones and peptides involved in satiety. The back-up strategy is to learn how to cope with always being somewhat hungry.
- Addiction. Addictive cravings from cocaine, alcohol, or other substances or activities have been associated with overstimulated dopamine “reward” circuits. Some treatments involve the use of antidepressants to elevate baseline dopamine levels, The back-up strategy is to counsel abstinence to avoid triggering the dopamine circuits in the first place.
- Depression. To counteract depression, antidepressant drugs (typically SSRIs) are prescribed to boost levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin or dopamine. Or, we may try non-drug supplements or dietary options to increase the level of these neurotransmitters: for example, serotonin precursors such 5-HTP, tryptophan-rich food such as turkey and carbohydrates such as potatoes, which allow dietary tryptophan to readily produce serotonin in the brain. The back-up strategy is psychotherapy to provide insight or coping skills to better deal with the underlying depression.
The organic imbalance model. These three seemingly different treatments share a common thread: they are all based on conceiving health problems as intrinsic organic imbalances in our metabolism or neurochemistry that you are either born with or develop early in life, and over which you have little control. Once you accept this model, there are two basic strategies: an “active” strategy to rebalance internal biochemistry, usually by means of drugs, supplements, or diet. And a “passive” back-up strategy of accepting that you are biochemically different, and counseling ways to cope with these organic conditions as best youe can, while trying to minimize the risk of triggering flare-ups due to relapse, bingeing, or depressive episodes.
Signaling compounds. I’ll focus here more on the “active” interventions which involve trying to directly rebalance the levels of “biochemical messengers” or signaling compounds circulating in our bodies. I’m referring to hormones like insulin and leptin, glucagon, or adrenaline; or neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine, which are produced in response to external stimuli. According to the imbalance model, the levels of these signaling compounds are out of balance: there is a surplus or deficiency of “communication” that needs to be adjusted. The resulting “message” conveyed by the signaling compound is “too loud” or “too soft” for normal bodily function. So to correct this, a therapeutic intervention is devised which attempts to restore our health by adjusting the amount of the signalling compound in our system. In effect, the treatment attempts to turn up or turn down the “volume” of the message by adjusting the amount of signaling compound, in order to re-normalize our response to external stimuli.
These active medical or dietary interventions should work, if the imbalance model is correct. But in many cases the treatments backfire: after perhaps seeing a short term benefit the effect dissipates, and in some cases symptoms actually worsen, or side effects develop. After some initial weight loss, the weight is regained. Attempts to overcome addiction frequently end with relapse and failure. And depression returns. The problem is that we are not mechanical machines, we’re adaptive organisms, regulated by homeostasis. Trying to control message intensity may work for a short time, but the body outsmarts us and compensates for the intervention. Our wonderful, adaptive bodies react to the increased level of signaling compounds by becoming less responsive to them, just as we learn to tune out a dog that constantly barks for attention. When the message volume is turned up, the receiver volume is turned down.
Our efforts to change seem to be hampered by biological programs that resist these efforts at biochemical rebalancing. Some will explain this by arguing that’s because we are born with a biological set point that our body will “defend” or an addictive or depressive personality that we can’t shake. Try as we might to fight this in the short term, it’s almost impossible to succeed in the long run. A lucky few may prevail, but the vast majority are doomed to their biology destiny.
Even if you manage to normalize the level of signaling compounds, you are now stuck with another problem: you are dependent on some drug, supplement, or special dietary restriction for the long term — maybe even for the rest of your life. Drug companies and dietary supplement suppliers are happy to provide you with a lifetime supply of these compounds for a price. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be dependent long term on drugs or supplements, or even restrictive diets, if it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are grounds for pessimism here. But there may be a better solution that gives us back control of our fate: Receptor regulation.
Receptor regulation. Receptors are “message receivers” located throughout our bodies. They are typically transmembrane proteins located on the surfaces of cells, and they bind with hormones and neurotransmitters to “receive” the signal and initiate a sequence of changes in our bodies — often profound system-wide changes in energy utilization, tissue growth, or the perception of pleasure and pain. For some reason, receptors don’t get the public attention that gets showered on the communication chemicals — the hormones and neurotransmitters. And yet, as I shall argue, the receptors may be far more important than the signaling compounds that they interact with, because they do not change by the minute or hour, but are long-lasting parts of the control systems of our bodies. If hormones and neurotransmitters are the “software”, receptors are the “hardware”.
The key process to understand is called receptor regulation, the process which controls the number, location and sensitivity of receptors. There are two forms: upregulation (an increase in the number and/or sensitivity of receptors in each cell) and downregulation (the reverse process). Wikipedia explains downregulation by describing how insulin resistance develops in response to elevated insulin levels:
The process of downregulation occurs when there are elevated levels of the hormone insulin in the blood. When insulin binds to its receptors on the surface of a cell, the hormone receptor complex undergoes endocytosis and is subsequently attacked by intracellular lysosomal enzymes. The internalization of the insulin molecules provides a pathway for degradation of the hormone as well as for regulation of the number of sites that are available for binding on the cell’s surface without doubts. At high plasma concentrations, the number of surface receptors for insulin is gradually reduced by the accelerated rate of receptor internalization and degradation brought about by increased hormonal binding. The rate of synthesis of new receptors within the endoplasmic reticulum and their insertion in the plasma membrane do not keep pace with their rate of destruction. Over time, this self-induced loss of target cell receptors for insulin reduces the target cell’s sensitivity to the elevated hormone concentration. The process of decreasing the number of receptor sites is virtually the same for all hormones; it varies only in the receptor hormone complex. (Italics added by me for emphasis).
So not only are the insulin receptors drawn inside the cell (like a turtle into its shell); they are also actively digested and degraded, making them less available to readily redeploy when glucose and insulin levels drop again. New receptors are always being synthesized, but they are degraded more quickly than they can be replenished if insulin levels remain high. The resulting downregulation of insulin receptors forms the basis for the condition of insulin resistance, in which insulin at normal levels loses its ability to efficiently shuttle glucose from the bloodstream into liver, muscle, brain, adipose or other tissues; the body responds by further increasing insulin, resulting in a vicious cycle of hyperinsulinemia. Reversing this process — growing new insulin receptors — takes time and requires sustained periods with low circulating levels of insulin in order to foster the growth of new receptors.
It is quite revealing to look at how how receptor regulation can undermine “message control” treatments, due to the way the body adapts. Let’s take a look again at how this plays out in the above three examples of obesity, addiction, and depression:
1. Obesity. Obesity is associated with high levels of two hormones: insulin and leptin. Normally, an increase in the level of either of these two hormones induces satiety upon reaching the hypothalamus in the brain. Leptin levels in the body increase with the amount of body fat, so leptin has been proposed as a physiological correlate for our “set point” weight: when body fat falls below a certain level, appetite induces us to eat more; when body fat increases, the associated rise in leptin levels leads to satiety. Insulin plays a similar but different role; it tends to regulate appetite on a shorter timescale than leptin, varying during each meal, and is more closely associated with visceral fat of the type more commonly found in men, whereas appetite regulation by leptin operates on more of a daily timescale and responds more closely to subcutaneous fat of the type more common in women. Insulin, of course, is directly involved with the storage and release of metabolic fuels. There are also many other regulatory hormones and sensory peptides, such as ghrelin, CCK and PYY, which adjust appetite based upon meal timing, gut sensations, and other inputs. But insulin and leptin are key drivers of appetite.
The discovery of leptin, the “satiety hormone” by Jeff Friedman at Rockefeller University in 1993 provoked great excitement and expectations. A well written account of this discovery is detailed in “Rethinking Thin“, the above-mentioned book by Gina Kolata. Studies in leptin-deficient ob mice and humans showed that individuals with defective production of leptin became ravenous and obese. So the logical conclusion was leptin itself may be the magical “set point” compound that determines our weight. Therefore, we should be able to provide leptin to the overweight to help them shed pounds. And in fact, adminstering leptin does work to counteract obesity in mice and humans that are genetically incapable of producing normal leptin, as Kolata describes poignantly in her chapter “The Girl Who Had No Leptin”. It even works initially in normal or lean mice to reduce body fat. Amgen acquired the rights to leptin from Rockefeller University for $20 million plus royalties in anticipation of imminent commercialization. But after a long-term study in humans, the October 1999 issue of JAMA reported disappointing results indicating very little weight loss, and even that in only in a small percentage of subjects. As Kolata observes:
The question, though, was, Why didn’t the obese people in Amgen’s study respond to leptin? The possibiity, or perhaps the likelihood, was that leptin was not their problem. These people were making plenty of leptin–they were not the human equivalent of the ob mice. And since adding more leptin did not make them lose weight, it must be that the hormone was being blocked from acting somewhere along its passage from the fat cells to the appetite-controlling pathways in the brain…Then [scientists] discovered that leptin can do something else. It can actually change the brain’s wiring diagram, strengthening circuits that inhibit eating and weakening the ones that spur the appetite. It can exert this effect at a critical period early in life, perhaps influencing appetite and obesity in adults. And, in adulthood, leptin can again alter the brain’s wiring, permanently changing an animal’s appetite and weight. (RT, pp. 163-165).
The problem is often that excessive sustained levels of leptin, common in the overweight or obese, can cause “leptin resistance” in which the leptin receptors are downregulated, so that they are fewer in number and become less sensitive to the leptin signal. As Byron Richards indicates in The Leptin Diet:
In overweight people, the communications involving insulin and leptin are inefficient. It is like making a phone call where no one answers. Insulin resistance and leptin resistance mean that the hormones don’t communicate efficiently in response to food. Thus a person has to overeat in order to get enough leptin into the brain to get a full signal. The pancreas may not hear the leptin signal to stop making insulin, which leads to excess insulin, fatigue, and possibly even more hunger within a few hours of eating…Several hours following the meal the extra insulin ends up taking too much sugar out of the blood, making a person hungry and tired-headed. (TLD, p 36)
With leptin resistance, adding more leptin no longer effectively inhibits appetite, because the brain and body have a reduced ability to respond to the extra leptin. Conversely, lean individuals typically have more leptin receptors and greater leptin sensitivity, so their appetite is satisfied even at reduced leptin levels. In short, the leptin system adapts so that the number of leptin receptors adjusts to the amount of leptin.
Interestingly, obesity is also associated with reduced number of receptors for dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure or reward circuits in the brain. In 2001, Gene Jack Wang and Nora Volkow of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) brain scans to look at dopamine receptors in the brains of obese and normal individuals:
Obese individuals, the scientists found, had fewer dopamine receptors than normal-weight subjects. And within this obese group, the number of dopamine receptors decreased as the subjects’ body mass index, an indicator of obesity, increased. That is, the more obese the individual, the lower the number of receptors.
A 2008 study of women and adolescent girls in New Zealand showed that this receptor deficit is at least partly genetic. The overweight females had the Taq1A1 gene that is associated with fewer dopamine receptors. This receptor deficit in the obese led them to overeat to achieve the level of pleasure or satiety that normal individuals reached with less food. This reduced level of dopamine receptors tends to make life a bit less pleasant for the obese when they are hungry and without food. Ingestion of food, particularly carbohydrates, temporarily raises the level of dopamine, eliminating the “pleasure deficit” and rewarding eating behavior. Excessive eating or bingeing raises the dopamine levels even higher than normal, which can lead to a further downregulation of dopamine receptors, only worsening the craving problem. This effect is not only influenced by genes, but by diet; a 2010 study of rats fed a supermarket “junk food” diet showed raid desensitization of dopamine receptors a significant increase in appetite, and an unwillingness to return to eating “healthy” food.
The connection between obesity and the number and sensitivity of dopamine receptors is perhaps not so surprising, given how highly rewarding food can be for the obese; for many of the overweight, food becomes an addiction. It is still quite striking that this translates to such a significant decline in the number of dopamine receptors, while the baseline level of dopamine actually increases. Here, as with insulin and leptin, we have yet another example of reduced receptor levels being associated with obesity. By analogy with insulin resistance and leptin resistance, we might say that the strong appetite of the obese is a direct result of “dopamine resistance”.
2. Addiction. What is particularly interesting is that these low levels of dopamine receptors are also characteristic of drug addicts and alcoholics. Nora Volkow, one of the directors of the Brookhaven study, subsequently became director of NIDA, the National Institute of Drug Abuse. part of NIH, but her research on addiction actually predates the study she did on brain activity in the obese. She used PET brain scans to study dopamine receptors levels in alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and addicted smokers. And, as you might guess, the same pattern of reduced levels of dopamine receptors was observed in addicts vs. non-addicted controls. This is illustrated in the PET scan to the right, which shows dopamine binding activity for addicts (top row) vs. non-addicts (bottom row). Regions of greatest dopamine receptor activity are indicated with a color scale starting from red (most active), descending through yellow and green to blue and purple (least active).
The mechanism downregulation of dopamine receptors by cocaine has been elucidated:
Cocaine binds tightly at the dopamine transporter forming a complex that blocks the transporter’s function. The dopamine transporter can no longer perform its reuptake function, and thus dopamine accumulates in the synaptic cleft. This results in an enhanced and prolonged postsynaptic effect of dopaminergic signaling at dopamine receptors on the receiving neuron. Prolonged exposure to cocaine, as occurs with habitual use, leads to homeostatic dysregulation of normal (i.e. without cocaine) dopaminergic signaling via down-regulation of dopamine receptors and enhanced signal transduction. The decreased dopaminergic signaling after chronic cocaine use may contribute to depressive mood disorders and sensitize this important brain reward circuit to the reinforcing effects of cocaine (e.g. enhanced dopaminergic signalling only when cocaine is self-administered). This sensitization contributes to the intractable nature of addiction and relapse.
3. Depression. A reduced number or sensitivity of neurotransmitter receptors has also been linked to mood disorders such as major depression. Depression has been associated with shortages of at least two neurotransmitters: dopamine (which is associated with drive, motivation and pleasure), and serotinin (which is associated with a sense of well-being and pleasure). While dopamine receptors are located largely in the brain, a little known fact is that only about 20% of serotonin receptors are in the brain, most of the other 80% are in the gut, blood platelets, and other organs. That might help explain why serotonin is also associated with food and satiety. Different types or depression are often associated with a different imbalance of neurotransmitters, so despite the prevalence of SSRIs, which are intended to restore serotonin levels, some forms of depression respond better to antidepressants which boost dopamine levels.
While antidepressants work for many people, a surprising number — some estimates put it at 50% or higher — are unresponsive. Furthermore, long term use of SSRI’s can have the effect of downregulating serotonin (5-HT2A) receptors with adverse results:
Another adaptive process provoked by SSRIs is the downregulation of postsynaptic serotonin 5-HT2A receptors. After the use of an SSRI, since there is more serotonin available, the response is to decrease the number of postsynaptic receptors over time and in the long run, this modifies the serotonin/receptor ratio. This downregulation of 5-HT2A occurs when the antidepressant effects of SSRIs become apparent. Also, deceased suicidal and otherwise depressed patients have had more [presynaptic] 5-HT2A receptors than normal patients. These considerations suggest that 5-HT2A overactivity is involved in the pathogenesis of depression
The last sentence in the above quote again points to the fact that a deficiency of post-synaptic serotonin receptors, in combination with an excess of serotonin from diet, antidepressants, or elsewhere, may play a role in both the genesis and worsening of depression. The same phenomenon of receptor downregulation together with excess neurotransmitter has been noted with other antidepressants, such as MAO inhibitors and buproprion, that stimulate the production or prolong the lifetime of dopamine in the synapse. This can lead to tolerance and withdrawal effects.
In short, in all these cases — obesity, addiction, and depression — receptors are becoming less sensitive to a signaling compound as a reaction to excessive levels of that compound. So too much insulin and leptin lead to insulin and leptin resistance, too much dopamine to a downregulation of dopamine receptors.
HOW TO UPREGULATE YOUR RECEPTORS. So if directly changing the amount of signaling compounds is frequently frustrated by receptor downregulation, is there anything you can do to upregulate the receptors? Fortunately, the answer is yes. There are a number of measures that have proven particularly effective for deliberately increasing the number and sensitivity of key classes of receptors:
Step 1: Strenuous exercise. Regular, intense exercise can upregulate your insulin receptors. In Dr. Bernstein’s Diet Solution, Richard Bernstein explains the role of exercise in actually reversing insulin resistance by growing new muscle tissue, and by increasing the density of glucose transporter receptors in muscle and other tissues. While his advice is directed primarily towards diabetics, it applies more broadly to anyone with some degree of insulin resistance That includes most of us. According to Dr. Bernstein:
The higher your ratio of abdominal fat to muscle mass, the more insulin-resistant you’re likely to be. As you increase your muscle mass, your insulin needs will be reduced…Long-term, regular strenuous exercise also reduces insulin resistance independently of its effect upon muscle mass…In my experience, it takes about two weeks of daily strenuous exercise to bring about a steady, increased level of insulin sensitivity…via increased production of glucose transporters in muscle cells. (DBDS, p. 170-1).
Furthermore, the exercise must be strenuous and “anaerobic” – not aerobic. There are two reasons for this:
First, the blood sugar drop during and after continuous anaerobic exercise will be much greater than after a similar period of aerobic exercise. Second, to accomplish efficient transport of glucose into muscle cells, as muscle strength and bulk develop, glucose transporters in these cells will greatly increase in number. Glucose transporters also become more numerous in tissues other than muscle, including the liver. (DBDS, p. 180)
Glucose transporter (GLUT4) receptors are upregulated by intense exercise. A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that this upregulation begins to happen within hours, but significant and sustained improvement requires repeated exercise sessions over several weeks. When insulin levels are kept low, the glucose transporters migrate from a location inside the cell to protrude beyond the cell surface, becoming more available to bind glucose and shepherd it into the interior of the cell. With time, the cells can actally express or “grow” additional receptors, increasing the overall rate of glucose transport. This increased response rate is synonymous with “insulin sensitivity”.
The benefits of anerobic exercise extend not only to upgregulation of insulin receptors, but also to maintaining high levels of dopamine “reward” receptors. A study of exercised rates by McRae et al at University of Texas showed that regular exercise has a protective effect on D2 dopamine receptors, while keeping levels of dopamine (DA) and dopamine metabolite (DOPAC) low. Unexercised rats saw both a decrease in D2 receptor density and an increase in circulating dopamine.
Step 2: Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting. Another brain scan study at Brookhaven National Laboratory showed that restricted eating led to higher numbers of dopamine receptors in obese rats:
The scientists found that genetically obese rats had lower levels of dopamine D2 receptors than lean rats. They also demonstrated that restricting food intake can significantly increase the number of D2 receptors, partially attenuating a normal decline associated with aging.
This research corroborates brain-imaging studies conducted at Brookhaven that found decreased levels of dopamine D2 receptors in obese people compared with normal-weight people,” said Brookhaven neuroscientist Panayotis (Peter) Thanos, lead author of the current study, which will be published online in the journal Synapse on Thursday, October 25, 2007.
One of the essential points to understand here is that if calorie restriction and intermittent fasting are effective, it is not for the reason that most people think explains this (that you are creating a calorie deficit). Rather, intense exercise and fasting work because they resensitize and grow your insulin and dopamine receptors in a way that allows you to get enough energy and pleasure from eating less food. This means that not only are the receptors upregulated, but you also get the energy and pleasure when you need it. So restricting calories is not good enough. You must eat foods that maximize insulin senstivity (e.g. containing adequate essential fatty acids, protein, magnesium, etc.) and foods which give you enough pleasure so as to satisfy your “pleasure budget”, but not so much as to downregulate your dopamine receptors. My experience is that intermittent fasting, using a varied diet, is the best way to do this. One reason that pure “starvation diets” like that used in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment may have failed is that the diet failed to supply adequate nutrients that to support receptor function for cellular energy and pleasure. (The 1560 calorie/day regimen consisted only of potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, bread and macaroni — so go figure!)
A particularly effective protocol for improving insulin sensitivity and upregulating glucose transporter receptors is called “fasted workouts”: a combination of intense exercise and intermittent fasting, in which eating is postponed until after one works out. One of the foremost practioners of this approach is Martin Berkhan, who I’ve referenced on the Fitness page of this blog, and whose Leangains blog I’ve listed under the Diet links. Martin summarizes the research by DeBock et al. and Cluberton et al. that documents the physiological beneifts of fasted workouts, including enhanced insulin sensitivity based upon a six-week study with four 60-90 minute workouts per week. The study controlled for dietary intake, and compared results of those who fasted (F) with the control group (C) that ate prior to working out. Among other variables, the study compared changes in the levels of the GLUT4 transporter, a type of insulin receptor in the muscles, between the F and C groups:
Glucose transporter type 4 is a protein responsible for insulin-regulated glucose transport into the muscle cell. It increased by a whopping 28% in F but only 2-3% in C (not mentioned in the paper but this is my estimate based on the graphs). This partly explains why F saw superior results in regards to glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Since GLUT4 is triggered by AMPK, which is increased when glucose availability is low, i.e. during fasted training, one would assume the GLUT4 increase could then be explained by an increase in AMPK. This was found to be true: AMPK increased by 25% in F, which correlated closely with the increase in GLUT4 content.
Step 3: Deconditioning and extinction. Pleasure reward circuits do not change overnight. But the good news is that there is plenty of evidence that these reward circuits can be extinguished by classical conditioning techniques. I’ve discussed these deconditioning techniques in depth on the Psychology and Diet pages of this blog, and I’d recommend looking there for details. Extinction involves merely refraining from the undesired behavior (eating, addictive drugs) and allowing the cravings to happen without reinforcing them. It may surprise you how quickly your reward circuits recover, and it is very likely that this involves upregulation of dopamine receptors, so that the brain is more easily “satisifed” without the previously craved behavior. Deconditioning is more active than extinction; it requires actively exposing yourself to cues which normally set off the addictive response. This may sound extremely difficult, but is attested to by extensive research, as well as the personal experience of several people who have posted here on the Forum, including myself. One of the more successful appliations of active deconditioning is the Sinclair Method, which has been used successfully to extinguish alcoholism while training the former alcoholic to drink moderately. The key is the use of a dopamine blocker, naltrexone, to block the reward circuits during exposure.
Any type of extinction should benefit from simultaneous reinforcement of healthy alternative sources of pleasure, while engaging in exercise and intermittent fasting to rebuild the density and sensitivity of receptors. Unless you increase your level of dopamine receptors, you’ll always be vulnerable to the temptation of any pleasure that can “fill your pleasure deficit”.
THE RECEPTOR CONTROL THEORY. Based upon a synthesis of extensive evidence, I’m putting forward in this post an alternative to the classic set point theory of Gordon Kennedy: the receptor control theory. This is a general hypothesis of biological regulation which applies to more than just weight control; it applies to any homeostatic variable that is controlled by cellular receptors — even, for example, pleasure and motivation. Whereas the classic set point theory of body weight posits a fixed genetic set point for each individual,
the receptor control theory postulates that our set points for regulating weight, energy, or pleasure are variable; they are directly related to the number, sensitivity and location of cellular receptors in our bodies, and can be modified by changing the number and sensitivity of these receptors.
For example, the set point for your body fat is controlled by insulin and leptin sensitivity, which is determined by the number and functional sensitivity of insulin and leptin receptors throughout your body. As the number and sensitivity of insulin and leptin receptors decreases, body weight set point goes up. But unlike the set point theory, body fat set point can also go down by increasing the number and sensitivity of these receptors — for example by the use of strenuous exercise, intermittent fasting, and extinction.
If you don’t change the number and sensitivity of your receptors, your set point will not change. Under these circumstances, the receptor control theory agrees with the classic fixed set point theory. However, the receptor control theory provides a way to change your set point by upregulating your receptors.
The pleasure budget. The receptor control theory goes beyond weight management to explain more generally the regulation of pleasure in your life. If you have ample dopamine receptors, then a wide variety of stimuli– including food, social interactions, work, and other interests– should provide you with sufficient pleasure to make life not just bearable, but interesting. However, if you end up with an undersupply of dopamine receptors — whether it be from birth, addictions or unremitting stress — then your baseline pleasure “set point” will be low and you’ll be vulnerable to depression, low self-esteem and other aspects of unhappiness. Addictive escapes may provide temporary (but unsustainable) bursts of dopamine, serotonin, and other feel-good neurotransmitters, but at the cost of further downregulating dopamine receptors and feeling worse later on.
It may be the case that all of us have a certain “pleasure budget” — perhaps we need a certain amount of pleasure every week, and we’ll find a way to get it, one way or another. One of the commenters (zdd) to my earlier post on The opponent-process theory of emotion expressed this point well, when speculating about why diets like Shangri-La and Atkins work so well initially, but eventually become less effective:
If there is a set point, I believe it’s not a weight set point but rather a pleasure set point. When you don’t reach the set point, cravings start and when you go over the set point (staying too long at the fair) you get feelings of aversion.
I doubt if the pleasure set point changes very much. People simply switch sources of pleasure. Stop smoking, and you start eating more. Much of the pleasure of being on this diet comes from the pleasure of feeling in control. Once the novelty of control wears off people will have to look for other sources of pleasure or they will go back to getting pleasure from food.
I think this insightful comments carries a useful warning: that behavioral changes such as diets which cut off one source of pleasure may require us to find a way to replace that source of pleasure, or else risk rebounding from the diet and regaining the weight we lost.
The good news here is that there are proven ways to raise our “pleasure” set point. The bad news is that they require significant and sustained effort – no quick fixes. And yet it is the most sustainable way to increase pleasure in life. To paraphrase a saying about fishing sometimes attributed to the Bible: “Give someone a neurotransmitter and they’ll feel good for an hour; teach someone to grow more receptors and they’ll feel good all the time.”
Explanations. The receptor control theory explains a number of observations that cannot be accounted for by classical set point theory:
- Biology is not destiny. Individuals do differ genetically in their tendency to gain weight or to be prone to addiction or depression. You are born with a certain density of receptors and this can be influenced further during prenatal and postnatal development. But it is not the end of the story. The types of foods you eat and the frequency of eating have strong effects on insulin and leptin sensitivity. Likewise, exercise, hard work and a stoic practices can sensitize your dopamine receptors and make you happier and less prone to depression.
- Obesity is not a constant. Both the weight gain of individuals as they age, and the obesity epidemic of recent decades are often blamed on “calorie imbalance”: eating too much and exercising too little. But this doesn’t explain why this caloric imbalance is happening now as opposed to earlier. Sometimes the uptick in obesity is blamed on the increasing availability of tasty high-calorie food and a less active lifestyle. But that explanation cannot be right, because there has always been tasty food. And as Kolata has shown, controlled interventions to reduce calories and enforce more activity have a poor track record. The reason that body weight set points are rising has more to do with changes in the amounts of food and exercise, as it does with specific types of food, eating patterns and exercise–and the long term hormonal influences of these changes on receptor sensitivity.
- Permanent weight loss is still possible. Granted, most diets don’t work. Quick weight loss diets don’t work because they don’t allow a biologically realistic amount of time for receptors to upregulate; receptor upregulation is a gradual process that requires persistence and effort. Certain diets are quite effective in the short term, including low carbohydrate diets, low glycemic diets, and the Shangri-La Diet (which temporarily suppresses appetite). These diets will temporarily change levels of hormones, neurotransmitters and other signalling compounds to induce satiety and weight loss. However, unless appetite circuits are permanently “re-wired” by upregulating hormonal and neural receptors, weight loss will be temporary. Appetite will remain vulnerable to coming back like a tiger, and you may return to your old set point weight — perhaps even plus a few pounds. The best way to upregulate metabolic and appetite receptors is by strenuous exercise, intermittent fasting or deconditioning. Given enough time, persistent and habitual dietary changes can lead to permanent weight loss, particularly when combined with reduced eating frequency, intense exercise, and deconditioning.
Biological basis for Hormetism. The receptor control theory also provides us with a some biological underpinnings for Hormetism and Stoicism, as advocated in this blog. Hard work –tough, uncomfortable and challenging activities–can lower our metabolic and pleasure set points, helping us to lose weight and making us less vulnerable to addictions, cravings and depression. What is exciting to me is that this theory may provide a possible biological basis for the psychological Opponent-Process Theory of Richard Solomon. The basis is located not in transient chemical messengers like neurotransmitter and hormones, but rather in the adpatable receptors located throughout our body on every cell. These receptors are part of the hardware or firmware of our bodies and brains. Receptors are a part of us that cannot be changed overnight, but can only be changed with persistent effort. (And they will not disappear so readily either).
I will be the first to acknowledge that at this point the receptor control theory is just that — a theory. It has support by scientific evidence, but many questions remain. And yet it is a productive theory which generates many testable hypotheses. It provides us with a possible basis for understanding the benefits of less-studied hormetic or Stoic practices such as showering or swimming in cold water, radiation hormesis, or allergen immunotherapy. Do these types of stress also result in upregulation or downregulation of specific cellular receptors involved in pain perception, cellular repair, inflammation or immune response? Can we measure and better understand these responses at the level of receptors? Are there practical ways to measure the number and sensitivity of our receptors, so that we can track progress? Receptor change is probably only one of many mechanisms that explain hormesis, but it may be an important and underappreciated one. These questions make good topics for future posts.
Finally, unlike the classic set point theory, the receptor control theory is not fatalistic, but is optimistic: By combining insights as old as ancient Stoic philosophy with a contemporary scientific understanding of psychological conditioning and the plasticity of cellular signal receptors and receptor circuits, we can work to achieve fitness and weight loss, freedom from addictive compulsions, and chart other major changes in our metabolic and psychological well being.