Desperately Seeking Dopamine

Recently I went to an all day training for work at PSU. It was called ADD/ADHD Coping Skills. I went to the class because I thought it would be beneficial for me in both my work and personal life. I have coworkers with ADD and the clients we service  are a very high risk group of people (antisocial behaviors, mental illness, drug addiction) and ADD is a huge percentage of their chronic conditions. Not only that, I have a few friends with ADD and Michael has it.

It used to cause conflict between Michael and I. Sometimes Michael had a hard time focusing on too many things at once–so if I email him with a bunch of stuff, several issues in one email, or offer him too many options he can get overwhelmed. I’ve learned the beautiful art of being succinct, using bullet points and asking very specific questions without offering options. 🙂

This post is about some of the tidbits I found interesting about the class but it is also relevant to my blog’s theme about weight loss. So here goes. ADD/ADHD was described as “the emotional frenzy” and a lot of the coping skills were about calming that frenzy and making simple, realistic, and achievable goals.

  • A daily planner that is followed every day sets structure for people suffering from ADD.Set a specific time and place each day to plan each day’s activities (including meal times, work, social, exercise, downtime, etc)
  • Instead of overwhelming people with ADD with big tasks or deadlines, set up START times instead.
  • Kids in the US are prescribed ADD medication 300% higher than any other industrial country.
  • Gym classes were cut from schools and there is a higher rate of ADD and mood disorders!
  • Belly breathing calms the frenzy down. Sit in a chair and put your arms behind the chair, hold your hands and take deep breathes.

Studies have shown that as we as humans moved culturally from the hunter/gatherers to the farmers to finally an industrial nation, we’ve changed. We are LESS active and that has resulted in having less attention. Our brains are being rewired and with the internet age, things are changing even more. We can’t concentrate. How many of us flit from webpage to webpage, skimming instead of reading and connecting? How many of us multi-task to an exhausting level (ME!)? We are always connected, always on, but our relationships are diminishing and our attention spans are shrinking even more. The more stationary we get as a society, the worse we get. [Steps off soap box.]

The Exercise Cure

What I thought was the most interesting parts of the class were the brain studies. If Dopamine levels are high in the brain, it’s hard to move out of that “pleasure zone.” People with ADD have 10% less oxygen in their prefrontal cortex BUT EXERCISE RESTORES IT!

People who suffer from ADD and depression have less dopamine in their brains. PET scans of the brain in people with ADD show that glucose levels are very low. Glucose is sugar, and also our body’s key source of energy. Glucose is in our bloodstream and carried to the brain. If we don’t get enough sleep, the glucose levels in our brain decrease!

Did you know that serotonin is stored in the stomach lining (90% of it). The serotonin is released when we eat, drink, exercise or belly breathe. Then it’s released into the bloodstream and heads to the brain. Why is this important? Because serotonin is what makes us happy. People with low levels suffer from depression and anxiety. It was a lightbulb moment for me. This is why FOOD makes me happy! Eating releases serotonin from my stomach, which surges through my bloodstream into my brain = HAPPY. Duh. It makes so much sense. That’s probably why food addictions are so hard to break. You have to have food. And if your body is naturally low in the chemical that makes you happy and the only thing that works is eating…it’s easy to see why food would be the answer every time.

Something else that I had no idea about: people who have gastric bypass surgery often suffer from depression because of the serotonin levels being stored in the stomach and part of the stomach being removed! I had no idea!

The instructor told a story about a 40-something woman who was struggling with ADD, obesity and heart issues. She had crippling depression and couldn’t exercise because was too tired. Her doctor said her life depended on exercise and she had to start. She just couldn’t. It was too much, too overwhelming. She felt too depressed. She was instructed by her doctor to go to the ADD group therapy that my instructor led and he asked if she had 30 minutes a day to go for a walk.

“No, I don’t have 30 minutes a day. I’m too busy. I’m too tired and depressed.” She was insistent. He tried to help her. He asked if she could do 20 minutes a day? No. 15? 10? Not even 5 minutes a day? She couldn’t do it. Finally, he said, “Can you walk for 30 seconds each day?” She said sure. So the next day she gave it a try. She went for a walk for 30 seconds and decided to keep going. She felt so good and positive after moving her body that she kept doing it! Each day she decided to go for a “30 second walk” and each time it turned into a 30 minute walk! Dopamine levels increase when you move your body and this woman discovered it on her own, and felt better.

I’ve talked about taking small, easy, achievable steps when trying to lose weight on my blog many times. I guess I never broke it down even smaller. If you cannot do 30 minutes a day, start with 30 seconds a day. Put your shoes on, plan a time in your calendar/planner and then go for  30 second walk. Or do squats and lunges for 10 seconds. Do jumping jacks for 20 seconds. Whatever you can commit to and start, do it. You never know, 30 seconds might turn into 30 minutes.

Exercise has helped me in so many ways. It has given me more energy, it curbs that winter depression that I struggle with living in Oregon, and gives me focus. One of the suggestions from the instructor was that people with ADD should try reading while on an exercise bike to find focus. I just love how a simple act of moving the body can be so beneficial!

QUESTION: Do you have anyone with ADD in your life? Has exercise cured anything in your life?

21 Days to a New Life

“The phrase “It takes 21 days to change a habit”, is true – because 21 days of reinforcing new wiring in our brains “locks in” the changes. Try sticking to your new program for 21 days straight, and you will improve your chances of success.”

It takes 21 days to form a new habit. We’ve all heard this phrase before but I really do think it works.

My typical life before I decided to make some changes was spending a lot of time on my couch, eating. I knew I couldn’t tackle both the exercise and food components at the same time so I did one at a time. I started swimming a few times a week. I did this for a month. After one month going to the pool three nights a week became the “norm” in my weekly schedule. It was just part of my life. Now? Years later and 100 pounds lighter, my exercise routine is ingrained in my daily life and I don’t even think about it–I just do it.

The food component was definitely harder for me. I counted my calories for one day without making any changes to see where I was starting from. Seeing the insane amount of calories I consumed just by lunch time was the wake up call I needed. Making the changes I needed to make to stay under 2,000 calories a day was HARD. But after about a month it got easier.

Counting calories became so ingrained in my brain that it feels weird NOT to count my calories. I don’t even really think about it, I just do it. I see a slice of pizza and in the back of my mind I think “350 calories.” I grab a banana for a snack and I think “100 calories.” This is my norm now.

Start Small

It doesn’t have to be a life-changing, huge event to make a difference. If you’re trying to lose weight, it could be something as simple as “I will count my calories every day for a month.” Or “I will stop buying junk food and not have any in the house.” Or “No Candy At Work.” Sometimes the small changes are the ones that make the biggest difference.


“Motivation is what gets you started. 

Habit is what keeps you going.” 

~Jim Ryun


Do One At A Time

Too often when it comes to weight loss, we try to tackle everything at once. That can be overwhelming. My suggestion to people just starting out on a weight loss journey is to pick one thing to do first. When I first started my journey I chose the exercise as the first thing to change. I started swimming and was swimming for over a month before I even attempted tackling the food issues. After I was consistently swimming a few times a week, I started counting my calories. It was easier this way for me.

Write It Down

Be accountable to yourself. If you are choosing to count your calories for the next 21 days, write it down. Make a list of your goals. Tell your friends and family so that they know. Ask for support. Be specific and realistic when you write it down, too. Don’t just write “I want to lose 100 pounds.” Instead, write something like: “I want to lose 10 pounds in two months and make healthier choices in my life” or “I want to exercise 3 days a week for the next two months.”

Identify Your Weaknesses

Make a list of obstacles and triggers. For example, an obstacle might be “My birthday dinner next month”. Make a plan early. Choose a restaurant that provides calorie information and make better choices. Or ask your family to skip the birthday cake and instead buy a small number of cupcakes (and only eat one!). Going into these upcoming situations with a plan will help.

Reward Yourself

I’ve talked a lot about having positive rewards for reaching goals. And when I say rewards, I don’t mean food. Rewarding your good diet habits with a trip to Ben & Jerry’s is sabotaging yourself.

Why not go for a hike instead of to the movies where you’ll want buttery popcorn? How about a pedicure? Or massage? Or a day trip with girlfriends to the beach?

Don’t Slip Up

In the journey to lose over 100 pounds I had many challenges, setbacks and plateaus. It’s the nature of the beast. But in the first 21 days, it’s important to stick to the plan and NOT slip up. It takes 21 days to change a habit. If we slip up that 21 days should start over, right? Breaking those bonds with the bad habit needs consistency.

Avoid Triggers

If food is what you struggle with, remove yourself from situations that will be challenging to you.

For example, I stopped going out to happy hour with friends. I knew I would be tempted by the deep fried bar foods and high calorie alcoholic drinks–all empty calories that would derail my efforts. I just stopped doing that. I hung out with friends but in healthier situations that didn’t involve my triggers.

QUESTION: Are you willing to give the 21 Days to a New Life a try? What are you going to try to change in 21 days?