You don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess and certainly don’t take drugs — but could you be an ‘addict’ without knowing it? In fact lots of us could have addictions and not recognise the signs, to certain foods, for instance, your mobile phone, exercise, work — or even danger.
The definition of ‘addiction’ is not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. And it is surprisingly common, particularly if you have an addictive personality — which I do.
My addiction is to chocolate, something which I know is bad for my waistline and my risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and yet I still wolf it down given half a chance.
These apparently less harmful addictions are triggered by similar biochemical changes in our brains as with booze, gambling, and smoking — one of the most common and most harmful addictions of all.
This used to be confined to smoking cigarettes, but there’s increasing evidence of children getting addicted to the ‘healthier’ version, i.e. vapes
My addiction is to chocolate, which I know is bad for my waistline and my risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and yet I still wolf it down given half a chance, says Michael Mosley
A study last year showed daily consumption of high-fat/high-sugar snacks rewires the brain so we seek more of these foods
The number of children using vapes has tripled over the past few years, some as young as 11. That’s why I was delighted to hear the Government is finally going to crack down on this appalling habit by banning the sale of disposable vapes and punishing the shops that sell them to underage users.
The problem with vapes is not just that you’re getting a lungful of strange chemicals, but the nicotine you are inhaling is horribly addictive. Or at least it is for some people. A few years ago I made a documentary where I tried heavy vaping (inhaling the nicotine equivalent of around 20 cigarettes a day) for a couple of weeks.
I had never smoked before, so I was slightly concerned I’d end up becoming hooked.
But nothing of the sort. At no point while vaping did I end up craving another ‘hit’ — and after a few weeks I was delighted I was allowed to stop, which I did without any trouble.
And that raised, at least in my mind, the question of why some people seem to become almost immediate addicts — whether that’s to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or gambling — while others can give up relatively easily.
Countless studies have shown that addiction is down to a combination of genes, family background, personality traits and social background. But the underlying mechanism behind our addictions seems to be the big, pleasurable dopamine hit we get after we do a particular addictive activity.
Dopamine is a chemical messenger that plays a role in movement, but also our feelings of pleasure, among other things.
A recent study of over a million people, in the journal Nature Mental Health, found that the genes which predispose us to becoming addicted are mainly linked to the release of dopamine in the brain.
But for reasons we don’t quite understand, different things seem to trigger different addictions in different people. This can include exercise (I know people who will cancel everything before they cancel the gym); work (yes, some people do get a dopamine rush doing this!); or even danger (I knew a skydiver who took ever greater risks ‘for the buzz’, until he died in a fatal crash).
I’m not a heavy drinker, I feel no cravings for nicotine and despite consuming magic mushrooms (back in the days when it was legal) I have never felt the desire to take illegal drugs.
Yet I have a number of the personality traits that are normally associated with someone who is prone to addictive behaviour.
I’m obsessive (when I become focused on something, I find it hard to change direction); impulsive (I often do things without thinking them through); and I am a reward seeker: I go looking for things I know will give me a dopamine rush — even if I know they’re bad for my health, such as chocolate.
Some people would argue that food can’t be addictive, but I don’t think that’s true. In fact there’s a measure, known as the Yale Food Addiction scale, developed at Yale University in 2009, which has shown that certain foods — high in fat and carbs, such as chocolate, chips and biscuits — can trigger addictive behaviour in some people. A study last year in the journal Cell showed daily consumption of high-fat/high-sugar snacks rewires the brain so we seek more of these foods.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale includes 25 questions, but try this shorter quiz to assess how addicted you are to a particular food. More than three ‘yes’ answers and you may be in trouble.
1. When I start eating this food, I can’t stop and end up eating much more than I intended.
2. I keep on eating this food even when I am no longer hungry.
3. I eat to the point where I feel physically ill.
4. I find myself craving this food when I’m stressed.
5. If it isn’t in the house, I will get in the car and drive to the nearest shop that sells it.
6. I use this food to make myself feel better.
7. I hide this food so even those close to me don’t know how much of it I eat.
8. Eating it causes anxiety and feelings of self loathing and guilt.
9. Although I no longer get much pleasure from eating it, I keep on doing so.
10. I have tried to give this food up but failed.
Recognising that you have a problem is the first step towards doing something about it.
I know that I can’t have chocolate (or biscuits) in the house because I’ll always seek them out.
When I get cravings I ride them out, rather than head to the shop.
If you have a serious addiction, see your GP or contact an organisation that specialises in addictions. You can also get help by calling the Samaritans.
New cancer therapy may fight old age, too
The news that King Charles has cancer came as a nasty shock. In fact, one in two of us will develop cancer at some point — but the good news is . . . most will recover.
There have been huge advances in ways of diagnosing and treating cancers, but immunotherapy — using our own immune system to attack and destroy cancer — is perhaps the most exciting.
One of the most promising types of immunotherapy is CAR T-cell therapy, where T-cells (a type of white blood cell that destroys invading microbes) are taken from a patient and modified so they target and eliminate the cancer cells. It’s mainly used for advanced, otherwise untreatable forms of blood cancer, such as lymphoma. It’s also being trialled for cancers of the lung, liver and prostate.
But now there’s even talk of using CAR T-cell therapy to prolong healthy life. Here, modified T-cells are used to fight one of the underlying causes of ageing, ‘senescent’ cells.
If you live in a house for a long time, you tend to accumulate lots of junk.
The same is true of our bodies: over the years, they accumulate more and more old (or senescent) cells, which cause long-term damage by triggering chronic inflammation.
Now researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the U.S. have shown that CAR T-cell therapy can be used to seek and destroy these senescent cells, with impressive results.
In the study, mice given a single dose of their own modified T-cells when they were young, stayed slimmer and led healthier lives: the therapy improved their metabolism and led to them becoming more active, protecting them against type 2 diabetes and obesity.
So could modified T-cells be a potential fountain of youth, as well as potent cancer fighters? Fingers crossed.