Why it’s so hard to quit bad habits

Nature and nurture play a role in addiction. Credit: Getty Images
Nature and nurture play a role in addiction.
Credit: Getty Images

We’ve heard it from our mothers, our doctors and even our governments: Don’t eat junk food. Don’t tan. Don’t smoke. However, evidence shows that old habits do, in fact, die hard.

Obesity prevails in this nation — the American Medical Association even recently categorized it as a disease. Skin cancer is still on the up — from 1970 to 2009, the incidence of melanoma increased by 800 percent among young women and 400 percent among young men, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And while the World Health Organization reports that the public is more aware of tobacco’s adverse effects, we still have a long way to go before we achieve the WHO’s goal of a 30 percent reduction in tobacco use by 2025.

Why do we carry on with these bad habits? One answer that experts point to is our brain chemistry. Whether the vice is smoking, drinking, tanning, binge-eating, gambling or something entirely different, partaking in an activity that makes us feel good lights up reward regions in our brains. When the brain’s reward centers are stimulated, it produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.

It’s not that these feel-good chemicals are inherently bad for us. In fact, decreased serotonin leads to depression. And some diseases, like ADHD and Parkinson’s, are treated with dopamine. But too much of a good thing – whether it’s a vice of ours or just a chemical in the brain – has proven time and time again to not be so good for us.

“When your brain is secreting extra feel-good chemicals like dopamine, you feel great, but it can cause a number of problems,” say Dr. Deni Carise, the deputy chief clinical officer at CRC Health Group, a network of treatment providers across the U.S. “It can decrease the amount of dopamine your brain releases for you down the road. Also, your brain gets used to unnaturally high levels of dopamine, and therefore very high levels of pleasure, and then anything less than that level leaves you feeling poorly.”

Indeed, the body is able to adjust to the high dopamine levels, sometimes five to 10 times beyond natural levels, and creates for itself “a new expected level” — a new normal. But if that unnaturally high level of dopamine is taken away, “your body and pleasurable feelings don’t go back to neutral – they go below neutral,” Carise says. Cue withdrawal symptoms of shaking, sweating and anxiety.

Genetics may play a part

Not all risky behaviors may develop in us as a result of repeated action, experts say. In some cases, the brain is taught to want to engage during our infant years or even before we’re born.

“The taste bud for sweet is the first taste bud to be fully developed in the infant,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, a registered dietician in New York and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We’re sort of programmed from the moment we’re born to respond to the taste of sweet, and to like the taste of it, and to continue to consume even though nutritionally we may have gotten our fill. There really is an evolutionary part of it.”

Besides the conditioning that affects all humans, our specific genes can also come into play when it comes to our habits.
“The heritability of opiate dependence is very high,” Carise says. “Studies report adult males are at 50 to 70 percent higher risk for opiate dependence if they have a first-degree male relative who has or has had an opiate dependence.”

Those numbers are on par with hereditary estimates for conditions like diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure. And it’s also true if you are adopted or raised in a home where no one ever abused opiates.

Societal impact

But our competitive American culture also has influence when it comes to our habits. Vices can tap into our desires to be the best, the prettiest, the most successful. Take cigarettes, for example, and how their advertisements often project a user as someone popular, thriving and attractive.

“Many campaigns have been specifically [targeted] to women, usually to [convey] slim,” according to Dr. Adriana Blanco, regional adviser for tobacco control on the Pan-American Health Organization, and a physician specializing in addiction. “They try to portray it in a slim package or a slim cigarette that subconsciously gives the impression to women of slimness.”

So even if a female smoker knows that that cigarette is going to cause her damage, tobacco companies still bank on the fact that she also wants to be skinny.

While that might sound disappointing, that deeply seated desire to excel — whether a tan makes someone feel sexier or a shopping spree makes someone feel richer — is what this country was founded upon, Carise says.

“We’re one of the newest countries out there and that really does change the way people behave,” she says. “We started with and continue to be a group of people who want to be our best, who want to exceed, be happy beyond belief and who want to enjoy life.”

Indeed, our idealist tendencies mean that on our quest to be the best and the happiest, we need to eliminate any obstacles that stand in our way. And turning to a vice may be one way to drown out the negativity that impedes our happiness. As Carise says, “We’re a culture that just doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable feelings.”

We’re also a culture that looks for instant gratification – just think of how many ads for quick-fix weight loss supplements you’ve seen on the train, on TV or in a magazine this past week. When our brains get a high from smoking, or stepping inside a tanning booth, it’s easy to ignore the long-term health effects that seem far down the road. This is especially true for many young people, whose feelings of invincibility might overshadow their health concerns: “When you’re 18, you don’t care [about getting] lung cancer 40 years from now,” Blanco says.

The same is true even for risky behaviors that aren’t of a chemical origin. Dr. Mary Tripp of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas says that one reason many of young people use tanning beds “is getting ready for prom.”

“I think people generally have education [about tanning], but in your day-to-day life, many people just like the way they look tan. The immediate concerns may outweigh the cancer risks.”

Though habits can be genetically and behaviorally ingrained in us, change is possible, Carise promises.

“We do as a culture have a lot of bad habits, but the reality is that we also take control of these habits,” she says. “It’s important for me that nobody ever thinks, ‘Yeah, I’m addicted, there’s no hope.’ People do get better every day.”

One way to break the binge-eating habit

It can be excruciatingly hard to change a relationship with food. And making drastic changes overnight is just setting yourself up for a relapse. By being mindful of the cycle your body runs on can help you kick binge-eating to the curb.

If, for example, you eat lightly in the morning to conserve your calories for a large meal later that day, your body’s hunger hormone, ghrelin, is going to shift into high gear later that day, Cohn says. In this generation, we no longer worry much about where our next source of food is coming from — we’re not hunting it or picking it off a tree.

But if your body isn’t properly nourished, your brain can start to think that you’re hard-pressed to find something to eat. Survival mode kicks in and physiological changes start to take place, such as a crash in blood sugar, an upswing in ghrelin and fat conservation inside your cells — all of which lead to weight gain. When that next source of food does eventually present itself, our bodies go crazy to sop up as much of it as we can, making up for lost time.

If you’re eating on a schedule, and eating a mix of protein, fat and complex carbs, you can avoid this fate. Doing so will stabilize your blood sugar and keep your hormones in check.

Following a well-balanced and well-timed diet isn’t going to make you not want that Twix bar, Cohn says. But “if you’re not hungry and your hormones aren’t going into survival mode, you can choose more rationally [not] to eat it.”

How one Metro editor’s tanning caught up with her

Jill Gadsby, National News Editor, Metro US
Jill Gadsby is the national news editor for Metro US.

Every summer for as long as I can remember started with a sunburn that was so bad it blistered.

My childhood was spent wearing dorky beach hats, zinc on my face and T-shirts that covered up my pretty pink bathing suit. But my parents told me it was a necessity to avoid the pain and illness caused by the sun’s rays that were so harmful to my pasty white skin.

Then came high school, where my fair complexion made every prom dress I tried on look terrible – or so I thought. And so it began: my love affair with tanning.

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I was Snooki. I’d sign up for a month’s worth of visits, brown up a bit and move on, probably still looking pale to the average person. This continued through college and my 20s, whenever there was a formal occasion, tropical vacation or sometimes just to prep for summer.

One day, my sister pointed out a weird looking freckle on my calf. I knew it had transformed from a flat freckle that looked like the thousands of others on my body to a raised bump about the size of a pencil eraser. Still, I didn’t make it to the dermatologist for several months. A week after my appointment, as I sat in a restaurant with a co-worker, my doctor called to tell me I had melanoma and I needed to schedule surgery immediately.

Melanoma? Like, one of the deadliest forms of cancer? But the freckle only got weird a few months ago, and it’s so small.

A month later at the age of 33, I underwent a wide excision on my calf, which is now disfigured from the fist-sized portion of flesh they removed and is marred by a 5-inch scar, all from a freckle no bigger than a pea. They also removed more than a dozen lymph nodes, which help filter the fluids in your body, so my leg often swells. Thankfully, the cancer didn’t spread to those nodes and no other treatment was necessary. I was extremely lucky.

I knew all along that tanning was a risky behavior, especially for someone as fair as me, but I thought I was invincible. It turns out I’m not. Are you?

- Jill Gadsby


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