Feel-Good Genes and Addiction

Here is a story from a 5’2″ elementary school teacher, 24 years of age, who described her life as “miserable” because of disordered eating:

[A]fter one personal trainer, over two years of therapy, three juice cleanses, four gym memberships, 20 pounds lost, 30 pounds gained back, and thousands of dollars spent on healthy groceries and high-end cookware, I am […] spending another night, like so many nights before, eating a bowl of last-minute, mediocre cookie dough alone in my apartment at 11 p.m. And I hate myself for it.

Anita Badejo saw a therapist who diagnosed “a low-grade, chronic form of depression” called dysthymia, along with generalized anxiety disorder. But why do so many millions of people fall prey to these gloomy mental states with equivocal boundaries and no clear causes? Are they all psychiatrically or psychologically impaired? As it turns out, the topic of genetics and the long-cherished hope of discovering “the” obesity gene might throw some light on this puzzle from another angle.

The road to bliss

In 2015, Dr. Richard A. Friedman wrote for The New York Times about the endocannabinoid system and specifically about anandamide (AEA), which some have called the “bliss molecule.” It binds to cannabinoid receptors and exerts a calming effect, in both mice and humans, by reducing fear and anxiety.

A gene called FAAH regulates the production of AEA by producing an enzyme that de-activates it. When the FAAH gene has a certain mutation, it does not keep such a tight leash on AEA, and consequently more “bliss molecule” is available to make the person happy. Since fear and anxiety lead a lot of people along the path of drug abuse, it looked like finding a way to regulate the relationship between AEA and FAAH could allow people to be naturally happier, and less likely to take up with dangerous drugs.

By 2018, it was known that “anandamide exerts an overall modulatory effect on the brain reward circuitry,” and some reports seemed to indicate its involvement somehow in the addiction-producing effects of drugs of abuse:

AEA and drugs that modulate its circulating brain levels have been shown not only to be involved in mediating the effects of several drugs of abuse but also, in many circumstances, to create potential positive interference with the dependence-producing actions of several drugs of abuse… suggesting potential therapeutic activity against substance use disorders.

Anandamide affects not only happiness, but memory, sleep, pain relief, and appetite. The cannabinoid receptors that welcome it are located not only in the brain but, writes wellness writer and biologist Deane Alban, “are widespread throughout the body occurring in the central nervous system, spleen, lungs, liver, kidneys, white blood cells, reproductive organs, and in the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts.”

These discoveries were then connected with data from surveys that measure the happiness rates of people in different countries — which may have something to do with the genes that regulate the level of AEA. Alban wrote, “Countries where citizens generally rate themselves as ‘very happy’ have a higher instance of this gene.”

To be continued…

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “I’m Mending My Broken Relationship With Food,” BuzzFeedNews.com, 02/26/15
Source: “The Feel-Good Gene,” NYTimes.com, 03/06/15
Source: “Brain activity of anandamide: a rewarding bliss?,” Nature.com, 07/26/18
Source: “Anandamide: Bliss Molecule for Happiness & Mental Balance,” BeBrainFit.com, 09/01/21
Image by Elijah van der Giessen/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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