Nowadays, pharmaceutical companies often try to develop specialized drugs for all kinds of diseases and addictions. In most cases I would say that this is a good idea—if there is a pill that can cure cancer or Alzheimer’s, by all means give it to me. But when it comes to diseases like obesity, I’m not quite sure that taking a simple pill would be the best approach to cure it.
We have a system in our bodies called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). And yes, as it sounds, cannabis led to its discovery. The ECS impacts many areas of the body , mostly leading to an overall balance in the body. There are two signaling molecules, called endocannabinoids (eCBs) that have a huge impact on what and when we eat. eCBs activate a hormone which tells you that you’re hungry, and then stimulates food intake. In healthy people, eCB levels are highest without food intake, and lowest with food intake—so the lack of eCBs can tell you that you’re not hungry.
From an evolutionary perspective, the body views some fat as good. Fat stores energy when food isn’t available, so it’s good to have a small store built up. This is why eCBs in the stomach can stimulate fatty food intake.
But for most people in America, food is always available. So an intake of too much fat (AKA a high fat diet) can be detrimental. eCBs become overactive with high fat diets, and so it keeps telling you that you’re hungry.
To add to this effect, eCBs affect our internal reward system—they can increase things like dopamine (the happy compound) whenever you eat. You like to be happy, so the hormones that tell you that you’re full get dampened, and you keep eating. This can lead to an addiction to food.
Food addiction is just one component of obesity. There are many other factors which can lead to obesity. One factor is our culture; we no longer eat just when we’re hungry—we eat when we’re bored or sad, or just because it’s lunch or dinner time.
Back to the main question—should we find a pill to cure obesity, or rather, food addiction?
Should we really be targeting the systems in the body like the ECS? A mechanism which can impact many other parts of our lives? We don’t want to stop feeling happy about eating food (or in the case of anorexic individuals, activate the reward mechanism that makes one feel happy about not eating food). It makes more sense to target the real source of this addiction—lifestyle choices.
We don’t make time to exercise or cook anymore. In our overly corporate culture, we place more importance on work and making money than health. Maybe we should take a step back and look at our lifestyle choices instead of trying to create a pill to cure everything.