The Science of Habit Formation and Habit Change
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
All of the adapting and responding that we do is really a series of decisions, or choices, that we make throughout the day. We decide what to wear, what to eat, whether to call a friend, and even whether to argue with someone. Often, the millions of little decisions that we make are conscious, meaning that we are cognizant of the choices we have and decide accordingly based on our present needs, emotions, and goals. However, not all of the decisions that we make are completely in our conscious awareness. Sometimes, it seems as if the decision to act in a given situation has already been made for us before we even realize what is happening. For example, if you have a sweet tooth and are trying to cut back on how much sugar you are eating because you know it is not good for your health, you might find that before you even have a moment to think about whether or not to eat a cookie, you already are munching on it. These types of seemingly out-of-our-control decisions are known as habits.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Habits
A habit is defined as a repeated behavior or action done in response to a contextual cue. Once the habit is repeated enough times in the same context, the conscious effort to complete the action that was needed before is no longer needed (1). Not all habits are inherently bad. Some, like putting on your seatbelt in the car, are life savers. Habits can be useful because they are a result of our brains feeling out a certain environment and choosing behaviors that are most beneficial to us in the environment (2). Habits can be used to make healthy lifestyle changes. For example, in a study cited by British Journal of General Practice that tested the effectiveness of repetitive behaviors in helping individuals lose weight, one group was given a leaflet containing simple repetitive behaviors and activities and the other was not, and at the end of eight weeks, the group given the leaflet had lost 1.6 kg on average more than the control group (1).
However, some habits that we develop over time are dangerous and may be putting our health at risk. Drinking too much alcohol, making a habit of watching too much TV, and eating too much processed food (especially those with added sugars) are examples of some bad habits that can creep up on us. But where do these habits come from, and how do they form? Habits form as a result of complex neurological functions (3).
According to an article in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience they are not just the product of cognitive function, they stem from signaling in multiple regions of the brain including the dorsolateral striatum, infralimbic cortex, prelimbic cortex, and dorsomedial striatum (3). The part of the brain most responsible for controlling habitual actions is the striatum. In an experiment with rats referenced in Scientific American, it was found that neurons that had been active in the striatum during the exploratory phase of the experiment became less active as the behavior was repeated (with the same consequences) and became a habit. The actions that made up the behavior became “packaged” so to speak (2).
There is more than one way in which habits can be formed. Stimulus-response habits, which are the most commonly formed habits, are the result of learning patterns based on reinforcement. So every time you eat a sugary treat and feel good (due to the dopamine rush, a neurochemical in the brain that plays a role in learning, reinforcement, pleasure and reward), the sugary treat serves as the stimulus and produces the response of the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Pairings of this stimulus and response, over and over again (starting early in life for many of us), leads to the development of the habit and craving of sugars. According to a study done by Eric Stice in Physiology and Behavior, these repeated behaviors also leads to the over-valuation of sugary and high calorie foods. Sugar becomes something you depend on and putting too much importance in food beyond a way to fuel your body is a slippery slope (4)To make matters even more difficult, another type of habit formation, known as associated outcome habits, are learned through expectation and associative experiences (3). When it comes to trying to change our eating behaviors, we have to grapple with both types of habits.
Where does this pleasure come from? According to the National Institute of Health, dopamine plays an important role in the development of habits. When an individual is engaging in an enjoyable behavior, their brain releases dopamine. Every time this action is repeated, dopamine is released over and over which can strengthen the formation of a habit (5).
Sometimes bad habits form because an individual continually makes the same choice in the same context that results in instant reward. The brain logs this reward positively (not noting the later consequences) and urges the brain to make the same choice the next time. This choice with instant gratification is made over and over, and a habit forms (6).
Once we come to see that we have a bad habit, changing it can be difficult due to the fact that the habit has essentially become programmed into our brain. In order to successfully change a bad change for the better, it is necessary to complete specific actions at consistent times and locations in order to create new, healthier habits that help you achieve your goal. It is also crucial to reroute the brain pathways that are responsible for those bad habits in the first place. Saying “I want to eat healthier” or “I want to cut back on my sugar intake” is not enough. It is important to set up specific actions that can be incorporated into daily life in order to realize this goal (1). Choosing specific healthy habits that contribute to the ultimate goal you would like to achieve and repeating them until they become automatic (you don’t have to think about them) is the goal. The good news is that this is an achievable goal, and with the right coaching and shift in mindset (which we can help with), you can change your habits.
It is also important to note that willpower and conscious thought are only a part of how you develop new habits and break old ones. According to a study done by Behavior Research and Therapy, certain regions of the brain that correspond to reward have an elevated response to high-calorie foods and inhibitory regions have a weakened response in individuals prone to overeating and poor weight management. This means that no matter how many times a person tells themselves that they do not want that piece of cake, their brain tells a different story. Fortunately, with exercises that train the brain to stop valuing high-calorie foods so much, inhibitory regions of the brain can be strengthened and individuals can learn to think twice before reaching for sugary junk foods (7).
However, this kind of practice takes patience and consistency—at the minimum, you need to dedicate 21 days to reset your bad habits and retrain your brain (8). And for some individuals, more time is needed to maintain the newly-formed healthier habits before they become automatic. A study done in the European Journal of Social Psychology showed that the length of time it took test subjects to form a habit spanned from 18 to 254 days (8). Long-term habit change is not going to happen overnight. It required conscious effort and a change in well-established pathways in the brain (9).
The first place to start is recognizing that bad habits are not all our fault. It isn’t a moral failing or a lack of willpower. There are biological changes that occur in the brain that form these bad habits, and once that happens, it is difficult to break them without the right tools. And remember that companies that sell unhealthy food products depend on the formation of bad habits in customers in order to keep selling their product (6).
There are a few common challenges that come up with talking about habit change:
- The first part of habit change is called initiation and it is the most difficult because the person forming the new habit must still consciously perform the action before it becomes ingrained in the brain (2).
- Humans often revert back to the best-established or first learned behavior in their brain when they are in a stressful or unfamiliar environment. Developing techniques that allow people to adapt to the environment they are in while remaining mindful and unstressed can help to not revert back to unhealthy habits (10).
Never underestimate the power of relaxation techniques and the moral support from friends and family!
What’s more, even if your conscious mind is willing and ready to quit your sugar habit, your body is still craving the dopamine kick you get from eating sugar. The most effective way to retrain this chemical response is to make sugar a less enjoyable experience to eat. In a study done in Advancement in Medicinal Plant Research, there are certain types of plant compounds that can block glucose receptors in the mouth and reduce the pleasant taste of sugar hitting the tongue. These compounds can help to weaken association between sugary foods and reward responses which keep you hooked (11).
Additionally, we are here to help you kick your sugar habit! Sweet Defeat and the 21-Day Sugar Reset Program will walk you through the steps to help you change your relationship with sugar and your mindset to break up the habit you may have developed. When habits are deeply ingrained, it is important to use all the tools in your arsenal to help break them. Luckily, we know so much about how the brain works, and science has come so far that even the toughest bad habits don’t stand a chance! Sweet Defeat was developed by those on the forefront of habit research and uses classical conditioning principles to create new, less desirable associations with sugary foods to help you reduce cravings and start eating healthier! In the multiple clinical studies done with Sweet Defeat, there was a significant reduction in cravings for sugary foods in participants who took the supplement in comparison to a placebo (12).