The Weekly Vlog

Thumb Sucking and Food Addiction

Mar 06, 2024

A few days ago, I was on an accountability call with our Bright Lifers community. One of the people participating shared that when she was a child she sucked her thumb. Later, she switched to eating addictively for comfort. She went directly from using her thumb as a source of comfort, relief, and soothing to using food for comfort, relief, and soothing.

As she was sharing this with the community, all I could think was “Oh my gosh, me too! Why don’t I ever think about this or talk about this? Why isn’t it part of my story?”

I sucked my thumb until I was 13 years old. The orthodontist even glued little spikes to the backs of my front teeth. That didn’t stop me—it just gave me vampire-like piercings on my thumb!

For me, what did it was getting my period. That gave me an awareness that I wasn’t a child any longer. But I still bit my nails until they bled. I didn’t quit biting my nails until much later—and even today, I have a nail I will bite and chew sometimes. As a kid, I also chewed on wooden pencils until they were soggy splinters in my mouth and I devoured Bic pen caps until they were long skinny spikes of plastic covered in teeth marks. It’s all the same oral fixation.

After talking to this Bright Lifer, I Googled “Dopamine release and thumb sucking.” Turns out there’s a whole scientific literature on it. And on dopamine release and chewing as well.

We use what we can when we’re babies and children to self-soothe, release anxiety, and get what we need. They’re all tools for self-medicating.

The link between thumb-sucking and food addiction is partly why I recommend not chewing gum. Chewing is important physiologically, but we get the mastication that we need when we eat whole, real foods. I recommend not chewing gum in order to break that oral fixation. As adults, we don’t want to rely on crutches. We don’t want to feel like we must have something in our mouths to be comforted. When we abstain from soothing or distracting ourselves in that way, we open up a space to ask ourselves what we truly need in that moment: connection? Comfort? Do we need to address something in our environment? Start a project we’ve been procrastinating on?

Having something in your mouth at all times is counterproductive, even if you don’t identify as a food addict.

Similar to that, research came out a while ago that clicking a mouse—like for a videogame—also causes a dopamine release in the brain. It’s interesting how we, as a species, gravitate toward whatever provides a little ease.

Another lesson I’ve gleaned from this is about how we tell our story: how we sometimes miss a key piece of the puzzle. Maybe we’re in denial or haven’t looked hard enough, or maybe—and I think this is true for me—we’re just used to telling our story as we tell it. So, when someone brings something to our attention, it gives us another way to look at our past and the forces and experiences that have shaped us. We are writing and rewriting our story all the time.

I invite you to look back at your own history and at the ways we’re similar. I suspect there are a fair number of people who will relate to this. And that may mean you need to ask yourself what kind of comfort you need. Where are you being called to grow and stretch, and how can you learn to tolerate discomfort, so that you can see where you truly need to go next.

Click here to listen to this episode on Bright Line Living™ - The Official Bright Line Eating Podcast.

Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is a New York Times bestselling author and an expert in the psychology and neuroscience of eating.  Susan is the Founder and CEO of Bright Line Eating®, a scientifically grounded program that teaches you a simple process for getting your brain on board so you can finally find freedom from food.

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