• The Relationship Between Sugar and Addiction
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    The Relationship Between Sugar and Addiction

    The term “sugar high” is a well-known phrase, but what does it really mean?

    Some health professionals compare the rapid energy boost after eating high sugary foods as similar to the behavior of individuals who take amphetamines, prescription drugs and especially, illegal drugs such as cocaine.

    And just like a drug, sugar can be addictive. Medical experts now know that the reaction of the brain to sugar is very similar to the way the brain is affected by drugs.

    Addiction and the Brain

    The human brain contains a “reward or pleasure center.” The pathway to the brain’s pleasure center helps guideand reinforce behaviors. The brain releases special neurons in this “pleasure pathway” and triggers an increase in a chemical called dopamine.

    Dopamine is the substance that provides temporary good feelings, pleasure, happiness and even elation. Scientists have discovered that this reward pathway not only produces the good feelings in the brain, but it is also related to repeating the action whenever possible.

    The brain convinces an individual to repeat the enjoyable behavior again and again, knowing that the release of dopamine will cause a happy, even euphoric feeling. Whether or not this behavior is healthy or not, the brain helps develop a habit of seeking the substance that causes joy.

    Overtime, the link of the behavior to the good feelings strengthens and can lead to an addiction of the specific action.

    Should Sugar be Considered a Recreational Drug?

    Dr. Mark Hyman, one of the top experts in the field of nutrition who specifically focuses on the effects of sugar on the body believes that “sugar is eight times as addictive as cocaine.” [1]

    Some studies demonstrate that there are at least four attributes shared between sugar and drug addiction.

    1. Sugar, drugs and dopamine

    When someone engages in the use of cocaine, the body quickly reacts releasing higher than normal dopamine levels. This immediate blissful feeling entices individuals to repeat the cocaine more frequently.

    What is fascinating is that data reveals that sugar can result in a similar effect on the body.

    To confirm this theory, researchers have performed several studies with animals and found that the brain often reacts to high sugary foods the same way that the brains of people with drug addictions react to drugs.

    The intense and elevated levels of dopamine can easily, and quickly, lead to addiction, whether it is sugar, cocaine, sex or some other drug.

    2. Cravings

    Sugar cravings are similar to cravings for drugs. The craving is not about a physiological need, but rather your brain demanding your “reward center” be satisfied.

    Frequently, the craving for sweets and for illicit drugs originates from a low level of serotonin, a chemical in the brain. Like dopamine, serotonin is a neurotransmitter.

    But unlike dopamine, serotonin does not stimulate the brain. Rather serotonin balances mood and helps support a level of calmness. When serotonin levels are low, your brain transmits signals of anxiousness, irritability and even depression.

    Low serotonin levels produce cravings for simple carbohydrates because these types of foods provide an immediate release of serotonin levels in the body, elevating your mood and seemingly restoring balance.

    For some people, drugs have the same positive, yet temporary, effect.

    3. Common Brain Response

    Addiction researchers have studied multiple reports on food addiction that were conducted over a span of several years. Their investigation discovered strong commonalities in how the body responds to both sugar and to drugs.

    The primary source for gathering data in these experiments was MRIs. At the conclusion of the investigation the authors stated, “The results from these studies suggest that multiple but similar brain circuits are disrupted” in individuals desiring sugar and drugs.[2]

    4. Increased Tolerance Equals More Abuse

    Increased tolerance to sugar, junk food and drugs share similarities. It is commonly understood that over time, drug addicts require a higher dose or a different/more immediate delivery system of the abusive substance just to achieve the same feeling of being “high.”

    This increased tolerance to the drug occurs because with continued use, the brain reduces the amount of dopamine output. As a result, a higher level of alcohol or drug is required to reach the same level of reward and pleasure. Some research reveals that the same process occurs with sugar addiction.

    3 Steps to End Sugar Addiction

    There are methods that can be used to reduce the brain’s dependence on sugar. For example:

    1. Revisit your diet

    Most people that are truly addicted to sugar have a diet that is lacking in healthy nutrients. Modifying your meal plan can help.

    Protein can be a sugar cravings worst nightmare, so seek out protein based items. Protein helps balance blood sugar and reduces yearning for excess sugar.

    You can help diminish your daily cravings for sugar by setting a healthy foundation for your day as soon as you wake up. Allow time each morning for a nutritious breakfast that includes healthy proteins such as eggs or even protein shakes.

    2. Plan ahead

    If you know you have a long commute ahead of you or if you will be stuck in a meeting or when have to drive the kids to all their activities, keep non-sugary snacks accessible. Almonds, peanut butter and some yogurt products are great options, as well as string cheese. But always check the label before you indulge.

    3. Sleep matters

    The prestigious University of Chicago provides valid documentation that sleep influences the body’s need for sugar. A well-quoted study involved limiting healthy young men to just four hours of sleep for two consecutive nights. The results were staggering:[3]

    • There was a reported a 24% increase in appetite
    • Participants experienced “a surge in desire for sweets, such as candy and cookies”
    • These men stated that they were more hungry after four hours of sleep than after ten hours

    Similar to detox from drugs, the body will take some time to detoxify from the heavy sugar intake it has been experiencing. Understanding the brain’s response to drugs, alcohol and sugar provides insight for effective methods to deal and help end these addictions.


    [1] http://drhyman.com/blog/2015/04/24/are-you-a-food-addict/

    [2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3098897/

    [3] http://www.uchospitals.edu/news/2004/20041206-sleep.html


    Audrey Beim holds two advanced degrees from major universities, including a Master’s Degree in Psychology. She has over 20 years of experience in the health, wellness, nutritional and fitness categories and has used her expertise to write articles for media outlets such as Linfield Media and Examiner.com.


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