Updated: Feb 21
Some of the most common addictions in the world are tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, painkillers, cocaine, heroine -- and sugar*. Addiction is something that anyone can experience, but depending on what it is, many individuals don't even know that they are addicts.
"As our powerful appetite-and mood-optimizing neurotransmitters are depleted by our diet and our stress levels, we become addicted to drugs like sugar, alcohol, and heroin temporary relief from the depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia that result". - Julia Ross
Not many people realize how addicting sugar and other types of food (gluten, fats and salt) are because they are deemed "safe" according to several food organizations . However, if you know that certain foods can increase risk of cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and poor immunity, but you still continue to consume them, you may be addicted. There is increasing support that show that highly palatable food items high in fat, salt, and especially sugar are extremely addicting. They affect the brain similar to how hard drugs affect the brain. In fact, refined sugar is said to be 4 to 8 times more addictive than cocaine. That is probably the reason why many Americans consume an average of 20 teaspoons a day despite having chronic conditions that warrant against it.
Keep in mind that in this post we are referring to processed and refined sugar such as cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup, the most dangerous forms of sugar, which are linked to cancer, high cholesterol and diabetes. These types of sugar have little to no nutritional value and are "empty" and high calorie.
Understanding Addiction and Sugar Consumption
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain condition characterized by compulsive pleasure seeking in items, despite harmful consequences. Without access to the addictive substance, a person will usually display acts of impulsiveness, frustration, depression or anxiety. Addictive food items activate the “reward circuit” and cause the release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is responsible for action on the award center and controls emotions, movement, and pleasure/pain responses. Over time, the chronic use of these items leads to down-regulation (high tolerance) of the dopamine receptors, which eventually decreases the amount of the dopamine. This usually leaves the abuser feeling flat, lifeless, and depressed as well as unable to respond to natural stimuli.
SUGAR DETOX WARNING: Many of those who are addicted can have sugar withdrawals once they try to cut it out. The symptoms are: depression, anxiety, cognitive issues, sleep pattern issues, light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, tingling, fatigue and cravings. This is short lasting (up to 3 days) and your body will adjust accordingly if you continue to cut it out.
Although “sugar addiction” isn’t an official affliction, research shows neuro-chemical similarities between how hard drugs (such as heroin, crack and cocaine) and sugar affect the brain. Palatable food items, like refined sugar, can trigger feel good hormones such as dopamine. Once an individuals feels good from the increased dopamine transmission in the brain reward pathway from eating certain foods, there is a need to continue to consume such foods to get that feeling back.
FYI: Palatable foods are food items that taste good and give you pleasure.
There is also a similarity in the food addiction pathway with Pavlov's classical conditioning, where a specific item (in this case, food) is associated with a reward and that signals the brain tells the appestat to be rapidly satisfied for now. Unfortunately, the temporary reward from the food is not long lasting. Most saitey occurs between 5- 20 minutes after eating and may last up to 2 hours before your body is practically feening for more.
The appestat is a mechanism of the brain that controls the appetite. It is usually imbalanced due to emotional stress, physiological shocks and spiritual causes.
How Sugar Affects US
Increased refined sugar consumption is becoming more of an epidemics as adults and children are experiencing life threatening effects from this consumption.
Increased sugar consumption can affect the brain by causing:
reduced neurogenesis, which leads to a decrease in the body's ability to create new healthy genes for learning and memory, emotions, stress, depression, response to injury, and other conditions.
depressed stress responses, making our ability to combat stressful situations harder and less effective, while increasing inflammation in the body
impaired hippocampal-dependent behaviors, which makes us lose the ability for us to control our appetite
increased neural (nerve) inflammation, which increases irritability, multiplies mood disorders and decreases our ability to tolerate pain.
Increased sugar consumption can affect the body by causing :
decreased immunity, in the result of bad bacteria feeding off sugar and multiplying causing a disruption of the healthy gut biome)
increased risk of leaky gut syndrome, a condition where food particles leak into our blood stream, causing autoimmunity (a disease where our body fights it's own tissues and cells).
increased insulin resistance, which further increase diabetes risk
overgrowth of bad organisms (yeast and bacteria)
more chronic inflammation, obesity, retention of fluid, and excess dietary sodium retention.
These series of events can lead to more serious condition such as: hypertension, autoimmune disease, cancer, and other life altering chronic conditions that affect the quality of life.
Break Your Sugar Addiction
They key to learning how to reduce your sugar addiction is not complete eradication at first, it is replacement and control . Glucose is a simple sugar (monosaccharide) that is needed to supply energy to every cell of the body. So it is important to keep an important balance of it. However the main problem comes in over consumption of the wrong types of sugar. Once you learn how to limit your intake of the wrong sugars you will be much closer to reducing it in your nutritional choices and becoming less addicted. In addition, processed and refined foods (desserts chips, cakes, cookies, and candy) are higher in calories and added sugar, but have little to no sustainable nutrients needed to bring the body systems to a natural balance. Instead, these types of food cause simple sugar to toxically build up in our bloodstream and increase inflammation, leading to disease and dysfunction. To keep a well balance energy level, crowd out the processed foods and increase the consumption of natural sugars found directly in fruit and vegetables. These item are better balanced and reduce the risk of pro-inflammatory kinetics of sugar.
TO BREAK YOUR ADDICTION, follow the four R's.
Read your labels and avoid the ingredients "cane sugar" and "high fructose corn syrup".
Remove these types of sugar from your diet for 3 days.
Reintroduce alternatives slowly after these 3 days, such as: stevia, date and rice syrup solids. These are considered low glycemic sweeteners that slowly release glucose and contribute to consistent energy stores and less inflammation.
Remain consistent in these changes so you can continue to progress forward in your health journey.
Morris, M. (2019). Invited talk: Impact of sugar – Brain, gut and beyond. Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, 13(1), 23–24. https://doi-org.ezproxy.fau.edu/10.1016/j.orcp.2016.10.018
Mies, G. W., Treur, J. L., Larsen, J. K., Halberstadt, J., Pasman, J. A., & Vink, J. M. (2017). The prevalence of food addiction in a large sample of adolescents and its association with addictive substances. Appetite, 118, 97–105. https://doi-org.ezproxy.fau.edu/10.1016/j.appet.2017.08.002
WebMD. (2020). Food Addiction Signs and Treatments. [online] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder/mental-health-food-addiction#1 [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
Mcleod, S. (2020). Pavlov’s Dogs Study and Pavlovian Conditioning Explained | Simply Psychology. [online] Simplypsychology.org. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
Healthline. (2020). Sugar Detox: Symptoms, Withdrawal Side Effects, and How to Manage Them. [online] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/sugar-detox-symptoms#the-addiction-cycle [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020]. CONFRONTING THE GREATEST NUTRITIONAL CRISIS OF ALL TIME lecture by
Julia Ross, M.A., M.F.T.,N.N.T.S. on 3/3/12