We’ve all heard the term “sugar high,” but what does it really mean? Some health professionals compare the rapid energy boost experienced by the body after eating sugary foods to the behavior of individuals who take amphetamines, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs such as cocaine.
Just like a drug, sugar can be addictive. Medical experts now know that the brain’s reaction to sugar is similar to the way the brain is affected by drugs.
The Anatomy of Addiction in the Brain
The human brain contains a reward or pleasure center. The pathway to the brain’s pleasure center helps guide and reinforce behaviors. In fact, the brain releases special neurons in this “pleasure pathway” and triggers an increase in a chemical called dopamine.
Dopamine is the substance that provides good feelings, pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction, even if they are temporary. Recently, scientists have discovered that this reward pathway not only produces the good feelings in the brain, it’s also related to repeating the action whenever possible.
In other words, dopamine not only affects behavior, it also influences the learning and memory of the behavior. This means the brain convinces you to repeat the enjoyable behavior again and again, knowing that the release of dopamine will cause a happy and euphoric feeling. Whether or not this behavior is healthy or not, the brain helps develop a habit of seeking the substance that causes joy.
Over time, the link between the behavior and the euphoric feelings strengthens and can lead to an addiction. Due to the powerful connection between pleasure and the behavior, tolerance of the abused substance — whether it’s sugar, alcohol, drugs, etc. — can easily develop after a relatively short period of time. And when a high tolerance is experienced, the individual needs an increasing amount of the drug to reach the same sensation of exhilaration.
Is Sugar 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.”
That’s a pretty powerful statement, but if you take a look at the food labels in your refrigerator and pantry, there is almost always added sugar in processed foods. These “hidden” sugars are just as diabolical as sugar in candy and ice cream. Unfortunately, without some detective work, many people are unaware of how much sugar is included in the daily foods they eat. Surprisingly, added sugar is frequently found in frozen pizzas, deli meats and other foods you would not expect.
For women, no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons)
For men, no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons)
Unfortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that the “the average American consumes anywhere between 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugars in one year.” Eating 150 pounds of sugar annually is equivalent to consuming 1/4 of a pound of sugar each day.
And for many people, decreasing their sugar intake involves more than willpower. Sugar addiction, like drug addiction, has its roots as a physiological disorder.
Five Attributes Shared Between Sugar and Drug Addiction
While it’s not always apparent, drug addiction and sugar addiction are similar in various ways:
Dopamine levels — When someone uses cocaine, the body quickly reacts and releases higher than normal dopamine levels. This immediate blissful feeling entices individuals to repeat the cocaine use more frequently. However, sugar can result in a similar effect on the body.Many researchers have performed several studies with animals and found that the brain often reacts to sugary foods in the same way 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’s sugar, cocaine, sex, or another drug. The pathways in the brain which lead to heroin and morphine addiction have also been shown to have comparable effects as high levels of sugar.
Cravings — Do you ever feel like if you don’t get your hands on a piece of chocolate or a scoop of ice cream, you might fall apart? Sugar cravings are similar to cravings for drugs. The craving is not about a physiological need, but rather your brain demanding that your “reward center” be satisfied.For many individuals, sugar cravings are a matter of a learned behavior that has become an undesirable habit which creates a transient happy feeling. The sensation is short-term and the elation quickly disappears. Why does this occur? The craving for sweets and for the abuse of 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. Instead, serotonin balances your 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 also produce cravings for simple carbohydrates, because these types of foods provide an immediate release of serotonin levels in the body. They can elevate your mood and seemingly restore balance.For some people, drugs have the same positive, yet temporary, effect. Whether you’re experiencing sugar cravings or cravings to support an elevated mood, this powerful desire can overtake your actions.
Common Brain Response — A few years ago, addiction researchers 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. MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging and provides a simple, noninvasive method for healthcare professionals to examine organs, tissues and the skeletal system. It’s an extremely valuable tool that produces high-resolution images that can help identify health issues.By using MRIs, scientists were able to observe how blood flows in the brain under the influence of both sugar and drugs. At the conclusion, the authors stated that “the results from these studies suggest that multiple but similar brain circuits are disrupted” in individuals who crave sugar and drugs.
Increased Tolerance and More Abuse — Increased tolerance to sugar, junk food and drugs share some complex similarities. Increased tolerance to these items can easily lead to addiction of any or all of these substances. Once an individual becomes addicted to drugs, alcohol, sugar, junk food, exercise, sex, or any other behavior, it is extremely difficult to control.Over time, drug addicts require a higher dose or a 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 of continued use and the brain reducing the amount of dopamine it’s releasing. As a result, a higher level of alcohol or drugs is required to reach the same level of reward and pleasure.Some research reveals that the same process occurs with sugar addiction. When the pleasure center of the brain is continually stimulated with the same element, dopamine is reduced and more of the substance is needed to feel euphoria.
Unhealthy Behaviors — No one would ever argue that consuming foods that are high in sugar or the abuse of drugs is healthy. Each of these behaviors is extremely harmful to the body and can even become life-threatening. So why do people abuse food and drugs?With any addiction, the function of the brain is altered and pushes the “reward center” into overdrive. However, for sugar addiction, drug abuse, and alcoholism, there are steps you can take to overcome the addiction.
Four Steps You Can Take to End Sugar Addiction
If you’re suffering from an addiction to sugary foods, there are ways you can overcome it. The next time you find yourself craving sugar, follow one of these steps:
Revisit your diet — Most people who 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 craving’s worst nightmare, so seek out protein-based food. After all, protein helps balance blood sugar and reduces yearning for excess sugar. Eating protein and other nutrient-rich foods allows your brain to reset its desire for the unhealthy, sugar-based foods.You can also 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 protein shakes. Starting off the day with a wholesome meal can help decrease your need for sugar throughout the day.
Plan ahead — If you know you have a long commute ahead of you or if you’ll be stuck in a meeting, keep non-sugary snacks accessible. Almonds, peanut butter, and yogurt products are great options, as well as string cheese. Protein bars often contain large amounts of sugar, so check the label before you indulge.What about if there are doughnuts in the lunch room at work, or a candy dish out in the open at home? Avoid these temptations by bringing your healthy snacks to work and eliminating the sugary sweets at home. It’s all about making choices and planning in advance.
Sleep matters — The University of Chicago found that sleep influences the body’s need for sugar. A well-quoted study limited healthy young men to just four hours of sleep for two consecutive nights. The results were staggering:
There was a reported 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.
Take supplements for support — Recent studies demonstrate that healthy omega-3 fatty acids may help increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. Since research has shown that serotonin helps regulate both mood and appetite levels, fish oil supplementation may help reduce sugar cravings.Fish oil supplements supply essential fatty acids which can lessen insulin resistance. Other supplements such as Vitamin B and amino acids, such as L-Glutamine, may help process carbohydrates in your body and lessen your cravings for sugar. Always check with your healthcare professional before beginning any dietary supplement regimen.
When Is It Time to Change?
Similar to detoxing from drugs, the body will take some time to detoxify from the heavy sugar intake it has been experiencing. Withdrawal from alcohol, drugs and sugar differ between individuals, but there are common symptoms.
Withdrawal from any addictive substance may involve some unpleasant, harsh, and challenging experiences, including:
Irritability, shaking, anxiety, and agitation
Reduced energy and feeling lethargic
Muscle aches and pains
Gastrointestinal issues including abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
When it comes to sugar detox and treatment, the key difference is there is little chance the individual will harm themselves or others. And with a sugar addiction, there is far less danger than with an addiction to cocaine, heroin, or other illegal drugs.
The Next Steps
Safely overcoming an addiction to sugar, junk food, drugs, or alcohol requires professional guidance. A nutritionist, drug counselor, and other healthcare experts can help you begin the path to recovery, regardless of the substance.