You wouldn’t expect a substance that some studies show is more addictive than cocaine to be on every aisle of your grocery store, given to children at school, offered up at every holiday party, or casually sitting atop the snack table at work, but it’s there. And as more research comes out about sugar, we are learning just how detrimental it is to our bodies and brains.
When I say that sugar is addictive, I don’t mean it in the colloquial sense – I mean that sugar intake drives the same neural pathways as common street drugs such as cocaine. Addiction itself is driven by behavioral repetition and physiological adaptation of chemical inputs.
Sugar activates the opiate receptors, stimulating brain pathways in the same way as opioids would. Dopamine, the key neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward circuit, is released upon the completion of a certain activity – in this case, eating sugar. And because sugar is available in more concentrated forms than ever before, it is having a very powerful effect on our brains. A recent study from Connecticut College has shown that rats fed Oreo cookies had more neurons in their brain’s pleasure center activated than when they were fed cocaine. Other animal studies have shown that if given the choice, the rats would choose sugar over cocaine because the reward was greater, and the “high” was more pleasurable.
After the surge of dopamine is released in your body following sugar consumption, you start to feel a pleasurable “high.” It’s this experience of feeling good that begins to drive the cycle of eating more sugar. Studies are now suggesting that each time we eat sugar we are reinforcing the neural pathways which cause the brain to be increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, so the next time you eat sugar, you will need more to experience the same high as before. As the cycle continues, tolerance to sugar continues to increase, and it takes more sugar to reap the same rewards. Sugar cravings happen quickly, and if you don’t eat sugar you will begin to experience withdrawal. So, you start to eat sugar to prevent feeling bad rather than to feel good.
Dangers of Sugar For Residents in Oakland
Sugar has the potential to trigger addictive behaviors like overconsumption despite many of the known negative consequences: inflammation, weight gain, insulin resistance (diabetes), links with Alzheimer’s Disease and heart disease, and more (to learn more about some of the detrimental impacts sugar has on the body, read my blog post here). The habit-forming nature of sugar can be compared to those induced by other addictive drugs such as nicotine, opioids, or cocaine. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines substance use disorders using a list of 11 symptoms. These symptoms include:
- Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
- Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.
- Cravings and urges to use the substance.
- Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.).
- Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.
- Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).
- Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.
If two to three of the 11 symptoms are experienced by the user, they have a substance abuse disorder. Sugar presents at least three to six of the key symptoms in animal models consistent with substance abuse, such as tolerance, cravings, and withdrawal.
The good news is this: Processed sugar is the real culprit behind this addiction. Instead, try to get your sugar from unprocessed sources such as whole fruits. Fruits contain vitamins, antioxidants as well as fiber, providing you with more nutrition and helping you to feel more full. The fiber in fruit helps reduce the amount of insulin that is released into the bloodstream at once, which eliminates the “crash” response most people experience after eating processed sugar.
It is possible to be addicted to sugar because of the concentrated form it comes in as well as it’s ubiquity. We are learning that it’s more addictive than cocaine, and it meets the criteria for substance abuse disorders. Not only is sugar terrible for your body and brain, according to some studies, it has a higher rate of addiction than common street drugs. Next time you have a sugar craving, reach for a piece of fruit instead as it will not only help to quiet your craving, it will also provide you with fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and water, without the nasty side effects.
If you feel sugar is making you sluggish, inflamed, and unhealthy, let us help you. Call us at Core Wellness Functional Medicine in Oakland at (510) 922-1579 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up your appointment.
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Homemade Fruit Popsicles
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