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 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.
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.
For many people, decreasing their sugar intake involves more than willpower. Sugar addiction, like drug addiction, has its roots as a physiological disorder.
5 Attributes Shared Between Sugar and Drug Addiction
While it’s not always apparent, drug addiction and sugar addiction are similar in various ways:
1. 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.
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.
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. For some people, drugs have the same positive, yet temporary, effect.
3. 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.
4. Increased Tolerance and More Abuse
Increased tolerance to sugar, junk food and drugs share some complex similarities. In fact, 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.
5. Unhealthy Behaviors
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.
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.
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. 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
Getting Help For Addiction
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. At The Ranch PA, our progressive inpatient rehab facility can help you find your way to recovery.
Our drug and alcohol rehab center employs a comprehensive, holistic approach to treatment. The highly-trained staff at The Ranch PA can put you on the road to recovery. Contact us today at 717.969.9126 for more information, sign up for our newsletter, or visit the many other resources on our website.