Is sugar really addictive?

Could sugar be as addictive as certain drugs?


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (ANutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


16 August 2017

How does sugar affect us?

Let’s go back to basics – survival. It’s what all species are designed to do, from insects to humans, it’s ingrained in us. This is why much of our life revolves around food and babies – our aim in life is to get by and ensure the survival of our offspring.

In line with this idea, we have in-built processes which mean that when we ingest certain types of foods we experience an award like response in the brain, (let’s focus on the food side of things rather than baby-making). So, not just any old food, but certain foods seem to trigger a greater response. Nutrient dense, instant sources of energy – sugar, seem to be the order of the day. And yes, this makes sense, well in terms of survival anyway. Glucose, the simplest units that make up sugar is the main source of energy for arguably our most important organ – the brain.

So, we know that we release a neurotransmitter called dopamine when we consume sugar; then, this chemical is important for mediating a reward system in the brain. We know that babies respond well to sweet foods, so even from an early age, it’s instinctual the way we are drawn to sugar and experience positive feelings as a result of ingesting it. But, (yes, there is a but) unlike in the days of living as cavemen, when a source of sugar could be the difference between life and death, nowadays the stuff is everywhere – quite literally, and hidden in an abundance of both sweet and savoury foods. So what happens if we have a continual and excessive exposure to sugar?

Over time our ‘reward responses’ become dampened meaning we need more and more sugar to experience that positive association. Gradually our dopamine levels drop off, not to forget the impact on our blood sugar. A hormone called insulin is released in response to sugar, which clears our blood sugar and packs this into our tissues as glucagon – an important storage form. If this process is happening too often though, not only do we risk putting on weight with all that extra energy being packed away for safekeeping, but we also risk experiencing insulin resistance, where our cells no longer well to insulin. This is a major precursor for type II diabetes.

Now, back to the effects in the brain, the effects over time on dopamine are key here, we need more and more sugar to feel satisfied, plus alongside it, we have urges to binge and feelings of withdrawal when we haven’t had it for a while – sounds like an addiction to me, and research tells us these patterns are indeed apparent with sugar, as well as scary drugs such as cocaine.

A review study of animal models first highlighted that the brain pathways that have evolved to respond to natural rewards are apparent, with not only addictive drugs, but also sugar – and that some of the same habits are shared between the two very distinct mediums, including bingeing and withdrawal. So, it does appear that sugar dependence is a legitimate thing right enough1. 5 years on and similar patterns have been found in humans2.

Are the effects of sugar really comparable to the effects of drugs?

Now, although there is some research to support this idea,  let’s not be scaremongering and suggest that you must never touch a grain of sugar again or you will instantly become hooked. As always, I’m here to dissect the information a little further so we can hopefully begin to understand this all a little better.

Although reports have claimed that sugar is as addictive as cocaine, we have to remember that sugar is food – it is instinctual that we will seek out food to survive and it just so happens that sugar is a particularly quick-acting source of valuable energy, especially appealing if we haven’t eaten in a while and are running low in energy stores. So this is natural response to some degree, but we should also be ingesting sugar in moderation to have natural responses to it, which is where our downfall is.

Now, although both sugar and drugs stimulate similar reward pathways in the brain, there are some key differences. The locations of triggered dopaminergic pathways in the brain differ slightly between drugs and sugar, and the effects of cocaine are more extreme and longer lived. Dopamine returns to normal soon after having some sugar, although remains heightened for some time after exposure to cocaine3. 

Finally, some of the studies assessing the effects of sugar on the brain were done on animals that were food deprived; the responses are much more likely to be extreme if this is the case3. 

How can I tackle this sugar issue going forward?

To sum up, research shows that sugar does affect our dopamine pathways to some degree, (but whether or not this is directly comparable to the effects of cocaine is still up for debate) and we know that the effects it can have on our blood sugar levels, body weight and insulin responses. 

So, I think we’re in agreement that we would want to limit our intake as much as possible, and I’m here to explain some of my top tips in order to do so:

  • Understand food labels – This might seem obvious but it really is astonishing how many people don’t understand food labels nowadays and this is necessary for managing your sugar intake. Sugar is hidden in so many packaged foods, even those you least expect it – remember, carbohydrates are made up of simple sugars so bread products or breakfast cereals, for example, are often some of the worst offenders. Stick to fresh foods wherever possible, and always read labels of any packaged goods
  • Train those tastebuds – Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that our dopamine receptors can become dampened down over time as a result of repeated exposure5. This means the more we have of something (be it sugar or drugs, but as explained quite probably to different degrees) we need more and more to remain satisfied. Now, like our dopamine receptors, our taste buds also seem to undergo a similar process6, this means the more sugar we have, the less responsive are taste buds are. But remember, the opposite is also true, if you gradually decrease your intake of sugar, the response of your tastebuds will heighten again – this means that cup of tea you previously had two sugars in will now seem repulsive and you’ll simply no longer enjoy that sickly sweet taste – result! There’s no problem with cutting your sugar intake down gradually – often much more feasible too.
  • Protein and fat for satiety – I’ve mentioned understanding food labels, but understanding the importance of (plus the importance of not avoiding) different food groups, is important too. We know from studies that protein and fat actually help to keep us fuller for longer, so although sugar may be appealing instinctively as it is a quick source of energy, in terms of sustainability, fats and protein come up trumps. Include good sources of fat in your diet such as olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds and avocado, and protein, which also include your nuts and seeds, (covering all bases here), but also beans and pulses, and fish
  • Don’t sub in artificial sweeteners – Don’t be fooled that artificial sweeteners are the answer, these simply aren’t natural and there is evidence to suggest these substances can still have some adverse effects in terms of your insulin responses, as well as other issues, including disrupting the balance of bacteria in your gut – no thank you!
  • Consider different rewards – We know that sugar and drugs can initiate reward-typed pathways in the brain, but so can other, much more favourable options! It’s just a case of falling into better habits. Intimate relations with a partner, attending social events with friends, taking part in exercise or listening to some good music can all have similar effects, so get out there and try something new
  • Sample some supplements – Finally, if you are struggling to control those cravings and aren’t afraid to admit it, there are some supplement options which may also be useful to add to your regime. These include:

 

    •  Cinnamon – Cinnamon can be taken in supplement form or simply added to foods – this spice has been used traditionally to help balance blood sugar
    • Chromium – With similar benefits to cinnamon, we know that chromium can also help with blood sugar regulation and helps increase insulin sensitivity

 

1. Avena NM, Rada P and Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioural and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2008, 32(1), (20-39)

2. Ahmed SH, Guillem K and Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy the the limit. Curr Oppin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2013, 16(4), (434-439)

3. Westwater ML, Fletcher PC and Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr, 2016, 55(2), (55-69)

4. Colantuoni C, Rada P and McCarthy J et al. Evidence that intermittent, excessive sugar intake causes endogenous opioid dependence. Obes Res, 2002, 10(6), (478-488)

5. Bartolotto C. Does consuming sugar and artificial sweeteners change taste preferences? Perm J, 2015, 19(3), (81-84) 

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