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Is Sugar Addictive?

Is Sugar Addictive: AKA “Is There Really One More Thing I Need to Give Up.”

Rick Baumgartle CADC II


Admit it. As soon as you read the title you started rolling your eye's. If you're in early recovery (first 90 days or so) you are thinking I've lost my mind with thoughts like, “I just quit using (insert drug or substance here), all I have been doing is dealing with cravings for sugar, and it's not like it's cocaine!”


Well hold on right there. Guess what, it just might be. Let me offer a few examples.

  1. In a recent study with rats they had the rats in their rat cages, and these particular rats already had cocaine addiction issues (it's not an easy life being a lab rat), and they offered them a choice between cocaine and sugar water. Then what do you know, the rats chose the sugar water over cocaine somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% of the time. 80%!
  2. When they hook people up to brain scans and feed them sugar, the same area of the brain that reacts to cocaine lights up like a Christmas tree when sugar in introduced.

So what is going on? Well, there are a couple theories, and one has to do with evolution. See not so long ago our ancestors subsisted on a diet that had sugars in it, but they were natural and not always available. Fruits, etc...have a growing season, and when you lived in merry ole England in the 16th century, you were lucky if you ever saw fruit, let alone were able to afford it on a regular basis.


Go back even farther and our ancestors followed the food around, even when we settled down we had growing seasons to deal with. The point is that we had sugar in our diet, but it was limited, and almost always natural.


Now some form of processed sugar has been around since about 8000 BC when people in Southeast Asia were growing and harvesting it. What's important is that the access to, and integration into, our food stuffs of all this sugar is a recent phenomenon; and that's where one of the big problems comes into play.


Evolution is a long term thing. It doesn't happen over night and so it's not like over the course of millions of years of human evolution we just one day acquired this ability to deal with and manage a huge influx of sugar and other empty carbs into our diet. Heck, the current obesity epidemic in this country didn't really get rolling until the late 1980's. More on that later.


Let's get back to our rat friends and their preference for sugar over cocaine, and the why (or at least the theory). So all of us have taste buds and our taste buds are specialized. Sweet is one of those specialized taste buds. Our taste buds were set up to handle the sweetness of available foods back when we developed taste buds to begin with. Let's call it 2.5 million years or so ago. That seems like a long time for taste buds to evolve, but we have only been dealing with processed sugar for about 10,000 of those 2.5 million years. It's a blip. Our sense of taste, and the other subsequent reactions to sugar in our brain, have been all of the sudden overloaded. A direct quote from National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) said “ In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction” (NCBI, 2017).


In layman's terms, our poor brains have no idea what the hell to do with all of this sugary food we are shoving in our face and have gone into overdrive. Sugar, like substances of abuse (cocaine, heroin, alcohol, etc...) effect the reward center of our brains. Specifically, dealing with a neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Dopamine is the  “feel good” transmitter. It tells us something is enjoyable and reminds us to repeat that experience in the future. For instance if you are thirsty and have a nice cold glass of water, dopamine is released. Kiss that pretty boy/girl you like, and POW!, dopamine gets released. In substances of abuse, and in substances like sugar, a larger amount of dopamine is released and your brain sends the message that something super important has just happened and that we REALLY need to repeat it.

Going back to the brain scan, we can see that sugar sends a message, just like cocaine to the brain, ramping up the dopamine levels, and telling the rest of the body, that something amazing just happened and that we need more!


So, is sugar an addictive substance? Hell yes it is!


How did we get here?

I said I get back to the obesity epidemic, and here we are. Major weight gain in the adults and children in this country is, in terms of evolution, a brand new thing. It started about 30-40 years. 30-40 years out of 2.5 million is barely noticeable, it's almost negligible; but in that amount of time we have done some serious damage to ourselves, partly due to our diets, that our bodies aren't set up to handle.


Around the 1980's the whole “low fat” craze got started. The whole low fat thing, and the food pyramid, is based way more on political wrangling than on actual science. We were led to believe that fat was bad and that by getting rid of fat we could all look better and feel better. They even had research to back it up. The problem was that the research was paid for, and manipulated by, the very people who wanted to make sure people consumed more sugar and empty carbs. All the fat that was taken out of the food was replaced with sugar and even worse sugar like substitutes like Corn Syrup. It doesn't take a genius to see what happened; we are in this obesity epidemic. Can we be exercising more? Of course! Is that the answer? No! Anybody with a modicum of understanding about weight loss will tell you that you can't out exercise a bad diet.

All this sugar being consumed led to a huge tolerance to sugar. Why eat an apple, when you can cover it in caramel and get a way bigger dopamine rush. We have taught our bodies, quite well, to seek out sugary foods, like people seek out drugs. People with eating disorders that involve over eating, aren't obsessed with a spinach salad. They are are obsessed with the pint of ice cream in the fridge calling their name.


So what can you do.

I'm not a nutritionist. I'm an addictions counselor, so lest you run out and try some new diet that ends up making things worse for you or an exercise program that injures you, and than say “Well, Rick said I should,” I'll just say you need to do your research and talk to a professional in one of those fields.


For those of you in recovery, especially early recovery, you really need to pay attention to that sugar intake. Why do people in early recovery crave sugar? Because your body is dopamine depleted and wants something, anything, to help curb you feeling “bleh.” Sugar fits that niche quite nicely, but can lead to a whole host of new issues.

In conclusion, yes sugar is absolutely addictive. As American's we consume an enormous amount more than what we need. The short term pay off of “feeling good” from that sugar intake is not worth the long term, debilitating effects, of a high sugar/empty carb diet, which includes diabetes, heart conditions, and even cancer.

We all need to work on moving away from sugar and empty carbs and start treating our bodies better. For those of us in recovery, why would we want to put down one substance that made our lives miserable, to just pick up another. We shouldn't, that's what.


At Recovery Works NW we have a team of people with decades of experience in managing addictions. While we are not licensed nutritionist, and we do not treat eating disorders. However, our medical and clinical team will be happy to make referrals, point you in the right direction toward people who do specialize in those areas, as well as discuss with you how to have the healthiest recovery possible. Call us, we look forward to working with you.



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