You may have heard sugar addiction compared to drug addiction in health books, magazines or websites. To many people, sugar addiction is difficult to take seriously. Is sugar a drug really? Sugar is something that we have grown up with, something that has been idolized by us as children and something that seems as innocent as Christmas morning. Surely people must be pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit when they say sugar is just as addictive as any hard drug, right?
Is Sugar a Drug?
Perhaps you should not speak so soon. Some studies have shown that the addiction mechanism of sugar is quite similar to the addition process in cocaine or heroine – and in fact, it may be even more easy to get addicted to. Does that mean you should put down the chocolate cake and pick up an 8-ball? Obviously not. Hard drugs are extremely dangerous and ruins lives every day. However, if not controlled, a sugar addiction can also lead to serious issues such as obesity, heart disease or cancer.
So is sugar a drug? Here are a few ways in which sugar addiction is similar to drug addiction:
Here is one of the most obvious similarities of drugs and sugar. There is a mechanism in our brain which rewards of for behavior that is SUPPOSED to help us survive. For our ancestors, this internal reward system ensured that we did things to propagate the species: eating, sex, hunting, anything that led to survival and reproduction.
The way this mechanism works is a chemical called dopamine is released in our mind, signaling the experience of pleasure. This causes our brain to take note that it would be in your best interest to repeat this behaviour. Dopamine is a great thing – it is one of our primary sources of pleasure in life.
However, sometimes it can go wrong. Things like drugs and sugar can flood our brain with far too much dopamine, more than we were meant to experience. That intense feeling of pleasure cannot be gained again through normal means, so your body tells you to continue using the drug or eating the sugar.
And is sugar a drug, er yes, studies have shown that sugar and highly processed junk food have the same effect in terms of the reward system as typically abused drugs.
You know what cravings are. Almost all of us have had one before. Whether for a sweet treat or even a cigarette, cravings are an intense desire to intake something or engage in a behavior.
Ultimately, cravings are a result of the complex physiological signals that ensure we get enough nutrients and energy to live. However, a craving is not simply a signal of hunger. A craving is your brain begging you to engage in the behaviour that releases that dopamine, and it often has nothing to do with real hunger.
Cravings are a common effect of drug addiction. It involved the same obsessive thought process and the same tendency to intake the stimulant by any means necessary. But there are ways to eliminate the sugar cravings.
Scientists have studied the links of sugar and drug addiction, and one of the things they have found is that sugar and junk food can effect the brain in the same way that drugs of abuse do.
Using an MRI machine, scientists have been able to track brain activity as it responds to certain stimuli. This method has revealed that food and drugs can both trigger the same regions of the brain, and that during a craving for either food or drugs, the same exact region of the brain is active.
One of the well known effects of taking drugs is that a person needs more and more of them to get “high” the more drugs they do. This is because the brain begins to build up a dopamine tolerance as it received more and more of a certain stimulant. Because the brain is releasing less and less dopamine, the pleasure response is less, and the craving to “get high” remains.
Evidence is now suggesting that a similar effect can happen with junk food. The more sugar and junk food you eat, the less pleasure you get from eating it. However, this often happens after the stage of addiction, so it doesn’t reduce the cravings to eat. Even though your brain refuses to release as much dopamine, your brain still continues to tell you to eat the junk food so you can re-lease the dopamine.
Mixed signals? Yes. But this is exactly what happens during drug addiction.
This is another effect of the tolerance issue. Once the regular amount of drugs stops giving you that high you crave, you start using more and more and more. One pill can turn into three and one dose of heroine can turn into five. Why? Because the brain needs more and more of the sub-stance to produce the same effect. This is what we call bingeing, and we’ve probably all heard of binge eating.
Binge eating, when a result of a serious sugar addiction, can get very messy very quickly. If you have gotten to the point of addiction, the vicious cycle of needing more and more junk food will likely only get worse.
From Drugs to Sugar: Lab Rat Results
Here is one of the most interesting and compelling arguments that a sugar addiction is eerily similar to a drug addiction. A phenomenon called cross-sensitisation is known to occur among addictive substances, and it involves easily switching from one addiction to another. That means a heroine addict may easily become a cocaine addict if their first drug of choice is no longer available.
In lab rats, scientists have found that animals addicted to sugar can just as easily become addicted to drugs like amphetamines and cocaine. This is likely due to the fact that many addictions effect the same regions of the brain and involve many of the same mechanisms. If one substance can provide that dopamine boost where another is missing, that substance can easily become a substitute for the old addiction.
Look at the Pharmaceuticals
Here’s a fascinating piece of evidence for our argument: many pharmaceuticals which are meant to be used for fighting addiction are now being used for weight loss.
For example, the drug Contrave have recently been approved by the FDA as a drug used to promote weight loss. Within this drug are two other drugs: Bupropion and Naltrexone.
Both of these substances have been used to treat addictions in the past. Bupropion is an anti-depressant that fights against nicotine addiction and Naltrexone is used to treat alcoholism and addiction to opiates.
This suggests that drugs which can be used to limit the body’s addiction to drugs can also be used to limit the body’s addiction to overeating and sugar. It makes sense when you realise that sugar and narcotics involve many of the same neural and biological pathways in the body.
Another key feature of drug addiction that can be experienced by heavy sugar eaters is sugar withdrawal symptoms. You can see this in other fairly innocent substances as well, such as caffeine. Any of us coffee addicts can tell you that, after a few mornings with no coffee, we are prone to headaches, feeling tired and feeling entirely irritable.
In experiments on lab rats, it has been demonstrated that they experience clear withdrawal symptoms such as teeth chattering, head shakes and paw tremors, when made dependent on sugar. These are very similar to symptoms experienced in opiate addiction, and indicates that the nature of addiction is similar whether it’s sugar or cocaine.
Rather than being commentary about the physiological similarities between sugar addiction and drug addiction, this point is made just to remind you that junk food, like drugs are extremely bad for your physical health.
Ingredients like sugar are not only bad for you, but they also hold no major nutritional value. Everyone knows junk food isn’t good for you – you’ve been told that since you were a child. And yet somehow, we categorize people who do drugs as much more foolish than people who get addicted to sugar.
The truth is, both are absolutely horrible for you, and they aren’t as different as you might think. One may not have the stigma of the others, but if you let yourself become depended on junk food, you’re going to be doing just as much bad for your health in the long run.
In the end, based on medical terminology, sugar addiction is about the same thing as drug addiction. A diagnosis of addiction is not based on any conclusive measures; it is based on a set of symptoms that can be found in people addicted to heroine OR addicted to sugar. These include:
– inability to stop using despite wanting to
– cravings and urges to use the substance
– using despite health blow backs
Do these look familiar? If you have experienced these symptoms, you have probably been addicted to one substance or another. The truth is, at the end of the day, the nature of addiction is about the same whether it’s sugar or a hard drug. So take care of yourself, watch for the symptoms of addiction and everything in moderation.