Updated: Apr 24, 2021
Sugar Addiction by Robert Fyfe, M.ED, LPC
In the 21st century we have become familiar with a multitude of addictions, strange and regular, thanks to reality shows like Addicted, My Strange Addiction, and Intervention, to name a few. One of the most pervasive culprits, however, is deeply ingrained in almost every aspect of our everyday life – sugar.
Sugar is a drug
Sugar stimulates the brain’s pleasure or reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine exactly like other addictive drugs. In fact, PET scans show that high-sugar and high-fat foods work just like heroin, opium, or morphine in the brain.
Just like addictive drugs, sugar causes repeated, intermittent increases in extracellular dopamine (DA) in the nucleus accumbens (NAc.).
Sugar bingeing releases DA in the NAc like classic effect of substance abuse and also alters opioid systems in the brain "such as decreased encephalin mRNA expression in the accumbens.
Some potential consequences of long term sugar intake include: Diabetes, Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, Decreased immune function, chronic sinusitis, Irritable bowel syndrome and spastic colon, autoimmune disease, Cancer, Heart disease, and ADHD.
Sugar is a "gateway" In studies rats drank more alcohol and developed increased sensitivity to amphetamines as a consequence of their sugar supply being cut off, indicating the bingeing behavior had forced changes in brain function and served as a "gateway" to other paths of destructive behavior.
Furthermore, Sugar has been linked with alcohol dependence. Recent research has identified an association between paternal history of alcohol dependence and sugar addiction and a greater sweet preference in cocaine dependent clients .
Sugar is special
Sugar, however, has its own receptor system in the tongue, intestines, liver, pancreas and brain. Glucoreceptors provide information to the ingestive behavior system as well as related learning, emotion, and motivational systems. Therefore sugar addiction may be engendered by excessive repeated activation of this system.
Major Sources of Added Sugars in the American Diet
In 2001 to 2004, the usual intake of added sugars for Americans was 22.2 teaspoons
per day (355 calories per day). Between 1970 and 2005, average annual availability of sugars/added sugars increased by 19%, which added 76 calories to Americans’ average daily energy intake.
Regular soft drinks 33.0%
Sugars and candy 16.1% Cakes, cookies, pies 12.9% Fruit drinks 9.7% Dairy desserts and milk products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt,etc.) 8.6% Other grains (cinnamon toast and honey-nut waffles) 5.8%
Take the test
This is all very scary and overwhelming of course. Think you may be addicted to sugar? Try this assessment below to determine your sugar dependence.
Sugar Dependence Questionnaire Filter question 1- Have you ever had persistent desire for sweets or taken more than once to feel better, or to change your mood? (craving)
1 2 - Have you found that you needed to increase the amount of sweets you ate to get the same effect that you did when you first started taking it? (‘tolerance’) 2 3 - When you reduced or stopped eating sweets, did you have withdrawal symptoms (aches, shaking, fever, weakness, diarrhea, nausea, sweating, heart pounding, difficulty sleeping, or feeling agitated, anxious, irritable or depressed)? Did you eat something to keep yourself from getting symptoms or so that you would feel better? (‘withdrawal’) 3 4 - Have you often found that when you ate sweet substances, you ended up taking more
than you thought you would? (‘larger/longer’)
4 5 - Have you tried to reduce or stop eating sweet substances, but failed? (‘quit/control’) 5 6 - On the days that you have eaten sweet substances, did you spend substantial time (>2hours) in trying to get them, eat them or recover from their effects, or thinking about them? (‘time spent’) 6 7 - Have you ever reduced your activities (e.g., hobbies, work, daily activities) or have you ever spent less time with your family or friends because of sweet substances? (‘activities given up’) 7 8 - Have you continued to eat sweet substances even though they caused you health or mental problems? (‘phys/psych problems’)
Dependence questions from the MINI Plus “L” module adapted for sugar (Carmago da Rosa et al., 2013).
What can you do?
Some simple steps to cut out refined sugars include:
· Cut out processed foods - processed foods are full of hidden ingredients
· Eat less salt – when you eat more salt, your body craves sweets
· Drink more water – sweet beverages like soda are empty calories
· Eat more whole foods – they have less processed sugars
· Exercise – exercise increases your energy level and decreases
the need for an extra sugar boost
· Get enough sleep – sometimes we compensate for lack of sleep with extra sugar
· Read the labels – educate yourself on what we are eating
References Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019 Fortuna, J. L. (2010). Sweet Preference, Sugar Addiction and the Familial History of Alcohol Dependence: Shared Neural Pathways and Genes. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. doi:10.1080/02791072.2010.10400687
Hoebel, B. G., Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., & Rada, P. (2009). Natural Addiction: A Behavioral and Circuit Model Based on Sugar Addiction in Rats. Journal of Addiction Medicine. doi:10.1097/ADM.0b013e31819aa621 Johnson, R. K., Appel, L. J., Brands, M., Howard, B. V., Lefevre, M., Lustig, R. H., . . . Wylie-Rosett, J. (2009). Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192627
Rosa, M. A., Slavutzky, S. M., Pechansky, F., & Kessler, F. (2008). Processo de desenvolvimento de um questionário para avaliação de abuso e dependência de açúcar. Cadernos De Saude Publica. doi:10.1590/S0102-311X2008000800015 Teitelbaum, J., & Fiedler, C. (2010). Beat sugar addiction now!: The cutting-edge program that cures your type of sugar addiction and puts you on the road to feeling great--and losing weight!. Beverly, Mass: Fair Winds Press.