Is Sugar A Drug?

Is sugar a drug?

KEY POINTS:

  • If you’re working on cutting down on sugar, keep in mind that sugar dependency often goes hand in hand with other substance abuse issues. If this sounds like something you or someone you care about is dealing with, don’t worry, there’s help out there.
  • Since sugar triggers the reward system in our brain, it has the potential to be addictive – similar to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and even exercise.
  • If you are dependant on sugar, it may be considered an addiction.

Is sugar really as addictive as drugs?

This question has been making rounds thanks to some eye-opening studies. 

One such study revealed that rats’ brains showed more activity in pleasure centers when they ate Oreos compared to when they were exposed to cocaine.

Similarly, a study found that people with an intense craving for junk food had brain reactions similar to drug addicts when they encountered their substance of choice.2

However, the similarity in brain activity doesn’t necessarily mean sugar is addictive. Understanding addiction is complex, and there’s a lot to unpack here.

Let’s take a closer look at what this means for sugar and its potentially addictive qualities.

But First, What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a complex interplay of biology and behaviour deeply rooted in your brain’s structure. Your brain is programmed to seek pleasure in activities essential for survival, like eating and sex. 

This is managed by your brain’s “reward circuitry,” which motivates you to repeat life-sustaining behaviours.3

Interestingly, this reward pathway can be activated by various stimuli, not just those vital for survival. This includes substances like drugs and sugar, as well as activities like gambling and exercise. 3

These stimuli trigger dopamine release in the brain, enhancing the sense of pleasure and urging you to repeat the experience.3

However, just because something activates this reward circuit doesn’t automatically lead to addiction. It simply means there’s potential for addiction. 

The real defining feature of addiction is a lack of control over the use of a substance or engagement in a behaviour. It’s characterized by excessive use, increasing intake despite being aware of the harm, and experiencing cravings.4

People struggling with addiction often find themselves preoccupied with obtaining and using the substance to the point where it overshadows other aspects of their lives. Withdrawal symptoms upon cessation are also common.

When it comes to sugar, the conversation is similar. 

Like other substances, sugar can activate the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine and potentially leading to habitual consumption. However, this doesn’t automatically classify it as addictive. 

The key is whether consumption leads to a loss of control, cravings, and negative impacts on an individual’s life, which are the hallmarks of true addiction.

The Potential for Dependency on Sugar

The immediate rush of energy and the ‘high’ from sugar consumption is well-known. Echoing the effects of substances like cocaine, sugar triggers a dopamine release, offering a momentary burst of pleasure. This addictive aspect of sugar, however, comes with long-term health risks like obesity and diabetes, stemming from excessive intake.

Sugar addiction particularly poses a threat to individuals experiencing low moods, anxiety, or stress. These emotional states often drive people towards sugar for its temporary mood-lifting effect.5

Moreover, people with chronic fatigue may find themselves reaching for sugar-rich foods for an energy spike.5

Sugar stimulates the release of endorphins, blending with other body chemicals to create a temporary surge of vitality. This can lead to a psychological association of sugar with energy replenishment, inadvertently leading to dependence.5

As dependence grows, cravings for sugar to mitigate irritability and emotional dips become more frequent. Eventually, control over eating habits wanes, paving the way for a sugar addiction to take hold. 

This cycle highlights the potential for sugar to become more than just a sweet treat but a source of dependency for those dealing with certain emotional and physical states.

How To Know If You’re Addicted To Sugar?

Many of us enjoy a sweet treat now and then, but how do you know if your fondness for sugar has crossed into addiction territory? Is there a moment when enjoying one cookie too many signals a deeper issue?

Currently, there’s no official medical diagnosis for sugar addiction. However, beginning with self-awareness and an open discussion with a healthcare professional is a crucial first step in addressing potential concerns.

The main indicators of sugar addiction revolve around the amount, frequency, and emotional response to sugar consumption. To gauge where you stand, consider these questions:6

  • Do you feel a loss of control over your sugar intake?
  • Is sugar constantly on your mind?
  • Do you find yourself consuming sugar all day, or eating more sugar than you think is appropriate?
  • Does your sugar consumption lead to physical discomfort, like feeling sick to your stomach?
  • Do you eat sugary foods just for an energy lift, even if you don’t particularly like them?

If you’re nodding ‘yes’ to these questions, it might indicate a dependency on sugar.

This likelihood increases if you’re in the process of overcoming other addictions. People who have battled addictions, like alcoholism, may often substitute their previous dependency with sugar. This substitution suggests that sugar addiction can stem from a chemical imbalance in the brain.

How to Break Sugar Addiction?

If you’re looking to break free from sugar addiction, here are some straightforward tips to help you get started:

  • Cut back on sugar gradually: Start by slowly reducing the amount of sugar you add to your food and drinks. This way, your taste buds can get used to less sweetness over time.
  • Read food labels: Keep an eye out for hidden sugars in packaged foods. If a product has a lot of added sugar, try to find an alternative with less.
  • Choose natural foods: Eat more natural, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains, which are low in sugar.
  • Find sweet alternatives: When you crave something sweet, go for natural options like fresh fruit. You can also try using sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit instead of sugar.
  • Drink plenty of water: Sometimes, drinking water can help reduce sugar cravings, plus it’s great for your overall health.
  • Eat mindfully: Pay attention to when you’re really hungry and when you’re full. Try to eat slowly and enjoy each bite.
  • Stay Active: Regular exercise can help lower your sugar cravings, boost your mood, and keep you healthy.
  • Ensure adequate sleep: Aim for sufficient sleep, as lack of sleep can increase cravings for sugary foods.

If you’re working on cutting down on sugar, keep in mind that sugar dependency often goes hand in hand with other substance abuse issues. If this sounds like something you or someone you care about is dealing with, don’t worry, there’s help out there.

At Centres for Health and Healing, we get that tackling these issues is about more than just one thing – it’s about your overall health. That’s why we focus on treating the whole person, not just the addiction. 

Our team uses different kinds of therapy to help you or your loved one get healthier in every way. So, if you’re facing any kind of dependency, we’re here to help you through it.

References:

  1. Levy, A., Salamon, A., Tucci, M., Limebeer, C. L., Parker, L. A., & Leri, F. (2013). Co-sensitivity to the incentive properties of palatable food and cocaine in rats; implications for co-morbid addictions. Addiction biology, 18(5), 763–773. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1369-1600.2011.00433.x
  2. Gordon, E. L., Ariel-Donges, A. H., Bauman, V., & Merlo, L. J. (2018). What Is the Evidence for “Food Addiction?” A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 10(4), 477. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10040477
  3. Bromberg-Martin, E. S., Matsumoto, M., & Hikosaka, O. (2010). Dopamine in motivational control: rewarding, aversive, and alerting. Neuron, 68(5), 815–834. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.022
  4. Alavi, S. S., Ferdosi, M., Jannatifard, F., Eslami, M., Alaghemandan, H., & Setare, M. (2012). Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views. International journal of preventive medicine, 3(4), 290–294.
  5. Jacques, A., Chaaya, N., Beecher, K., Ali, S. A., Belmer, A., & Bartlett, S. (2019). The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviors. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 103, 178–199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.05.021
  6. Wiss, D. A., Avena, N., & Rada, P. (2018). Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 545. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545
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