Food and the Brain: Is Sugar Addictive?

This is a guest blog post by Jennifer Lee, Ph.D.

We’ve all heard of “sugar-highs” and informal theories that foods, especially sweets, can act like drugs in our system. But how much truth lies in such rumors? If food can be addictive, how so, and why? And what are we supposed to do about it to make sure our kids and ourselves stay “clean”?

Considering human evolution, it is in our best survival interest that we have an inherent desire for foods high in calories (that’s why they taste so good). Indeed, research shows that, like humans, other mammals enjoy tasty treats (even without the influence of the modern food industry and its propaganda). Unfortunately, for those of us in environments conducive to food addiction, this natural desire can go awry.

Many people say they crave sweet foods the same way alcoholics crave liquor, or a junkie craves his next “fix”. Believe it or not, this claim has some justification in science. Laboratory rats given intermittent access to a sugary drink exhibit typical addictive behaviors almost immediately: bingeing when sugar is available, crashing when it’s not (withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and craving-like behaviors). So, very sugary substances, at least behaviorally, act much like addictive narcotics. But what about physiologically?

Most addictive drugs cause increases in extracellular dopamine in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine is one of our “feel-good” neurotransmitters that is largely responsible for our motivation and reward systems. Typically, drug-seeking behavior will cause a rise in dopamine levels in the brain even before the drug is actually consumed––the mere anticipation of reward is oh-so rewarding. Rats addicted to sugar ingest it in a binge-like manner that releases dopamine in the accumbens during and right before consumption, much like heroin use in humans. And also like drug addiction, this sugar bingeing causes changes in the expression and availability of dopamine receptors in the brain: the next “high” will require even more sugar to achieve the same effect.

Another interesting tidbit: High sugar consumption mimics our brain’s natural opiate system. Opiates are the pleasure chemicals found in our brains (released after orgasm and vigorous exercise, among other things) and in drugs derived from the poppy plant (morphine, heroin, oxycodone, etc.). Of course, no one is saying that eating a bag of Twizzlers is on-par with recreational Vicodin use. The problem with these pleasure chemicals comes in their addictive consequences. Sugar addiction causes opioid-like changes in gene expression (in the accumbens), opioid withdrawal (which can be induced with naloxone, a drug used to treat heroin overdose), and a decrease in extracellular dopamine in periods without sugar availability. As with any addiction, you can see how the vicious cycle works: decreased dopamine causes craving and withdrawal, which is such a “low” that you just need this one last box of Girl Scout Cookies and then you’re back on-track tomorrow. But tomorrow comes, and it is even harder to stay off the sweets than yesterday.

So now you know that there is some evidence to suggest that sugar can be addictive. As with any consumable that is very desirable, moderation is the key. Trace amounts of refined sugars every now and then are fine… binges are dangerous. Fruits are a good source of sugar as they contain other nutrients that will fill you up and make you less likely to consume too much sweetness.

When you’re craving a sweet, ask yourself what sweets you have had lately, and how much of them you allowed yourself. Might you be battling a sugar addiction?

Information in part from “Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake,” Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 32 (2008) 20-39.

 

Jennifer Lee is a behavioral scientist who received her Ph.D. in psychobiology and learning.  She is a psychology instructor, researcher, and writer in studies of human and animal behavior.

 

Get FooducatediPhone App Android App Web App  RSS or  Email

Follow us on twitter: twitter.com/fooducate on facebook: facebook.com/fooducate

Get Fooducated

  • EVIL food scientist

    As someone who has family members who struggle with addiction and who has had a parent work in the treatment of addicts for years (and like any good hippie, had her kid “volunteer” a ton in various centers) I have a visceral hatred for people who label every little thing people get preoccupied with or seem to enjoy to excess as an “addiction”. 
     
    People don’t compulsively scratch their skin off when they are “under the influence” of sugar or from the absence of sugar.  Nobody is selling their body for just a little more sugar.  Nobody vomits, has seizures, and shakes uncontrollably when they try to stop taking sugar. People don’t forget to pay bills, not show up at work, forget major life events, or neglect their children because they are on sugar. 
     
    With actual addictive substances, these behaviors are common.
     
    Not everything that raises dopamine is an addictive substance.
     
    Then again, follow the money. Much like classifying obesity as a disease, classifying sugar as an “addictive” substance means you can now offer treatments (in patient and out patient), likely get new drugs trialed so you can quit sugar, and you can get the soon to be government paid health care to pay for it all!

    • Jbronwynne

      People do suffer from food addictions…it is a legitimate problem.  I have seen it firsthand with a family member.  There is a physical component to it ( you are correct, not to the extreme as alcohol and drugs), but it is greatly psychological.   Compulsive eating falls in the realm of anorexia and bulimia and it is a very real problem that can ruin lives.  These sugary and processed foods can numb people and offer them comfort in the same way drugs do.  The people who have compulsive behaviors regarding food are usually ashamed of their problem and will go to great lengths to hide it.  Does that sound like a real addiction??  I am not saying you need to develop drugs to combat food addiction, but it usually does require some sort of therapy.

      • steady as she goes

        Stupidity is easily confused with what some call “food addiction”. You know, stupid people misdiagnosing other stupid people. Stupidity feeds upon itself in that way until entire cults are created, like the cult of foodie stupidity. That one is really snowballing now! Too bad stupid people are not “ashamed of their problem and will go to great lengths to hide it”. The rest of us could use the relief, let me tell you.

        • Jbronwynne

           So, you would call an anorexic stupid?  Do you call depressed people stupid?  How about the abused child who hides in her room eating and becoming overweight?  Are psychologists who diagnose and treat food addictions stupid?  The mind is a bit more complex than you (who apparently isn’t stupid like the rest of us) give credit.  Maybe addiction is just too strong to explain it…how about food habit?  People REALLY do develop food HABITS…is that better?  I know a bulimic who binges and purges is to you, really just stupid and weak, but that habit is hard to break.  I am not one to make excuses for people and really think that the term addiction is thrown around too much, also.  There are people who hide behind labels and use them to cover laziness, stupidity…whatever you want to call it.  Lots of people don’t want to be accountable for their actions in life. However, some people really do have problems with food.  It is real and it really ruins lives.  See, I didn’t even call you stupid for being insensitive.

    • klownow

      there is some evidence to suggest that many alcoholics also have a sugar addiction, alcohol impacts our systems in a very similar way to sugar.  An alcoholic who reduces their sugar/high glycemic carbs has a much better chance at sobriety.  I read about this many years ago in a book called Seven Weeks to Sobriety and I believe it to be true, maybe not for every alcoholic, but true for many.  Just my two cents.  On a personal note, I do not feel “addicted” to sugar, but I know that sugar is not my friend, it will make me feel better in the (very) short term, but is just another substance that fools my brain temporarily. I worked as an addiction counsellor at a detox centre, so I do understand your point of view, sugar doesn’t destroy families and lives like other very addictive substances do, I have seen the hallucinations, and the scratching, well I could go into detail, but I think you know all the rest that goes with a serious physical withdrawal.  I do believe nutrition is a big big part of recovery, and reducing/eliminating sugar and lowering carbs are a contributing factor, in my humble opinion to a successful recovery from alcoholism for some.  

    • Foxxm13

      I don’t generally comment on BS like this but your comment is one of the most ignorant, rude, misguided comments I’ve ever read. Seems like you’re a little angry. Of course I’m sure you’re one of the worlds most talented minds on the subject…from behind your keyboard. We all know people with a variance of issues, so for you to claim or insinuate one is worse than another simply because you happen to have a family member who struggles with addiction is ignorant. Don’t take your mommy and daddy issues out on everyone else.

    • cassparilla

      You don’t have to prostitute yourself to fund every addiction, you know. The science is sound and the facts are there. Addictive substances cause changes in brain chemistry. Just because an addiction manifests itself differently than you think it should makes it no less of an addiction. Also, a disease is something that adversely affects your health and that you are genetically predisposed to or acquire through environmental influences. Obesity is definitely a disease. Don’t let your anger with government and politics cloud your reasoning or your charity. People deserve to have access to things that improve their health and quality of life (read: basic healthcare and needed treatments and therapies) on the mere basis of being a person. The society, especially that of a wealthy and developed country, that cannot or does not desire to provide this to its members is nothing short of calamity.

    • goof

      Sugar is highly addictive!!!!! It may not cause the same outter physical effects, but each individual drug causes different physical and emotional effects…

  • Gretchen

    Yes, but where is the solution? I found that I was simply rafting too many carbs and that I have an allergy to wheat. After dietary adjustments, I no longer struggle with sugar. Now if I want a sweet treat , which isn’t often now, I eat it because I want to, not because my body is out of balance and I feel like I have to. I encourage everyone to find the foods your individual body needs, it’s very worth the effort.

    • Gretchen

      I meant *eating,* not *rafting*…lol

      • Jennifer Lee

        Of course sugar is not a narcotic, nor is a potential “sugar addiction” anywhere as harmful as a narcotic addiction. However, we classify addiction based on behaviors, primarily. I believe this was the incentive for the research. And yes- a very good point is that not everything affecting your DA system is unhealthy…quite the opposite! All kinds of rewards raise extra cellular DA, even an accomplishment at work. Very stimulating conversations on this topic!

      • Jennifer Lee

        Of course sugar is not a narcotic, nor is a potential “sugar addiction” anywhere as harmful as a narcotic addiction. However, we classify addiction based on behaviors, primarily. I believe this was the incentive for the research. And yes- a very good point is that not everything affecting your DA system is unhealthy…quite the opposite! All kinds of rewards raise extra cellular DA, even an accomplishment at work. Very stimulating conversations on this topic!

    • Guest

      Well done on listening to your body and changing up the way you eat! (:

      Over a year ago, I stopped consuming added sugars and I feel fantastic! It’s really amazing how true that the less you have, the less you want it. Not only that, you even start to dislike sweets.

  • Kayla

    I found this website one day. It talks about how sugar addiction can cause a host of other illnesses. It starts a cycle that can be a part of drug addiction and some mental disorders. I don’t know if I agree with all of it but they make a valid point regarding the neurotransmitters in our brains. http://www.hypoglycemia.asn.au/2012/self-help-website-for-personal-growth/ 

  • Seanquinnmb

    Love it! Thanks for the info!

  • Bandman

    I love this article. It explains the way I have behaved all my adult life as I continually reward myself with food; mostly sweets. I guess I am just a food junky like the most people!

  • Pingback: Stay Sweet, But Cut the Sugar « Living Body Wellness

  • Pingback: If they ban your super-sized soda, would you switch to diet? | Grist

  • Pingback: We live in a world saturated with sugar... & that's scary. |

  • Pingback: Is Gerber still a trusted brand?

  • Pingback: Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sugartown | Roslyn Wellness

  • Pingback: Stash Some Sweet Potatoes | Running Carrot

  • Pingback: Sugar | Running Carrot

  • Pingback: Are you a Sugarholic? | Running Carrot

  • Brad T

    Many of the problems we have today are a result of sugar. We still have people downplaying the truth about it. Probably because they themselves aren’t willing to give it up. It’s possible for a cocaine addict to condemn the drug, but still be unable to give it up. When I discovered the truth about sugar, it took quite some time for me to break my family of it. You can’t eat it in “moderation”. It’s poison. Not suitable for consumption, regardless of how well it tastes. I often find myself debating with relatives and friends over sugar and food additives. It is truly amazing to see the devil come out of them when they come face to face with the reality of food. They feel threatened. They don’t wanna know the truth because they would rather keep the status quo, living in denial, and choking down good tasting poison. They don’t wanna know that it’s destroying their health.

    I think its a disgrace that people are still eating for pleasure instead of respecting their bodies. It’s not unlike when the white man first came to North America and raped the land. The natives respected the land. That’s the difference between good and evil. Sugar promotes nothing good. It only promotes the same “good” that cocaine and meth do. Realistically I know it would be a helluva long time before ever seeing it banned. But the least I can do is protect my family and tell everyone I know. Only a fool would keep sugar in the house. I was once a fool. But no longer. Are you still a fool?