Sugar Addiction – Is Refined Sugar Really More Addictive Than Cocaine?

Have you heard that beating a sugar addiction can be as tricky as overcoming an addiction to serious drugs? As it turns out, this is, unfortunately, the case. The way the human brain responds when sugar enters the body causes an addictive response in many people.

More than a few studies have shown that cutting back on sugar can be as difficult as beating a cocaine addiction.

The original research was published in the journal PLOS One, a publication of the non-profit organization Public Library of Science. As more people read the startling data released in August 2007, it was an eye-opening experience for many. It sparked the idea that the innocent-looking sugar you eat every day could be more addictive than crack cocaine.

  • In the study, 94% of rats allowed to choose between sugar water and cocaine chose the sugar.
  • That’s not all. Even rats previously addicted to cocaine quickly switched their preference to sugar once it was offered as a choice.

That second fact is more disturbing than the first, and it shows how dangerously addictive sugar can be.

The rats were more willing to work for sugar than for cocaine. They had a built-in reward system which made them crave the sugar more and more as they aided, leading to addiction. Additionally, they suffered withdrawals and exhibited angry behaviors when sugar was withdrawn.

Another shocking finding of the study was a cross-tolerance and a cross-dependence between sugars and addictive drugs. For example, lab animals with a long history of sugar consumption actually became tolerant or desensitized to the pain-relieving effects of the potent and addictive painkiller morphine.

The more sugar they ate, the less their body responded to painkilling medicines, such as morphine. Morphine is very good at slowing the human response to pain, which is why so many hospitals and doctors use it for pain relief in extreme pain situations.

As powerful as morphine is at blocking the pain response when the rats ate enough sugar, the power of morphine to relieve the pain was dramatically reduced.

Eat Sugar and You Want More Sugar… And More, and More, and More

The more sugar we indulge in, the more we crave sugar, leading to a vicious cycle of craving and satisfaction, which constantly moves to crave when the “fix” wears off. This causes big drops and spikes in a person’s blood sugar levels.

These highs and lows of blood sugar can lead to metabolic syndrome, characterized in part by high blood sugar, high cholesterol and high triglycerides (a form of cholesterol), insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and Type 2 diabetes. These conditions have now been found in the US in children as young as 18 months, even though they usually are associated with people over 40.

Sugar increases your insulin levels, which can lead to:

  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Weight gain
  • Premature aging

And while these avoidable situations are developing, your desire for and dependency on sugar increases.

One other thing to note about the study was that they tested dopamine levels in relation to the artificial sweetener saccharin (Sweet’n’Low) and got the same result as for sugar.  You can read the study abstract here:

Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward

The complete study can be found here:

Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward

After this ground-breaking study, more researchers sought to study the harmful effects of sugar on the body, particularly its addictive nature.

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in August 2011 showed that dopamine levels paired with other chemical changes in the brain related to the amino acid glutamate (as in monosodium glutamate) affected sugar consumption and cocaine use. At the same time, a great mental association between reward and the addictive substance was created. It also demonstrated a clear correlation with increased use of both substances and with eating disorders. This study potentially paves the way for more effective interventions for sugar and cocaine addicts and those with a range of eating disorders and obesity issues.

So to answer the question asked in the title of this article, yes. Sugar addiction can be as tough or tougher to beat as cocaine addiction.

Sugar Causes a Dopamine Spike, and Also a Desire for More “Feel-Good” Rewards

An interesting study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2013 titled, “Dual roles of dopamine in food- and drug-seeking: the drive-reward paradox” shows that dopamine produces both a drive for that feel “good” factor and a physical need for further reward.  Why this should be the case and why it occurs in the exact same spot in the brain could go a long way towards explaining overeating and other food-related disorders and drug addiction.

The extreme effects of sugar on the brain might also help explain cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, which is more common in women and is linked to sugar consumption. Put simply, sugar can wreck your physical and mental health in many scary ways, and we’re not even sure exactly how the processes work.

The Journal of Neuroscience study authors concluded there is some in-built link between food and reward, and brain stimulation and reward. They also point to further study of the “satiety” hormone leptin, which triggers the sensation that a person is full after eating. Studies related to artificial sweeteners show they have a harmful impact on leptin, and insulin, thus leading to food cravings and, in the case of leptin, to abdominal obesity.

Another key study points to the role of stress in our eating habits. In the journal Minerva Endocrinologica, a study published in September 2013 titled “Stress and Eating Behaviors” has shown that not all obesity is the same, but rather, it can be stress-driven, with stress affecting food choices, in particular, high sugar ones, which may possess addictive qualities.

Stress, sugar consumption, and a “feel-good” dopamine spike feed off each other, and not in a good way.

Stress is also a critical factor in the development of addiction and in relapse when a person is trying to recover from it. Stress also contributes to an increased risk for obesity and other metabolic diseases. Uncontrollable stress changes eating patterns and the tendency to consume more sweets.  Over time, this could lead to changes in the brain and behavior, resulting in increasingly compulsive behavior, in which the person “just can’t seem to help themselves.” 

The chemical changes seem to center on the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands and affect glucose metabolism (blood sugar), insulin sensitivity, and other appetite-related hormones and chemicals. These changes can even alter the wiring in the brain, with dopamine becoming connected to the stress and motivation circuits in the brain.

This can result in an increase in cravings for sweets, a greater reward mentality, and an increase in weight, which leads to more cravings, stress, and need for reward. This vicious cycle increases the desire for sugar, which increases the adverse effects on the person becoming addicted to sugar. The study shows that those with a sugar addiction are 5 times more likely to binge than those who don’t.

We now understand why researchers have labeled sugar as more addictive than cocaine in reference to laboratory animals. The same behaviors in laboratory rats are seen in humans who eat too much sugar. This is why it is essential to limit your consumption of refined, processed sugar. Your mental, physical and emotional health are at risk if you don’t.

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