Sugar on the brain

Is sugar another addictive white powder?

A recent study suggests sugar may be addictive. Below are parts of the U.S. News article summarizing the experiment and interpretation of the findings. I suggest reading them all:

“Our evidence from an animal model suggests that bingeing on sugar can act in the brain in ways very similar to drugs of abuse,” [said] lead researcher Bart Hoebel . . .

“Drinking large amounts of sugar water when hungry can cause behavioral changes and even neurochemical changes in the brain which resemble changes that are produced when animals or people take substances of abuse. These animals show signs of withdrawal and even long-lasting effects that might resemble craving,” . . .

A “sugar addiction” may even act as a “gateway” to later abuse of drugs such as alcohol . . .

For the new research, rats were denied food for 12 hours a day, then were given access to food and sugar (25 percent glucose and 10 percent sucrose, similar to a soft drink) for 12 hours a day, for three to four weeks.

The bingeing released a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine each time in the part of the brain involved in reward, the nucleus accumbens. “It’s been known that drugs of abuse release or increase the levels of dopamine in that part of the brain,” Hoebel said.

But it wasn’t only the sugar that caused this effect, Hoebel explained — it was the sugar combined with the alternating schedule of deprivation and largesse. . . .

But longer periods of abstinence didn’t “cure” the rats. Instead, there were long-lasting effects with the animals: They ingested more sugar than before, as if they were craving the substance and, without sugar, they drank more alcohol.

My anecdotal experience confirms the above findings. For one, the more I have abstained from sugar and refined carbohydrates (the latter of which are one tiny step away from being sugar), the easier it has become to strictly avoid sugar/carbohydrate-dense foods. This suggests to me that the addiction can be controlled by almost completely abstaining from the “drug,” sugar in this case.

Of note, however, is that in those instances when I have fallen off the wagon* and started eating sugar/refined carbs, I tend to overeat/binge. Is this the behavior of an addict? Or is it the psychological response to the forbidden fruit? Or is it a predictable response of treating a diet like a binary system? I.e. going from strict adherence to the diet to “Well I already ate that candy, might as well have some ice cream, too!” Any of these are plausible explanations for my behavior.

The alcohol angle is fascinating: I’ve experienced a clear connection between alcohol and carbohydrate-binge-eating. As before, I am unclear how the alcohol is catalyzing my reaction — is it that alcohol impairs my judgment, handicapping my will power? Or could it be more fundamentally metabolic — the alcohol spurs a chemical reaction resulting in craving sugar/refined carbohydrates? Why do I go from having little-to-no craving for French fries and tator tots to no-holds-barred “pass the ketchup now!” after downing three or four beers.

I have previously blogged on how hard liquor has zero carbohydrates. I’ve since learned that hard liquor (i.e. whiskey) will cause an insulin response even though there are no carbohydrates in the alcohol. Could insulin have something to do with this#?

This study, rather than confirming something I’ve suspected about the addictive nature of sugar, leaves me with more questions than answers. Is modern man doomed to be addicted to sugar? Is sugar addiction similar to alcoholism in that the only successful means to control the addiction is to avoid entirely the addictive substance? Can abstaining from sugar/refined carbohydrates make the addiction worse? Is sugar a poison that should be taken in small doses to control its ill-affects (A particularly strange notion)?

It seems there are more questions than answers. However, I maintain that sugar in any close-to-raw form is unnatural, which means that our evolutionarily designed bodies are inept at handling it. And it seems reasonable to conclude that, even if I tend to overeat refined carbohydrates when I do consume them, over the long-term, I’m still drastically reducing my intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates by maintaining a lifestyle focused on a low-carbohydrate, natural diet mixed with intermittent fasting.

* How often have you heard the phrase “fallen off the wagon” to describe failure at dieting? I hear it all the time (and use it). Probably just a coincidence, this phrase originates in alcoholism. Here we have a study that paints sugar as being similar to alcohol in its addictive characteristics.

# I can’t help but wonder if insulin is the culprit behind addiction to both alcohol and sugar. Has anyone looked into this?