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Is Sugar Addictive? Why Sugar Can Be Considered a Drug

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According to a 2008 study, “intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse.” 

Any substance that we use for pleasure can be an addiction—this includes sugar. Research shows that our brains are hardwired for pleasure, and sugar works much like many addictive drugs in that it affects the brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain that’s associated with emotional control. 

A Sugar Addiction Study

A 2018 narrative review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that sugar may be as addictive as cocaine.

Brain scans show that intermittent sugar consumption affects the brain much like certain drugs, so the next time you crave something sweet, it may be more than just a sweet tooth: it could be an addition you need to address. In the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, it found that sugar meets the criteria for a substance of abuse, and those who binge on it could be addicted. 

Food addiction is plausible since brain pathways have evolved to respond to natural rewards and therefore become activated by addictive drugs. A study from Science Direct concluded that sugar releases opioids, and dopamine, therefore, could have this addictive potential. There were four components of sugar addiction analyzed, including:

  • Binging
  • Withdrawal
  • Craving
  • Cross-sensitization

These components were demonstrated behaviorally with sugar binging being the reinforcer, and are related to neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs. Under certain circumstances, rats can become addicted to sugar, which may translate to some human conditions that may include eating disorders and obesity.

Sugar Addiction Symptoms

The symptoms of sugar addiction can vary from person to person, but some common signs and symptoms may include:

  1. Intense cravings for sugary foods or beverages, especially after consuming them.
  2. Difficulty controlling or limiting the consumption of sugary foods.
  3. Persistent desire for sweet tastes and the need for increasingly larger amounts of sugar to experience satisfaction.
  4. Withdrawal-like symptoms when attempting to cut back or quit sugar, such as irritability, mood swings, headaches, or fatigue.
  5. Continued consumption of sugary foods despite negative consequences on physical health or overall well-being.
  6. Preoccupation with thoughts of sugary foods and a constant desire for the next sugar fix.
  7. Difficulty maintaining a balanced and healthy diet due to the overpowering influence of sugar cravings.
  8. Increased tolerance to sugar, leading to the need for higher quantities or more intense flavors to experience the same level of satisfaction.

Note that sugar addiction is not recognized as a formal diagnosis in medical or psychological literature. However, many people experience strong cravings and difficulties controlling their sugar intake, which can significantly impact their overall health and well-being.

Statistics on Sugar

Apparently, according to health officials, the addiction to sugar is concerning. The American Heart Association cited research showing sugary soft drinks are responsible for 180,000 deaths worldwide annually. Because of this, they recommend that adults consume less than 450 calories per week of sugar-sweetened beverages; this means no more than two 20-oz bottles of soda.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that the average American derives about 13 percent of their daily caloric intake from added sugars. Men get about 335 calories per day average while women get about 239 additional calories per day. Although soda is an easy scapegoat, foods contain added sugars without a person’s knowledge of them. Processed foods, salad dressings, and even spaghetti sauce can contain upwards of 9 to 10 grams of sugar or more.

Sugar Withdrawal

When someone goes on a diet and eliminates sugar from their diet, they can experience the same type of withdrawal a person who abuses drugs can experience, including:

  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Cravings
  • Cognitive issues
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Tingling
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness or dizziness

These are just the listed symptoms, and you may not experience all of these, but just as you would quit any drug, it might be better to wean off sugar. You can quit cold turkey, and it wouldn’t harm you like quitting a drug or alcohol would, so it’s up to you. 

How to Break Sugar Addiction

Breaking a sugar addiction requires a multifaceted approach. Here are some strategies to help you break free from sugar addiction.

  1. Gradually reduce sugar intake. Gradually decrease the amount of added sugar in your diet over time to allow your taste buds to adjust.

  2. Read food labels. Pay attention to food labels and avoid products with high amounts of added sugars.

  3. Choose whole foods. Focus on consuming whole, unprocessed foods that are naturally low in sugar, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.

  4. Find healthy alternatives. Satisfy your sweet cravings with natural alternatives like fresh fruits or dried fruits. Experiment with sugar substitutes like stevia or monk fruit extract if needed.

  5. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and help reduce cravings.

  6. Practice mindful eating. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues, eat slowly, and savor each bite.

  7. Manage stress. Incorporate stress-reducing activities like yoga, meditation, and breathwork into your routine to help cope with emotional triggers.

  8. Engage in regular exercise. Regular physical activity can help reduce cravings, boost mood, and improve overall well-being.

  9. Increase protein intake. Including protein-rich foods in your meals can help keep you feeling full and reduce cravings.

  10. Ensure adequate sleep. Aim for sufficient sleep as lack of sleep can increase cravings for sugary foods.

  11. Seek professional help if needed. In extreme cases or when struggling with severe addiction, consider seeking support from a rehab or detox center that specializes in addiction treatment.

Remember, breaking a sugar addiction is a journey that requires commitment and perseverance. Seek support from healthcare professionals or a support group to guide you through the process.

Get Help at Ardu

We can help you detox from sugar and break your sugar addiction. Often addiction is part of something bigger, and getting treatment can help change behavioral patterns and habits. Contact us for help, and let us help you overcome your addiction and take back your health and your life.

Sugar Addiction FAQ

Your questions about sugar addiction, answered.

What did Harvard study about sugar addiction?

Harvard University has conducted several studies on the effects of sugar on health, including addiction-like behaviors associated with sugar consumption. While sugar addiction as a formal diagnosis is not recognized by medical authorities, research suggests that excessive sugar intake can lead to behavioral and physiological changes resembling addiction.

Studies conducted by Harvard researchers have explored the impact of sugar on the brain, the addictive properties of sugary foods, and the potential consequences of sugar addiction on overall health, such as obesity and metabolic disorders.

However, further research is needed to fully understand the complex relationship between sugar and addiction.

What is the root cause of sugar addiction?

The root cause of sugar addiction is multifaceted and influenced by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

  • Biologically, consuming sugar triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, in the brain. This dopamine response can create a reinforcing cycle, leading to cravings and seeking out more sugar.
  • Psychologically, factors such as stress, emotional eating, and using sugar as a coping mechanism can contribute to the development and maintenance of sugar addiction.
  • Environmental factors such as easy access to sugary foods, societal norms, and cultural influences can play a role in the development of addictive patterns around sugar.

Sugar addiction is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors, and addressing these factors holistically is key to overcoming it.

Does sugar release dopamine or serotonin?

Sugar consumption primarily triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, in the brain. Dopamine plays a role in the brain’s reward system and is involved in regulating feelings of pleasure and motivation.

It’s worth noting that the relationship between sugar and neurotransmitters is complex, and serotonin, another neurotransmitter, can also be affected indirectly by sugar intake. Serotonin is involved in regulating mood, appetite, and sleep, and its levels can be influenced by various factors, including diet.

While sugar consumption may have some impact on serotonin levels, its effects on serotonin are not as direct as its effects on dopamine.

Is sugar worse than alcohol?

Comparing the harmful effects of sugar and alcohol is complex as they affect the body in different ways and have different potential risks.

Sugar can contribute to various health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dental problems when consumed in excess. It can also lead to metabolic imbalances and energy crashes.

Alcohol, when consumed in excessive amounts, can cause liver damage, addiction, impaired cognitive function, increased risk of accidents, and other negative health consequences.

Moderate sugar consumption as part of a balanced diet is generally considered acceptable, while moderate alcohol consumption should be practiced with caution.

Overall, both excessive sugar consumption and excessive alcohol consumption can be detrimental to health, but alcohol poses a more immediate and serious risk. If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol addiction, our alcohol detox center can help you get back on track. 

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on 7/29/23