Why Is Sugar So Addictive?
Storytime! My father’s French and loves his wine. He also has quite the sweet tooth. He’s dabbled with Dry January where you start the year alcohol-free, so when chatting with him about his overall health and diet, I asked him “how about trying a month of no sugar?” to which he laughed and said, in his thick French accent, “I would give up alcohol before I would give up sugar.”
I was honestly pretty surprised! I mean… he’s super French! Knowing my work-hard-play-hard father, I was sure he would have given up the sweets before his wine. I asked him why, to which he said
“Giving up alcohol is easy, I just don’t drink in the evenings. Giving up sugar means changing my whole diet, I start and end my days with something sweet. It’s too much work.”
Which is totally fair enough! He’s not wrong, quitting sugar is a LOT of work. Especially when our diet contains so much of it. More than that, our diets often contain hidden sugars which we don’t even know we’re consuming, strengthening our addiction to sugar…
That’s right, I said ‘addiction’. Because sugar is addictive. In fact, some studies indicate that sugar is as addictive as drugs like nicotine, cocaine, and heroin, actually stimulating some of the same areas of the brain.
Now, obviously, there are some big differences between the effects of sugar vs. these substances, but sugar addiction is subtle, sneaky. The impact on our health from sugar addiction is not immediate, often going unnoticed, getting increasingly worse over time as a detriment to our health.
While a cocaine addiction can land us in the hospital any second, sugar addiction might land us in the hospital after years of consumption, and even then, we might not immediately blame the sugar, as it’s what the sugar has caused that the doctors will be focused on…
Is Sugar Really Addictive?
It sure is! Mainly thanks to our happy hormone, dopamine.
What Is Dopamine And How Does It Relate To Sugar Addiction?
As humans, we have some fundamental objectives: Survive, Procreate, Evolve.
When we complete a task that benefits one of these fundamental human objectives, the body produces and releases dopamine.
Dopamine encourages growth and development and encourages a desire for survival and procreation. It directly affects our motivation to complete key life tasks. Without dopamine, we simply wouldn’t get anything done.
In fact, as soon as we see and smell food, we get a hit of that rewarding dopamine, so that we feel encouraged to go out and do it again a few hours later…
Now, let’s talk tolerance…
If you’ve participated in dry January, you might recall that killer hangover you had on the 2nd of February after a night out on the town to celebrate your month off drinking!
Except you only had a couple of drinks that night, which usually would barely give you a buzz, let alone a full-blown hangover. So what’s going on?
Because you took a break from drinking, your body is now much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Your tolerance for alcohol has decreased. This tolerance build-up works the same way with dopamine.
We source blueberries, we get a hit of rewarding dopamine, we eat the blueberries, we get more dopamine. The next day we go back and get more blueberries This time the body’s not that impressed or excited… it’s already had the nutrients from the blueberries. It doesn’t need them so much, so it’s like ‘meh okay, here’s a small bit of dopamine. But, the problem is you haven’t had your FULL hit of dopamine. So, you go looking for more life-sustaining food so that you can get that feel-good hit. You come across some wild arugula and BAM! You get your much-needed dopamine hit.
The body does this to encourage a varied diet. We need a wide variety of nutrients to THRIVE.
The body’s pretty clever, huh?
We get the same dopamine tolerance response from sugar consumption.
We naturally crave sweet things because nature designed the taste of sweet and bitter to inform life what’s safe to eat, and what to stay away from or eat in moderation. Sweet things in nature are (for the most part) safe to consume! Things that have a particularly bitter or sour taste are often things to consume in moderation or stay away from entirely.
The body actually produces and releases a huge surge of dopamine when we consume sugar, which is very different from the dopamine response from other foods that we eat.
Over time, our bodies build a tolerance for sugar, rewarding us with less and less dopamine from the same portion, meaning we need more and more sugar to get the same feel-good dopamine hit…
So when we talk about ‘quitting sugar’, similarly to a drug addiction, it has very little to do with willpower. That ‘need’ for more dopamine is not related to willpower.
Because dopamine makes us feel good, you can guess what happens when we don’t get enough dopamine… we get symptoms including poor mood regulation, dramatic mood swings, feelings of anxiety, and exhaustion. Quitting sugar essentially means putting the body through dopamine withdrawal while it adjusts, which can cause the following…
- Muscle cramps
- Feelings of depression or anxiety
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Cognitive issues like difficulties with focus and concentration
- Cravings, notably for foods containing sugar and glucose
Which makes sense right? Because if the body’s used to getting something that makes it feel good and it suddenly stops getting this feel-good substance, it’s going to make us feel low, feeling distracted with the brain confused as to why it’s not getting its rewarding dopamine.
Once we understand sugar’s effects on the body and how little quitting sugar has to do with willpower, we can come up with an action plan to cut the sugar and get our dopamine tolerance back to a manageable level.