Sugar Addiction and the Brain

If you experience strong cravings for sugar, don’t pass them off as something to be ignored. Research has revealed that sugar shares some of the same addictive properties found in substances like nicotine and heroin. Foods that are high in sugar may actually trick your brain into consuming more.

How sugar addiction works

Addictive substances make you feel good with a release of chemicals in the brain triggering pleasure, euphoria and energy. Rather than sustaining these feelings the brain and body work together to create a balance in your system – homeostasis – to avoid extreme fluctuations. Because the body is focused on creating this balance, it often learns to adapt to the effects of substances that may alter mood.

Sugar Handprint

In simplest terms, when the body takes in an addictive, mood-altering substance, it creates hormones and chemicals to counteract that substance. If the brain expects that you are going to take in the substance, it alters chemicals to counteract that substance. If you resist the temptation to consume the substance — in this case sugar — the altered chemical state of the brain caused by the expectation can create powerful cravings.

This pattern only strengthens addictions. This is why many drug addicts and smokers feel they need drugs or nicotine just to feel normal. The same thing happens with sugar.

A study by researchers at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan found that when a mice’s brain expects a sweet treat, the mice’s brain releases a chemical called orexin, which triggers the muscles in the body to absorb any sugar that may be circulating in the bloodstream. This is an effort to prepare for an increase in blood sugar, and it is the adaptation that helps regulate blood sugar when eating.

When the muscles absorb sugar, the blood sugar drops. If you resist the temptation to eat something sweet, the adaptation of the body and brain to lower your blood sugar may create increased cravings and decreased energy to resist those cravings. Thus the vicious cycle of addiction begins.

Stop Sweets

Interestingly, researchers have also found that visibility and convenience trigger sugar addiction. In other words, when candy or sweets are visible and readily available, you’ll be more likely to consume the sugary foods. If environment is controlled and sugar is out of sight, it’s also, essentially “out of mind.”

Like other substance addictions, if you suffer from an addiction to sugar, begin fighting that addiction by making changes in your environment. If you have sugar or sweets in your home, put them out of sight. This could even go so far as encouraging your workplace to replace sweet treats in the work vending machine to healthy snacks.

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