The Brain’s Reaction To Sugar: Not All That Different Than Cocaine.

A Holiday Relapse Calls For Detox

I’m trying to get back on track after a few days of too much eating, drinking and sleeping. They all seem to go hand-in-hand.

I think the key is to break the sugar cycle. Most of the time I’m able to limit the amount of refined sugar I eat, but as soon as I enjoy a piece of cake or pie at a holiday gathering or dinner party, the craving starts and I’m drawn to the fridge where the rest of the goodies are lingering. It’s going to take a couple of days of detox for my sugar craving to subside.

The Chemical To Blame it On – Dopamine

Research labs have been studying the effects of sugar and fast food on the brain chemical dopamine for quite some time. The definition of dopamine, according to Psychology Today is: “a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.”

Drugs such as cocaine, nicotine or methamphetamine cause the brain to kick out excessive amounts of dopamine.  The excess dopamine creates such a sense of pleasure and excitement that over time, if the person continues to use the drug, nothing else can compete with it. If the drug use continues, the brain no longer responds to other pleasures that typically kick out dopamine plus it no longer reacts to the drug in the same way as when first introduced. When the user needs more and more of the drug to create the feeling of pleasure and lacks the ability to derive pleasure from other experiences addiction has occurred.

Our Brain On Sugar

Our brains may react to sugar and other addictive foods in much the same way they do drugs or alcohol.

In November, 2011 Princeton University unveiled the results of a multi-year project that studied the effects of sugar on rats. The research, conducted by Bart Hoebel and his team in the Department of Psychology, revealed a number of things:

• The rats brains released dopamine when they were fed a sugar solution.
• When the sugar was decreased, the rats drank more alcohol than normal and had an increased reaction to a trace amount of amphetamine that they were given.
• When the sugar was completely taken away the dopamine levels dropped and the rats exhibited anxiety, their “teeth chattered, and they were unwilling to venture forth into the art of their maze.”

The research study at Princeton determined that when the rats ate large amounts of sugar it caused an increase of dopamine in the brain. After a month the brain adapted to the increased dopamine levels. The conclusion was that the affects of the sugar on the rats’ brains was similar to that of cocaine and heroin.

Of Mice and Men

Other research shows that sugar and fast-foods such as cheeseburgers, French fries and milk shakes can trigger the release of dopamine in the human brain. A November 2, article in Bloomberg quotes Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse as saying, “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.” Volkow says that the data is so “overwhelming the field has to accept it”.

This food-dopamine-brain-addiction theory may be why some people feel they have a lack of control over their food consumption. It may explain why someone like myself, who sticks to a low-sugar, no junk food diet 99% of the time is craving a piece of angel food pumpkin cake two days after my Thanksgiving feast.

We know that drugs and alcohol are addictive. Why is so hard to believe that sugar and fast food are too? I can’t see where there is any difference between the person that orders a cheeseburger, fries and coke at lunch, even though they are well aware of the risks their expanding waist line and high cholesterol levels are having on their overall health, and the person who continues to smoke cigarettes despite desperately wanting to stop.

Breaking The Food Addiction Cycle . . . .

Requires a cold turkey approach. Neal Barnard, M.D. and author of the book, “Breaking the Food Seduction” believes that certain foods contain chemicals that stimulate the brain and drive our cravings for them. The only way to rid ourselves of our addiction, according to Barnard, is to totally eliminate these foods from our diet. Barnard says staying away from the food items that you crave for a total of three weeks will often resolve the problem.

I agree with Dr. Barnard. Staying away from those foods will rid me of the cravings. At least until I have them again. Then I’m back to square one.

There Is Help

The way to counteract cravings is with foods that boost dopamine and seratonin, the well-being chemical in a healthier way. High protein foods like fish, chicken, turkey and eggs have been found to increase dopamine. Beans, coffee, black tea, green tea and milk also cause the brain to secrete more.

Foods rich in complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads, brown rice, oats, fresh fruits, vegetables and popcorn boost seratonin.

Daily exercise, eight ounces of water a day, and a return to our goal setting strategies will also help get us back on track for the upcoming week. It’s probably best to go ahead and own up to our addictions now since we still have Christmas and New Year’s to deal with.