Sugar Addiction

by Amy B. Beausang, PharmD, RPh, Certified Health Coach

I am addicted to sugar.

If you saw me, you would say, “yeah right”. I’m not the stereotypical poster child for one with a raging sweet tooth. I’m not overweight, in fact I’ll go ahead and say I’m pretty dang fit. When I mention to friends and family that I can’t have that cupcake or sweet treat because I have a problem with sugar, they look at me like I’ve sprouted another head and kinda roll their eyes dismissively.

The effects of sugar go WAAAAYYY deeper than weight gain and increased risk of diabetes and heart disease with overconsumption.

Sugar is the devil. At least, it’s MY devil.

Yes, I can binge on sugar and then punitively exercise my ass off the next day to try to stave off any outward effects of that empty-calorie blitz-fest I put my body through. But the psychological and mental effects of sugar are the ones that really throw me for a loop—scratch that. A loop would imply some sort of swing back to the top. Sugar actually sends me into a downward spiral of depression, anxiety, mental fog, and terribly negative outlook. If I eat sugar, I eat a lot. And then I self-isolate, hate, and freeze. As in I become one uncommunicative, sad, self-loathing, negative wife and mom. And forget friends. If I’m in that state, I’m not even leaving the house. Which is unacceptable. And based on what the latest science continues to churn out like Blizzards from Dairy Queen, I am not the only one who reacts this way.

I am on a rampage against sugar. Many of you may think I’m over-reacting, but I’m speaking from lots of experience with sugar addiction. I have literally eaten a BOWL of RAW BROWNIE batter by myself. I have fished chocolate chip cookies out of the trash. I am that person who would sneak some of her daughter’s halloween candy, and then tell her that we just ran out. I have no filter when it comes to sugar. There is no moderation for me. It’s waaaay easier to abstain for me than to say, “oh, I can have just one cookie….” Uh-uh. Doesn’t work that way. And if you’re like me—and apparently there are many, many out there—then your sugar cravings are likely wreaking havoc on your mental and emotional stability.

Here’s some science to back up my sugar-induced psychosis—these are straight out of the medical literature, people. I don’t make this stuff up. Check it.

  1. “In some brains the consumption of sugar-rich foods or drinks primes the release of euphoric endorphins and dopamine within the nucleus accumbens, in a manner similar to some drugs of abuse.” Hmm, so sugar seems to be addicting.
  2. In a study that explored dietary patterns and prevalence of mental disorders like depression and schizophrenia, “the most consistent finding is that a greater consumption of refined sugar is associated with a worse outcome of schizophrenia and a greater prevalence of depression”. And so, sugar is also depressing. I can definitely vouch for that. And if you already have a history of depression, watch out.
  3. Rats prefer sugar water to cocaine. And when offered a larger dose of cocaine, nope—the rats still jonesed for the sugar water. Yeah, but they’re rats, you say. Well, some researchers at Yale published a study in 2011 in humans. They found that the simple sight of sugary foods activated the same reward centers in the brain as cocaine. OK, so sugar is addictive. Yes, I am repeating this one.
  4. Binging on the sweet stuff may make you stupid. OK, that’s a bit harsh, but rat studies have shown that high sugar intake interferes with brain cell signaling and the ability to think clearly and remember tasks learned in recent weeks. And I can certainly attest to the post-sugar binge brain fog. Ask the people who took my BodyStep class one Monday in June after a wild and crazy Sunday involving the consumption of an entire peach pie by myself. I was mixing up my cha-cha’s and burpees. I felt like a hot mess.

Bottom line:

The roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash may exaggerate any tendency toward mental issues like anxiety, depression, memory loss, and may very well leave you with a really negative attitude and feelings about yourself. And I’m not even talking about the guilt ton that comes with sugar binging. I finally hit bottom a few weeks ago, and I’m glad I did. It opened my eyes to how sugar affects me mentally and emotionally. And I can’t exercise that away. So, for me, the easiest thing has been to “just say no”. And ignore the eye rolls.

If you are a nerd like me, here’s an entertaining and informative 5-minute video from TedEd on how sugar affects the brain in a pathway that is also activated by addictive drugs.

Studies referenced above:

  1. Fortuna JL. Sweet preference, sugar addiction and the familial history of alcohol dependence: shared neural pathways and genes. J Psychoactive Drugs.2010 Jun;42(2):147-51.
  2. Peet M. International variations in the outcome of schizophrenia and the prevalence of depression in relation to national dietary practices: an ecological analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry May 2004, 184 (5) 404-408.
  3. Lenoir M, et al. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS One. 2007 Aug;2(8).
  4. Gearhardt AN, et al. Neural correlates of food addiction. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2011;68(8):808-816.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on Sugar.


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