How we become addicted to sugar and carbs, Part 1: Dopamine

In the course of freeing myself of a sugar addiction — which long hid behind the veil of “I’ll just work it off” — I discovered that there are (at least) five different ways that our bodies become dependent on sugar and simple carbs. With five different mechanisms at work, of course it’s going to be hard to quit! And, those mechanisms like things the way they are.

In this series of posts, I’ll explore each of the five areas:

  1. Pleasure and reward system (dopamine)
  2. Blood sugar/energy system
  3. Gut microbiome system
  4. Emotion & stress response system
  5. Habits & rituals

This first piece is in the series is looking at the pleasure and reward system, and how it makes us prone to sugar and carb dependency.

One of the amazing systems in our bodies that enhances our survival is the pleasure system. We are built to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. This is most obviously associated with the survival needs of eating and procreating, but also contributes to our drive to advance in every area of life.

Dopamine and the pleasure system

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter; a primary brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward. It not only is generated when we complete an action, but also in anticipation of something pleasurable, thereby serving a key role in motivation.

A good illustration of dopamine’s role in anticipation and motivation has been studied regarding going on vacation. The vacation research showed that more dopamine/pleasure is experienced during the planning and anticipation of a vacation than is released during the actual vacation, or afterwards when recalling it as a memory.

If we extrapolate that finding to sugar, the anticipation of the pleasure of eating a cookie will motivate us to go get one, but that pleasure isn’t matched by actually having it. This may be part of the mechanism associated with bingeing: each cookie in the box isn’t as good as the anticipation of the next one. Bingeing has several other factors at play as well, and I will touch on another one shortly.

Wired for the sweet taste

In nature, high concentrations of glucose and the resulting sweet taste is fairly rare; it is only found naturally in honey and seasonal fruits. Before the advent of Whole Foods and on-demand grocery delivery, access to honey was a rare treat, and fruits were only available at certain times of year. That’s why our bodies can adapt to different sources of fuel.

No wonder we start feeling deprived when just of cutting back on sugar is presented — our dopamine-pleasure system will not be getting its regular “hits,” so without the readily available access to pleasure, we anticipate feeling deprived. Makes total sense.

Desensitization Are sugar and flour addictive?

While the medical community is not in consensus about using the term “addiction” with regards to sugar and refined carbs (since we need fuel for our survival), the addiction sciences community in agreement that dopamine plays a significant role in addictions — not only with food addictions, but also sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, gaming, shopping, etc.

Highly addictive drugs like cocaine light up the brain’s pleasure center a lot, and part of the addiction, in addition to the powerful chemical interactions in the body, is the amount of dopamine the brain gets from using it.

Brain scans, however, show that sugar lights up the brain’s pleasure centers 6x more than cocaine, making the anticipation and receipt of a sweet treat more compelling than that of cocaine.

Turning back the dial on how much sugar-pleasure we need

We can learn to up-regulate our dopamine receptors, making them more sensitive to sugar’s stimulus, by gradually decreasing the amount of sugar and refined carbs we consume. For some, this will be no easy task because they have become dependent on the dopamine hit from sugar and carbs to feel pleasure.

If you’re a heavy user, it is best to start gradually with reducing the amount of sugar you eat, as you don’t want those feelings of deprivation to kick in. If you drink two sodas or energy drinks per day, start by cutting back to one. Then, after a week or two or three, cut it out all together and replace it with unsweetened seltzer. It is worth mentioning that soda, energy drinks and sweetened tea have the double-whammy of both a sugar-dopamine hit a jolt from the caffeine. If you’re trying to kick the soda habit I would start by getting your caffeine from another source (say, unsweetened coffee or tea), so that you can isolate the sugar dependency first.

Dr. Andrea Grayson is a behavior change consultant and teaches in the Masters of Public Health Program in the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. She is committed to educating people about the harms of sugar and helping them quit. More at https://breakingfreefromsugar.com.

Originally published at https://breakingfreefromsugar.com on November 12, 2020.

Andrea is a Communications Consultant and Professor in the MPH program at UVM. She is creator of BreakingFreefromSugar.com. More info at: AndreaGrayson.com

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