Ailish Delaney unveils how sugar and dangerous drugs work the same way on the brain. An eye opening read!
Last night, I was sitting alone watching the television. My son was out with friends and my daughter was already in bed.
I was catching up on some long overdue Netflix time, and fancied something sweet. And the more I thought about it the more I wanted it. Once that thought was in my head I could not, for love nor money, forget about it.
So I decided to open a share bag of M&Ms. A share bag, mind you. Enough for two people, at least. And as I watched the drama unfolding on the T.V screen, the bag got emptier and emptier until, with disappointment, my hand met with the bottom of the bag.
I was irrationally disappointed, and when the next break between episodes came on I went in search of something else to ease the hunger. Except it wasn’t hunger at all…I had already eaten a large dinner, and a two-man packet of M&Ms, there was no way I still had room for more.
In actual truth, I felt a bit sick but I still craved something else, something sweet.
I found a bag of strawberry toffee bonbons, and once again, within 15 minutes, the bag was empty and I was mortified. I hadn’t even tasted them! And I distinctly remember eating the sweets two and even three at a time! But I couldn’t help it.
And according to extensive research, that is because sugar is a drug which is every bit as addictive as nicotine or alcohol.
The thing is, when we eat, we release a hormone called dopamine – the so-called pleasure hormone – into the part of the brain known as the reward system.
This signal is interpreted by us as pleasure, and this feel good factor makes us want to repeat the process.
This is all well and good under normal circumstances – how dull life would be without pleasure and reward, after all?
The problem comes when we eat certain foods which are designed to over stimulate the dopamine production, literally flooding the reward system with far more dopamine than we have ever, through the evolutionary process, been exposed to.
Let’s digress slightly.
A perfect example of a substance which is a ‘super stimuli’, or, in layman’s terms, one of the substances which releases too much dopamine, is cocaine. Taking cocaine floods the brain with dopamine, which makes the user want to do it over and over again.
In a slightly different way, substances such as heroin and morphine work by affecting the opioid pathways in the brain, the same pathways which are affected by painkillers such as codeine.
We’re talking about some heavy duty drugs here, wouldn’t you agree?
So, what about when I tell you that sugar works in exactly the same way?
Foods high in sugar are also classified as super stimuli substances, and they cause the body to keep craving more and more of the same. Just like cocaine, and heroin, and morphine.
Cravings vs Hunger
Have you ever finished a big meal, enough to satisfy even the most voracious of appetites, only to still feel hungry and look for something else to eat?
Here’s the thing – you’re not still hungry! It’s not hunger pangs you’re feeling, it’s cravings, and they are two totally separate things.
Hunger is all about fulfilling your body’s energy needs. Cravings are about the brain, looking for a reward.
And because sugar works on the part of the brain which is associated with addictions, it will keep looking for more and more.
Sugar is addictive. Building a tolerance
You’ve seen or heard stories of drug addicts who need to take more and more of their drug of choice to get the same ‘high’ because they have built up a tolerance for it?
Well, it’s the same for sugar.
What happens is the reward system in the brain, when overly stimulated, (super stimuli, remember?), shuts down some of its receptors, so you eat more and more of the same substance to try and recreate that ‘high’, that feel good feeling.
The problem is, you don’t necessarily reach that high, so you keep upping the amount. This tolerance is one of the biggest indicators of addiction, whether that is to drugs, alcohol or sugar.
Swapping one for another
One of the biggest arguments for sugar being classified as a drug comes in the form of laboratory tests on rats.
Lab rats were fed a diet of sugar until they became dependent on it. They were then taken off the sugar, and fed cocaine and amphetamines, and guess what? No difference! The cross over from sugar to cocaine was seamless, proving that sugar and cocaine work in exactly the same way on the brain.
Along with the tolerance mentioned above, this ‘cross-sensitisation’ is also a classic hallmark of addictive substances.
It’s so bad for you
Ok, so we all know that eating junk food and sugar laden foods is bad for us.
The health implications of eating these foods are serious – heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay, weight gain, liver failure, kidney disease and pancreatic cancer can all be developed as a result of eating too much sugar.
The knock on effect from these can also be catastrophic – both obesity and diabetes are known risk factors in Alzheimer’s, and gum disease has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.
Just as drug users know that heroin and cocaine are bad for them and may well kill them, so do sugar addicts.
But we still do it. Yet another commonality between drugs and sugar – we know the risks but we can’t stop doing it.
Sugar can be every bit as harmful to us as illegal drugs. Just because we are not snorting it up the nose, or injecting it into our veins, doesn’t make it any the less dangerous. In fact, you could argue that it is more dangerous because of its easy availability, not just to adults but to children.
Young children can go into any shop and spend their pocket money on sugar laden foods with no questions asked – in fact, we as adults actually treat them to a substance which could kill them in return for them being good.
We are literally killing them, and ourselves, with kindness.