As a serious sugar addict still struggling with my "addiction" I know first hand how difficult it is to get off sugar, and to stay off it. Part of the reason it's so hard to kick the habit is that over time our brains actually become addicted to the natural opioids that are triggered by sugar consumption. Much like the classic drugs of abuse such as cocaine, alcohol and nicotine, a diet loaded with sugar can generate excessive reward signals in the brain which can override one's self-control and lead to addiction.
One study out of France, presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, showed that when rats (who metabolize sugar much like we do) were given the choice between water sweetened with saccharin and intravenous cocaine, 94 percent chose the saccharin water. When the water was sweetened with sucrose (sugar), the same preference was observed -- the rats overwhelmingly chose the sugar water. When the rats were offered larger doses of cocaine, it did not alter their preference for the saccharin or sugar water. Even rats addicted to cocaine, switched to sweetened water when given the choice. In other words, intense sweetness was more rewarding to the brain than cocaine.
The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction to include three stages: bingeing, withdrawal and craving. Until recently, the rats had only met two of the elements of addiction, bingeing and withdrawal. But recent experiments by Princeton University scientist, Professor Bart Hoebel and his team showed craving and relapse as well. By showing that excess sugar led not only to bingeing and withdrawal, but to cravings for sweets as well, the final critical component of addiction fell into place and completed the picture of sugar as a highly addictive substance.
In stark contrast to this clinical assessment is the fact that for most of us, "something sweet" is a symbol of love and nurturance. As infants, our first food is lactose, or milk sugar. Later on, well-intended parents (me included) reward children with sugary snacks, giving them a "treat," turning a biochemically harmful substance into a comfort food. We become conditioned to need something sweet to feel complete or satisfied and continue to self-medicate with sugar as adults, using it to temporarily boost our mood or energy. But as any addict knows, one quick fix soon leaves you looking for another -- each hit of momentary satisfaction comes with a long term price.
The bottom line is that sugar works the addiction and reward pathways in the brain in much the same way as many illegal drugs. And, like other drugs, it can destroy your health and lead to all sorts of ailments including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, and premature aging. Sugar is basically a socially acceptable, legal, recreational drug, with deadly consequences -- and like with any drug addiction, you have to have a flexible but structured plan to beat it.
Here are some tips to help you cope with sugar cravings:
If you follow these guidelines, perhaps you'll be able to have an occasional 'treat'. Be realistic with yourself and remember that a slip is not a failure. Don't get down on yourself if you slip, just dust yourself off and get back in the saddle. However, if even just a little causes you to lose control, then it's best to stay away from it completely. And my ultimate tip for sugar-free bliss is to remind ourselves to find and pursue "sweet satisfaction" in nourishing experiences other than food.
Frank Lipman, M.D., is the founder and director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in NYC and the author of "REVIVE; Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again" (2009) (previously called SPENT) and "TOTAL RENEWAL; 7 key steps to Resilience, Vitality and Long-Term Health" (2003). He is the creator of Eleven Eleven Wellness, Guided Health Solutions, leading edge integrative health programs to help you feel better than ever.