Sugar and Dopamine: The Link Between Sweets and Addiction
Several published studies claim that sugar is just as addictive as drugs like cocaine and heroin. These publications cite research that shows lab rats are just as and sometimes more likely to choose Oreos over injections of drugs like morphine when given the choice. This is due to the link between sugar and dopamine, the “pleasure and reward” chemical in the brain.
Giving into Sugar’s Dopamine Response in Early Recovery
These sugar vs. drugs studies may cause a lot of people, especially addicts and alcoholics, to scoff. Heroin and cocaine can lead to homelessness, jail, and fatal overdose- no one ever hears a case of someone pawning family heirlooms in order to buy their next box of Double Stuffed. There’s validity to the argument that refutes these studies- lab rats are different than humans, human possess higher reasoning skills that may influence choices, and the market for drugs and cookies are vastly different (which most certainly influences consumption).
However, there is a link between sugar and dopamine, the same chemical that releases in the body during illicit drug use. What this means is that sugar and drug addiction are similar in a lot of surprising ways. And for newly sober addicts and alcoholics, the chemical process of addictive substance use in the brain can cause intense sugar cravings during early recovery.
How Dopamine Relates to Addiction
When an individual engages in a behavior that the brain perceives as beneficial to survival (due to thousands of years of evolution and basic instinct), it produces a chemical signal called dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that causes feelings of pleasure and happiness. The brain uses it as a reward system to reinforce certain behaviors. For example, the brain perceives sex as important for procreation. So it produces high levels of dopamine during and after sex in order to reinforce that it’s a good, useful action. And to encourage the individual to engage in that same behavior again. In comparison, drugs cause the brain to flood with dopamine and trick it into believing that drugs are necessary and important for human survival. Over time, the brain loses its ability to produce its own dopamine and depends on substances to create it. This is how addiction happens.
Sugar’s Effect on the Brain
Like sex and dopamine, sugar and dopamine are also heavily linked. When an individual eats sugar, the brain produces huge surges of dopamine. This is similar to the way the brain reacts to the ingestion of substances like heroin and cocaine. Researchers think that this might be because our bodies have adapted over time to seek out foods that are high in calories. For most of human history, it was important to eat a lot of calories in order to survive. With modern food technology and the widespread availability of high-calorie foods, at least in Western nations, this is no longer necessary for survival.
However, our brains and evolution haven’t yet caught up with that shift. So, our brains still perceive sugar as beneficial and release huge amounts of dopamine when we consume sugary, high-calorie foods. In the long term, this can mimic the effects of addiction and create high tolerance and cravings for sugar. Furthermore, can even lead to withdrawal when we cut it out of our diets. That’s why it can be so difficult to resist the urge to consume sweets like candy and cake.
The Common Link Between Sugar and Sobriety
For alcoholics and addicts, sugar cravings may be especially intense in early sobriety. That’s due to a few reasons. Alcohol has a high sugar content, so alcoholics’ bodies and brains are adjusted to a high level of sugar from daily or frequent drinking. When alcoholics get sober, the brain loses out of the daily sugar rush it is accustomed to from drinking. This can create intense cravings for sugar, and many alcoholics report overconsumption of candy and sweets during this adjustment period. Addicts who are used to another drug of choice, such as heroin, may miss the high dopamine levels produced by substances, especially in early recovery. The loss of the dopamine rush from drugs can cause the brain to crave a substitute, such as sugary foods that produce dopamine.
Dealing with both Sugar and Sobriety
Some people may be concerned about their cravings for sugar and dopamine in early sobriety. Many may even feel guilty for experiencing these cravings. There is a tendency in early sobriety to feel the need to instantly become healthy in every aspect of life, including eating habits. However, the priority in early recovery is staying sober. Eating too much sugar is a habit that can gradually change as time goes on. The most important things to stay away from are alcohol and drugs. Shaming oneself for eating too much sugar is counterproductive. Remember that you can work on this habit when you’re more comfortable with a lifestyle of sobriety.
Treatment that Addresses Both Sugar and Substance
Most alcoholics and addicts experience a slow, healthy adjustment in eating behaviors after some time in recovery. At Wellness Retreat Recovery, a main focus of treatment is holistic health. That’s why we offer therapeutic methods designed to help patients achieve optimum health in every aspect of their lives. This Including nutrition and exercise- not just regarding substances. If you are stuck in addiction or alcoholism, we can help you get sober and achieve maximum physical and emotional health through our comprehensive program that includes help with daily routines, like healthy meal preparation. If you’re ready for whole health and a fulfilling life, call us today at 888-821-0238. Or, contact us on our website.