Sugar and Dopamine: The Link Between Sweets and Addiction

Sugar and Dopamine: The Link Between Sweets and Addiction

Wellness Retreat on January 19, 2017

In the past few years, several studies have been published claiming that sugar is just as addictive as drugs like cocaine and heroin. These publications cited research that showed that 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.

Sugar and Dopamine

This sugar vs. drugs studies may cause a lot of people, especially addicts and alcoholics, to scoff. Heroin and cocaine can end in homelessness, jail, and fatal overdose- no one has ever heard of a case of someone pawning family heirlooms in order to buy their next box of Double Stuff. 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 behavior. However, there is a link between sugar and dopamine, the same chemical that illicit drugs produce in the body. 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 in early recovery.

How Addiction Works

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. 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

Sugar and dopamine are also heavily linked. When an individual eats sugar the brain produces huge levels of dopamine (the reward chemical), similarly to the way the brain reacts to 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 because for most of human history it was important to eat a lot for survival. With modern food technology and the widespread availability of high-calorie foods, at least in Western nations, this is no longer necessary for survival, but 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. Over time, this can mimic the effects of addiction and create high tolerance and cravings for sugar, and even 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.

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. Some people may be concerned about their cravings for sugar and dopamine in early sobriety and feel guilty for 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 be gradually broken over time, but the most important thing is staying away from alcohol and drugs. Shaming oneself for eating too much sugar is counterproductive- this habit can be changed over time. Most alcoholics and addicts experience a slow, healthy adjustment in eating behaviors after some time in recovery. At Wellness Retreat Recovery, the 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, 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.