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 six areas:
1) Pleasure and reward system
2) Blood sugar system
3) Gut microbiome system
4) Emotion & stress response system
5) Habits & rituals
This piece is looking at the pleasure and reward system, and how it makes us prone to sugar/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
When we eat sugar and refined carbohydrates (flour), we get hits of dopamine. From an evolutionary perspective, the sweet taste is associated with fuel and survival, so we are hard-wired to want this particular flavor.
The brain uses up a LOT of energy, so it is able to create energy from two different sources: ketones and glucose. Ketones come from breaking down fat, whereas glucose is a type of simple sugar that comes from breaking down carbohydrates.
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.
It comes as no surprise that our brains would make the sweet taste pleasurable since it is tied to its survival. But nowadays, with an abundance of sweet taste all around us at all times of day and night and year-round, that survival aspect of our pleasure system has been hijacked and severely manipulated by the companies that put sugar in so much of our food. In fact, 74% of the packaged food in the supermarket contains added sugar. We are in a vicious cycle of seduction with the sweet taste: we anticipate it and then get it many times per day.
No wonder we start feeling deprived when just the idea 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.
In some people, the frequent and abundant access to sugar and carbs has “down-regulated” how much of a sugar hit you need in order to feel the same result. The brain gets used to a certain level of stimulation, then needs more to get the same effect. We see a similar desensitization process with other stimulants like coffee and alcohol. Many people start off drinking one coffee per day, but then creep up to two or three or four to maintain the same level of stimulation. Same thing with alcohol; first it’s one beer, then two, then three. Having to drink more to get the same buzz also means that our detoxing organs are working two and three times longer to process it all.
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 is in agreement that dopamine plays a significant role in addictions – not only with food addictions, but also sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, gaming, shopping, etc.
Addictions are the result of complex factors, including genetic predisposition and a lack of tone in the “stop now” system (though this can be learned when healing). One thing all addictions have in common is dopamine.
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 and 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.
The dopamine-pleasure system is only one of five ways that we can become dependent on sugar and flour. Quitting is so much easier when you address all the ways. Learn more at BreakingFreefromSugar.com.
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.