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the sugar-addicted brain



Sugar Addiction Brain

Ron West


Sugar Addiction Brain


“”Drugs Are No More Addictive Than Oreos”.  The specific drugs included in the study were cocaine and morphine, which is what heroin becomes immediately after injection.  So the headline also could have been: “Research Shows That Heroin and Cocaine Are No More Addictive Than Oreos.”  Putting it that way would have raised some interesting questions about the purportedly irresistible power of these drugs, which supposedly justifies using [government] force to stop people from consuming them.”  Jacob Sullum from the October 16, 2013 issue of Forbes (Research Shows Cocaine And Heroin Are Less Addictive Than Oreos)

“Sugar Has a Powerful Influence Over Our Behavior For some people there will be anatomical changes in the brain when exposed to these sorts of foods. In many cases, this can end up in full-blown addiction.   I can support this idea with some personal experiences.  I am a recovering drug addict who has been to 6 rehabs. I was also a smoker for many years and it was a long battle for me to quit. You could say that I know addiction like the back of my hand.  I’m here to tell you that addiction to sugar and junk foods is exactly the same as addiction to abusive drugs like nicotine, amphetamine and cannabis. There is no difference, except the substance of abuse is different and the consequences of relapse aren’t as severe.  There is only one thing that consistently works for true addicts to overcome their addiction and that is complete abstinence.  This is what worked for me giving up drugs and this is the only way I have ever been able to cut back on my consumption of sugar and other junk foods.  Since learning about this, I’ve spoken to several other recovering addicts and all of them say that they experience cravings for junk foods in the exact same way as they used to crave drugs and alcohol.  I personally haven’t touched sugar or gluten in about 5 months now. I’ve lost almost 30 pounds and I never crave these foods anymore.”   Kris Gunnars from How Sugar Hijacks Your Brain And Makes You Addicted.  Kris is now a personal trainer and medical student, who authors the website, Authority Nutrition.

“Research indicates that chronic drug use induces changes in the structure and function of the system’s neurons that last for weeks, months or years after the last fix. These adaptations, perversely, dampen the pleasurable effects of a chronically abused substance yet also increase the cravings that trap the addict in a destructive spiral of escalating use and increased fallout at work and at home.”   Drs. Eric J. Nestler and Robert C. Malenka from the March 2004 issue of Scientific American (The Addicted Brain).

“How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”   Jeffrey Dunn, former Coca Cola executive speaking to Tom McKay of NewsMic (What Happens to Your Brain on Sugar, Explained by Science).

“If You Eat Sugar, There’s a Good Chance You’re Addicted to It”  The header from a March 10, 2012 article (The Most Unhappy of Pleasures: This Is Your Brain on Sugar) by Dr. Joseph Mercola

“We’re all looking for something to ease the pain.”  Bryan Adams from 1984’s Somebody (Reckless)

I have written several previous articles on SUGAR / CARB ADDICTION.  If you have read them, you realize that sugar and the addiction thereof is at the root of scores of health problems.  In fact, I have repeatedly suggested that while INFLAMMATION is at the core of virtually all diseases, BLOOD SUGAR DYSREGULATION ISSUES are frequently the root of Inflammation (HERE).   I have focused quite a bit on the physical aspect of this addiction (DIABETES, OBESITY, ENDOCRINE PROBLEMS, CANCER, DYSBIOSIS, etc, etc), but the truth is, Sugar Addiction is probably harder on the brain than any other organ in the body.  Thanks to newer forms of brain scans, one of the things that we have learned over the past decade or so is that brains that are addicted to sugar look identical (or at least very similar) to the brains of people that are addicted to hard drugs — particularly COCAINE & HEROIN
Although these images show the “Obese” brain scan falling somewhere between the brain scans of those on Cocaine and Heroin, I have seen videos of brain scans where you literally cannot tell the difference.
You have to take a moment to understand what is going on in these images.  You are looking not just at functional brain changes, but structural brain changes as well.  These changes are why it takes that drug (coke, meth, heroin, gambling, sugar) to “feel that feeling“.  It can quickly become a vicious cycle.  The more drugs / sugar you consume, the better you feel (increased levels of dopamine, opiods, and other feel-good molecules made by your brain).  By the way, there are actually studies showing that pornography does the same thing to the part(s) of your brain that control sexual pleasure.  However, the body can only tolerate so much of these feel-good substances, so it decreases the numbers of receptors.  Not only do the lows get lower, but the highs get lower as well.  And as you might imagine, so does day-to-day life.  What does this do?  Of course, it triggers cravings for the drug — in this case, sugar.  Not only that, but it takes increasing amounts of the drug to achieve the same high.  Listen to some cherry-picked lines from the abstract and conclusion of a study published in the May 18, 2007 issue of Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake).
“Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential.   Components of addiction are analyzed. “Bingeing”, “withdrawal”, “craving”….. These behaviors are then related to neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs. Neural adaptations include changes in dopamine and opioid receptor binding, enkephalin mRNA expression and dopamine and acetylcholine release in the nucleus accumbens. The evidence supports the hypothesis that…. rats can become sugar dependent. This may translate to some human conditions as suggested by the literature on eating disorders and obesity. 

The concept of “food addiction” materialized in the diet industry on the basis of subjective reports, clinical accounts and case studies described in self-help books. The rise in obesity, coupled with the emergence of scientific findings of parallels between drugs of abuse and palatable foods has given credibility to this idea. The reviewed evidence supports the theory that, in some circumstances, intermittent access to sugar [bingeing] can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance abuse.

There’s not only a lot of meat here, but this study deals extensively with the Nucleus Accumbens — a specific part of the brain that has to do with motivation, desire, pleasure, reward, and addiction (it is also involved in fear, aggression, and impulsivity).  The two neurotransmitters that help make this system go are SEROTONIN & DOPAMINE.   ΔFosB (aka Delta FOSB) is the name of one of four variations of the FOS gene, and has been blamed as the chief biochemical component of all known addictions, whether behavioral or drug.  All known drugs or addictions increase the production of ΔFosB by the Nucleus Accumbens, which is known to both increase Dopamine, while at the same time decreasing Serotonin (key word in this sentence is “all“).  Listen to what the authors of The Addicted Brain (the quote from the top of the page) say about this phenomenon as it relates to sugar.  “Interestingly, delta FosB is also produced in the nucleus accumbens in mice in response to repetitious non-drug rewards, such as excessive wheel running and sugar consumption.”  There it is in black and white from two men who would know (at the time the article was written, Dr. Nestler was professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.  Dr.  Malenka was professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, after serving as director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction at the University of California, San Francisco. Together they wrote 2001’s textbook, Molecular Basis of Neuro-pharmacology).

Unfortunately, not only does ΔFosB increase the response of the reward cascade, it heightens (at least at first) the sensitivity of Dopamine itself.  This means that not only do you have more of this “feel-good” neurotransmitter in your system, but it actually works more effectively.  But it does not stop there.  According to New York’s Mount Sinai, Icahn School of Medicine this, “can induce long-lasting changes in gene expression“.  In case you are not aware of what this quote is implying; take a few moments to read up on EPIGENETICS (and HERE).  Epigenetics trumps genetics and simply means that you are not as controlled by your genetic makeup as you have always been taught.  Certain behaviors, diet, exercise, STRESS, etc, etc, etc, have the ability to turn genes off or on, depending on the situation.  Oh, and because ΔFosB is the most stable of the Fos family, it tends to stay in the Nucleus Accumbens for a long time — a very long time. 

The problem is that sugar not only changes the brain’s function (see the PET Scans above), it changes the brain’s structure.   Probably the most striking example of sugar-related brain changes is seen in scans of people with ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE.  Just the other day I had a patient from Texas telling me that as caretaker of their father who had Alzheimer’s, he constantly wanted sugar, and when he got it, became so unruly they could barely control him.  Do you remember near the top of this post I stated that, “Sugar Addiction is probably harder on the brain than any other organ in the body“?    As crazy as it sounds, ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE is so heavily linked to sugar consumption that it is frequently referred to as Type III Diabetes or Psychodiabetes.  Take a look at the PET Scans below as they connect the dots between brain function and the Amyloid Plaques which are so characteristic of Alzheimer’s, and thought to be intimately related to sugar consumption. 

Sugar Alzheimer's Brain


PET Scans of Amyloid Brain Plaques most commonly seen in those with Alzheimer’s Disease. 


The first thing any addict must do, is to admit that they have a problem.  If a person does not think they are addicted, they won’t realize that they need a solution.  If you are wondering whether or not you are a sugar addict, you probably are.  HERE and HERE are simple tests you can use to confirm a sugar addiction.  The cool thing is that both posts also give you the best ways to go about kicking your sugar addiction (hint; Kris Gunnars boiled this answer down to one word in his quote from the top of the page).  

It’s not easy, but if you cannot defeat sugar / carbs, you will not only live a miserable life, you will likely die a miserable (difficult) death.  This is because Blood Sugar Regulation Issues are being tied to almost every chronic health problem and disease under the sun (HERE).  You owe it to yourself to do whatever it takes to defeat this monster.  Don’t wait another day!  Create a plan, find one or more accountability partners, and get started today.


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