How Addictive Is Sugar?
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC
Confession: I keep a bag of Jolly Rancher candies in the drawer of my desk.
And no, I don’t use them as rewards for getting certain tasks done. I use them to keep myself going when a) I’m in a bad mood, or b) I’d rather be napping.
There’s nothing quite like letting those hard little candies fill my mouth, my entire face, and of course my brain, with the sweet sensations of sugar. It’s refreshing in its own special way.
It’s instances like these where I sometimes find myself wondering, what in the world would I do without sugar?
A Brief Overview of What Sugar Is
Sugar is basically any carbohydrate that exists in the form of sucrose, dextrose, and lactose, which occurs naturally in many plants. The most common refined sugar is white sugar; brown sugar and raw sugar are less processed forms. It can also be found in fruit (fructose) and honey (mostly glucose).
Considered a “simple carbohydrate” because your body breaks it down into individual glucose molecules, once ingested, sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream where cells can use it for energy. Over time, if you eat too much of it, your body can develop resistance against insulin—the hormone that regulates how cells use blood sugar. This causes your pancreas to overcompensate by producing more insulin than usual. For some this can eventually lead to type II diabetes.
It’s clear that excessive sugar consumption has some pretty serious consequences, but why do we even crave so much sugar in the first place?
How Sugar Cravings Work
There’s a reason why we crave sugary foods when we’re anxious, stressed, or depressed. To sum it up, sugar stimulates our brains’ pleasure centers because dopamine is released when you eat something sweet.
Two specific regions in the brain called the hypothalamus and the nucleus accumbens play an important role in processing sugar. The “liking” system controlled by the hypothalamus processes how much you enjoy something, while the “wanting” system is how the nucleus accumbens responds to motivation signals. These two regions work together to increase how much you like something and how motivated you are to get it.
Of course, this contributes to why we seek out sugary foods. And when we stop consuming it for a while, the lack of dopamine can impact our mood. And the fastest way to get rid of that low mood? Eat more sugar. When we eat sugar, our brains release dopamine in anticipation of the pleasure, which encourages us to repeat the behavior; and the cycle continues.
The Role of Insulin
Sugar releases insulin, the hormone responsible for appetite control. When you eat something sweet, your brain gets the signal to produce more insulin, which minimizes how much you want to eat.
This is a good thing, but when this happens, your brain doesn’t get the same level of satisfaction. There’s less of a dopamine hit.
So if you’re feeling down, and you eat too much sugar to try and cope, your dopamine receptors won’t adjust and level out properly. Your sugar tolerance will go up, you’ll end up eating more sugar to compensate, but you won’t get the same level of satisfaction. You’ll want more and more sugar, until your blood sugar levels are so high that it does damage to your body.
Sugar, it seems, has some real power over our minds and our bodies.
Is Sugar Addiction Real?
“Addiction” may be a strong word to use, but countless scientific studies have found evidence that sugar does indeed have addictive qualities. In one of those studies, researchers found that foods high in sugar can be more addictive than cocaine—particularly in those who are hypersensitive to sweetness.
Much of it comes down to how the brain responds to pleasure stimulation. Since the 1950s, a number of experiments have been carried out on how rats respond to the sensation of pleasure over nourishment from food.
In some of these experiments, they would give a rat access to two levers: one that, when pulled, would electrically stimulate the rat’s brain’s pleasure center, and another that would give it a food pellet. The rats would almost always choose the lever that stimulated their brains over one that gives them nourishment. Scientists have seen rats choose to stimulate their brains hundreds of times per hour for up to 20 hours until they collapse from exhaustion while ignoring the lever which would give them a pellet.
We’re not rats, but our brains function in similar ways. Our brains are wired to seek pleasure time and time again, which is exactly what sugar provides.
You might wonder whether there are any withdrawal symptoms that come from limiting your sugar intake, or quitting it altogether. The short answer is yes, but how severe these effects are can vary from person to person. How much sugar you consume, and how often you consume it, can play a big role in how your body responds when you decide to limit or stop consuming it.
Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms include fatigue, headaches, and mood swings. The good news is that these symptoms are typically short-lived, similar to the withdrawal symptoms of caffeine addiction.
How Sugar Can Negatively Impact Your Mood and Mental Health
If you struggle with sugar’s addictive qualities, you might notice that you feel really good during and shortly after you consume it, but worse in the long-term. Here’s how sugar may really be impacting you:
Stress and anxiety: Eating sugar triggers a chemical reaction in your body that increases the amount of the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline in your system. As a result, you may experience your body’s “fight or flight” response to stress more often than normal, which can lead to increased feelings of stress, anxiety, and even depression.
Depression: Sugar affects how the body uses amino acids that are responsible for mood regulation. In people with low levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness), blood sugar imbalances have been shown to affect how they respond to anxiety and depression.
Fatigue: Consuming high-sugar foods creates an immediate rush of energy, making you feel hyperactive. But after the initial high, there’s a crash. You may feel sluggish and fatigued on both a mental and physical level.
Memory: Sugar triggers the release of insulin, a hormone that directs your liver how to distribute energy throughout your body. The process robs other organs such as the brain of fuel they need for normal functioning. As a result, you may experience problems with memory and concentration.
Irritability: When you eat a high-sugar meal, blood sugar levels increase, causing your body to release insulin. Insulin decreases the amount of sugar in your bloodstream, and when sugar levels drop, you experience irritability and mood fluctuations.
Sleep problems: Eating sugary foods too close to bedtime can also interfere with sleep by disrupting the body’s release of serotonin, which is necessary for restful sleep. A blood sugar drop can cause your body to release adrenaline, which may disrupt your sleep cycle.
Is Sugar Really That Bad?
It’s important to keep in mind that sugar doesn’t have to be avoided at all costs. After all, sugar is the body’s simplest source of energy, and there are some natural sugars in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products that our bodies need to function.
Sugar also does have nutritional value when it’s part of a complex carbohydrate found in whole foods. Eating fresh produce also helps increase serotonin levels in the body.
It’s mostly the refined types of sugar in processed foods and beverages that you need to watch out for. It’s devoid of nutrients and more likely to cause blood sugar spikes.
How To Reduce The Negative Mental Health Effects Of Sugar
You don’t necessarily need to quit sugar cold turkey to get your mood and mental health back on track. Although cutting back may be beneficial depending on how much you’re consuming, there are a variety of other steps you can take to break addictive tendencies and feel more balanced:
Be aware of how much sugar is in your favorite foods: Get in the habit of reading the nutritional labels of your favorite pre-packaged foods, or use a nutritional app to easily look up popular foods.
Eat a healthy breakfast: Breakfast can help give you more energy throughout the day, which may help reduce how often you crave sugary snacks. If you don’t have time for breakfast, grab something that’s healthy on the go that includes protein and complex carbs—like a banana with nut butter or an apple with string cheese.
Monitor how your body feels after eating sugary foods: Sometimes we think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty. Drink a glass of water to see how your body reacts before eating sugar. Slow down, relax and read how you’re feeling.
Be mindful of your portions: Consuming too much sugar at one time causes a spike in blood-sugar levels, followed by a crash that can leave you feeling tired and sluggish. Try eating smaller portions at meals and snack times to help your blood-sugar levels stay more consistent.
Keep your blood sugar levels balanced: Blood sugar levels can be balanced by eating protein and complex carbohydrates, which help the body better distribute blood sugar throughout your body. Eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean proteins (fish or chicken) and low-fat dairy products or calcium-fortified soy products. And if you are going to eat some sugar, be mindful of how much you’re consuming throughout the day—especially if you are stressed or prone to mood swings.
Understand how much sugar is in fruit: Fruit contains natural sugars, which isn’t a bad thing, but it can affect you if you have too much. Choose fruits that are high in fiber like berries, apples, grapefruit, and oranges while staying mindful of fruits that are higher in sugar—like bananas, pineapples, mangoes, pears, and grapes.
Eat more veggies and complex carbohydrates: Like fruit, veggies also have natural occurring sugar, but typically not as much. They also tend to offer much more fiber, which slows how quickly sugar is released into the bloodstream. Complex carbs like whole grains, beans, and legumes are also high in fiber and nutrients, which help the body better distribute blood sugar throughout your body.
Be active throughout the day: Exercise reduces stress and anxiety, boosts your energy and can help you sleep better, which in turn helps prevent mood swings that lead to sugar cravings. Try taking a 30-minute walk in the morning or after dinner, practicing yoga, or engaging in any other activity that helps you move.
Avoid eating sugar close to bedtime: The energy rush and resulting crash can make it difficult for you to fall asleep or stay asleep. Instead, try eating complex carbs that will release sugar gradually into your bloodstream—like whole-grain crackers with peanut butter, low-fat cottage cheese with pineapple chunks, or an apple with a few tablespoons of walnuts.
Our Relationship with Sugar Can Be Complicated
These days, I don’t ever really feel the need to have more than two Jolly Ranchers in one sitting, but that wasn’t always the case. There have certainly been times in my life where I ate more than my fair share of sugar-filled foods to try and satisfy intense cravings.
Sometimes, our eating habits can point toward deeper problems in our thought processes or behaviors. If you’re struggling with sugar consumption—or your eating habits in general—seek help from a professional, like a licensed therapist, to help you find your way back to a healthier state of mind and body.
Elise Burley is part of the therapist.com editorial team and has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience on a variety health topics. Over the years, she has written for several health-related ecommerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not writing, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.
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