Sugar is a Drug
Written By: Kevin Cann
No one will argue the fact that heroin, morphine, and pain killers are highly addictive substances. They become addictive due to their ability to suppress pain, reduce anxiety, and can even cause us to have a higher sense of joy. There is another opiate that most of us consume on a daily basis that may be just as addicting, and that is sugar.
Opioid receptors are located in the brain and the spinal column. They are 7 transmembrane-spanning, G protein-coupled receptors. They are responsible for aiding neurotransmitters and hormones, the most well known being our endorphins. Addictive substances work by enacting upon these receptor sites (Waldhoer, 2004). To further understand this, let us look at heroin addiction.
Basically, heroin increases the amount of dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for energy, memory, and focus. Our system has a checks and balances process. When dopamine is released, we also release GABA to counteract it. The problem with heroin is it enacts upon the opioid receptor responsible for GABA. This disallows GABA to do its job. We are then left with a dopamine surge left unbalanced. This brings about sustained energy and feelings of euphoria. Here is a link that explains it in a little further detail and also has a chart for any visual learners, http://www.cnsforum.com/imagebank/item/moa_heroin_mu/default.aspx. If we are dopamine deficient, this can lead to addiction according to Kenneth Blum’s Reward Deficiency Syndrome.
High sugar foods can cause similar reactions as what we see with heroin. Excessive amounts of sugar (as well as fat) can lead to the release of increased amounts of dopamine. This is the same as with heroin (Avena, 2009). Sugar also inhibits the release of GABA from pancreatic beta cells (Wang, 2005). The pancreatic beta cells also release insulin, so this mechanism is important for a couple of reasons. GABA being released from those pancreatic cells shows that it may play a role in regulating insulin. Also, GABA needs to be released to balance out the dopamine. This could lead to diabetes and weight gain.
High sugar foods can also be the cause of binge eating. They enact upon the opioid receptors that help control our appetite (Avena, 2009). This means that everything in moderation may not work for everyone. Studies have shown that opioid receptor antagonists are beneficial to treating obesity.
One study performed by Yeomans placed 20 male volunteers on 50mg of the opioid antagonist naltrexone. Appetite was monitored by determining how much food was left, and the volunteers also made appetite ratings after every 50g consumed. Pasta with tomato sauce, and pasta with a tomato and cheese sauce were the meals. The subjects ate significantly less when taking the naltrexone compared to the initial day and the placebo condition (Yeomans, 1997).
When beginning a weight loss protocol these are important mechanisms to understand. Addictive habits can be very difficult to kick, and there is a lot more at play then just willpower. Seeking the help of a healthcare practitioner to determine any neurotransmitter deficiencies and to apply appropriate nutritional supplementation should be the first step. Certain amino acid therapies can be used to help restore neurochemical balance. Julia Ross and her colleagues have utilized these treatments to treat addiction successfully for 30 years, so there is hope. Also, having a talk with the people you eat your meals with is important. Would you have a beer with an alcoholic? Most likely you would not. Explaining to your family and friends the reason behind your weight loss goals may help them to understand that being around addictive foods may be problematic for you. This can decrease the availability as well as the temptation.
We live in a world where processed, high sugar foods are highly available. A lot of us are typically on the run, and constantly stressed for time. This makes grabbing that muffin and that sandwich for lunch much easier and more tempting. This can lead to blood sugar swings, food addiction, and binge eating, none of which are going to help us lose weight if that is our goal. For some of us that have struggled losing weight in the past, we need to identify and treat our food addictions so that we can succeed in the future. A study by Marabia stated that “addicts have the same caloric intake as non-addicts. However, addicts tend to replace foods that are rich in fats and proteins with foods rich in sucrose and relatively poor in vitamins and minerals” (Morabia, 1989). Does this sound like anyone you know? Sound like any children you know?
We introduce cereal grains and dairy products right off the bat to our children. The gluten from grain products and the casein from dairy products contain morphine like substances on top of the increased appetite, increased dopamine, and decreased GABA. Could this be why the obesity rate, depression rate, rates of ADHD, etc. continue to climb? Have we just been creating a society addicted to sugar, and if so, how do we go about correcting it? The answer seems to be more difficult and more dynamic then just counting calories and exercising more.