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,  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.








Categories: General


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  1. says

    Sugar is not a drug. Too many people will read this headline and think it is wise to limit their fruit intake, and other healthy carbs.

    Sugar is actually good for us, and their is a reason why are body enjoys the taste, just like it does for fat.

    The problem is in the junk and processed food, where sugar and fat are added to created extremely addicting food that for many are too much to limit to moderation.

    I understand what you are trying to say, I just don’t want the paleo world to make the same mistake the mainstream did with fats. We already see most in the paleosphere back pedaling on carbs, like Robb’s awesome post yesterday. Let’s not make the same mistake w/ sugar (and fructose).

  2. T Brack says

    Just because sugar impacts the dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain does not make it a drug. Any substance or activity that is perceived as pleasurable impacts the reward centers of the brain and raises dopamine levels. Food, exercise, video games, sex, and yes, drugs like heroin and cocaine all impact the dopamine reward pathways which are essential for shaping behavior in animals.

    In moderation this reward system encourages healthy behavior. In excess it can cause patterns of maladaptive behavior that we call addiction. So it may be accurate to say sugar is addictive in large quantities, but that doesn’t make it a drug.

    • raydawg says

      If you believe that, try giving it up for 30 days and consume nothing with any form of sugar in it.

      See how long before you start craving it. If you don’t crave it, you aren’t addicted, and it isn’t a drug.

      • LS says

        Actually if human beings need sugar to survive, they will crave it. Glucose, fructose, galactose…all forms of ‘sugar’ in a natural diet.

    • says

      I believe part of the problem is the way we confuse and interchange the words habit and addiction. While there may or may not be a chemical addiction to sugar particularly simple sugars, there still can be a physical or psychological addiction created by habitual abuse that triggers the same chemical response in the brain as a chemical addiction.

  3. Sean says

    Awesome perspective pbo, I totally agree, sugar is seemingly starting to be the “new” saturated fat it’d be great if we prevented that from happening.

  4. erikJ says

    Agree with the above comments, just because it triggers a dopamine response does not make it automatically a dangerous addictive drug. there are many people that can consume and use sugar to their advantage heath wise. This article is a step in a direction where sugar becomes evil(judgment) rather than just a carbohydrate that needs to be understood as dose specific for each individual the same as protein and fat. The point of education based articles on this site and others is to inform and give people the tools to tailor their diets to their own specific health needs/goals. I respect your view but find this article to be a step in the wrong direction. Lets educate not intimidate.

  5. says

    Well, anything that you put into your body is a drug. If it causes some kind of effect inside your body, it is by definition a drug. Water and oxygen are drugs. Sugar just happens to be an addictive and health-destroying drug that people have no clue about.

    In the context of a predominantly primal mode of nutrition, exercise and lifestyle, a handful of berries, some pasta, or even a cup of ice cream once in a while won’t hurt nothin’ but generally, carbs are bad stuff. Particularly fructose, pbo…

    What is this paleosphere you refer to? As far as I know, health/nutrition bloggers are *individuals* with differing opinions on specific issues, even when they agree on fundamentals.

    Robb’s been yammering on about Sweet potatoes forever (pardon the pun), Paul Jaminet is all about potatoes, Dave Asprey chases a modafinil with yak’s milk, I smoke a doobie once a while. Doesn’t change the fact that sugar is harmful and addictive…

    • erikJ says

      “Sugar just happens to be an addictive and health-destroying drug that people have no clue about. ”

      This is a bit of a stretch. Frequent over-consumption of sugar can have health/metabolically damaging effects, but to call it addictive and health damaging is logical fallacy.
      While it is true that abuse of sugar can lead to health problems, This is also true with fat. The point is that just because it has abuse potential is no reason to make it an “evil” drug.
      If you are an athlete/body builder or endurance athlete, than sugar can be very useful in restoring glycogen. Waiting for the glycogen to be replaced by Gluconeogenesis could cost muscle tissue. and eating 300g of carbs from potatoes is A LOT of potatoes.
      If you are 400lbs than sugar can be health compromising. It is dose specific to the individual needs of the person. Calling carbs bad is judgmental and not true for everyone.

      • Elliott says

        Sugar preferentially fills liver glycogen stores whereas the 300g of sweet potato will go first to muscle glycogen. Sugar can be addictive because we are evolutionarily programmed for it and that’s the reason it releases the dopamine response.

  6. Trevor says

    I struggle with sugar addiction and a deficiency in GABA. I start taking GABA and I have half the struggle with sugar. And if I properly face my anxieties then I really don’t have as much of a battle. I’m also allergic to sugar. The last time I had it my nose ran, my throat got sore and I had more troubles breathing. The argument about whether it’s a drug or not, isn’t something I care so much about. And all addictions have similar things and yet can be very different. I can’t really say which are worse or better addictions. And I’m not going to say that everyone should never have sugar. However, with the current health situation of the US and Canada, I would say sugar is definitely one of the big problems with our diet. It’s also the one addiction that most people won’t look down on you for. In fact, if you are lean like me, people actually think there is something wrong for you eating healthy.

  7. Maggie says

    I happen to agree with Kevin. I am extremely addicted to the sugar in highly processed foods. When I was beginning my paleo journey about 6 months ago, I kept those types of foods (cereal, bread, poptarts, whatever) because my husband was not about to go paleo at the time. I found that whatever willpower I might have had diminished when I had a crappy day and then I spotted the sugary swiss cake roll in the cupboard. I finally had to sit my husband down (he happens to be a recovering alcoholic) and ask him what he would do if I stuck a bottle of captain morgan in the cupboard. He, of course, said he would have a hard time not drinking it. I feel that it is the same for me. If you control your environment, and set yourself up for success, theres no easy possibility to backslide. BUT, to this day, I don’t trust myself with sugar or any other sweetener for that matter. I can feel it setting off an emotional or mental response to that stuff. I think going paleo kicked my physical cravings for sugary treats, but my addictive nature still remembers how damn good it feels. In fact, I recently had a toothache and ibuprofen was not working and I had a piece of bread knowing exactly what it does. And, surprise surprise, it took away the pain for a couple hours. Weird…

  8. Katelyn says

    Wheat and gluten are drugs. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are two of the most nutrient dense foods on earth and fantastic sources of nutrients, much more so than butter and bacon grease. I couldn’t be an athlete and get all my potassium, magnesium, etc. without FANTASTIC PALEO STARCHES.

  9. Matt Jarosz says

    I ditched the faileo boat a while back for copious amounts of sugar from fruits and other things like ice cream, I’ve eliminated omega 3s from fish, most unsaturated fats, nearly all PUFAs.

    my depression is alleviating, i’m running around like a kid again after I became used to a slow subsistence living paleo, the weights are going up.

    shit, I must be close to death though, but my doctor said I was fine *shrugs*

    Oh yeah, I’m also no longer lactose intolerant, I actually kind of eat like a normal person. but all you guys are obviously too metabolically destabilized.

    I remember the years of agony on this diet, all the tinkering, all I wanted was just a little sugar, but I was wrong, like a heroin addict wanting his fix, my body was wrong.

    now i know that’s bullshit, i’m no longer subsiting on dogmatic truths in new forms, new studies all pertinent to an idealogy, whereas relevance may be nil to none in humans or even further, in the individual. end the hermitage, most of you aren’t dead yet, and live life away from the computer screen. with all of this site to be taken as a consideration, as you don’t fully understand what you’re reading, you foxnews sheeple equivalents

    • says

      When was fruit banned on paleo?
      You were not lactose intolerant before paleo, then were? Why were you eating lactose on paleo?
      Fish is dangerous? Please, do share.
      I thought the Rx was to try things for 30 days, tinker and seer what worked…how did you miss all that given the ubiquity of this message?

      Sounds like you have much to say, please use your words.

    • Maggie says

      Hey now, Foxnews sheeple is a bit harsh. People come to this website for valuable support and information. As far as I’m concerned, the way I live my life on the outside of this computer screen would be 100% shittier were it not for the people on this blog and their “dogmatic truths”. Not cool, man…

  10. kevin cann says

    In my article I did mention we were talking about high sugar foods, or overconsumption of sugar and processed foods. I am a firm believer in the “safe” starch, but it needs to be consumed in amounts that fit an individual’s metabolic needs and activity level. For the athletic and lean individual some mashed potatoes are more then likely ok. However, there are instances where someone’s metabolic condition may make it more appropriate for them to leave out, or limit the starch. Again, we are talking about overconsumption of sugar and how it effects us on a chemical level. Not everyone has these addictions. However, if someone is defficient in dopamine, gets a dopamine high from sugar food (even potatoes) it can increase cravings of glucose to keep that biochemical balance. Know anyone who can just crush a serving of mashed potatoes? I do. I am not against dairy either as long as it is whole fat and preferably not pasteurized. However, there are some people who will crush dairy products. Know that persone who loooves their cheese? This may stall weight loss in those people. There are always individual differences with all of this stuff. Some people do well on higher carb and some like myself do better on a lower carb with postworkout blast of carbs. I have had a lot of clients who have fallen off of the wagon because of a one time overconsumption of sugar. Just some ideas to keep in mind.

  11. Trent Black says

    Sugar acts like a drug. Sugar + fat eaten at meals = fat people. Try it. As for if something is healthy for you, it all depends on your fuel source. If you using sugar, saturated fats are bad and too much sugar is bad. If you are in ketosis, sugar is bad.

    When it comes to fruit, notice that fruits are NOT available to most of us year around. We ship them to us. I don’t think your precious caveman had fast ships full of fruit.

    Sugar ruins the bacteria in the digestive tract. Now will become constipated over time, because feces are 80% good bacteria (like acidophilus). Sugar also messes up your bodies transport of vitamin C. So even eating fruit does not guarantee you tons of vitamin C. And we have not even gotten into the RDA’s insane potassium requirements.

    Steve Jobs was on a cave man diet, and got pancreatic cancer. The actor that played Steve Jobs went on the Cave Man diet, combined fruits with fats, and complained of pancreatic issues. I am pretty sure you never want to combine fats with fruits.

    Which takes us back to the beginning. FATS + SUGAR = FAT PEOPLE. Fruits were made to fatten you up for winter. They are here for a short time, then are gone. That is because you will always eat sugar over fats, period.

    (note: if you are in the tropics, the hot weather changes things a bit, but most of us don’t live in the tropics).

  12. Lucas says

    Naturally occurring sugar is the sugar found in whole, unprocessed foods, such as milk, fruit, vegetables and some grains. The most common natural sugars are fructose, which is found in fruit, and lactose, which is found in milk products.

    Added sugar is the sugar added to processed food and drinks while they are being made, as well as sugar you may add to your food at home.

    There are serious health consequences to consuming added sugar. Too much added sugar in your diet can contribute to tooth decay, obesity, difficulty controlling type 2 diabetes, higher triglyceride levels, lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL, also called “good”) cholesterol levels, and heart disease.

  13. LS says

    I’d just like to bring to everyone’s attention here…that the sugar that is found in nearly all vegetables, all fruits, is fructose, glucose &/or sucrose. Table sugar, the stuff added to crap foods, is sucrose, which is extracted from sugar beets and sugar cane – two natural vegetables.

    Point is, you can either eat the sucrose (sugar) in refined crap foods, where it is in a highly concentrated form – but still from vegetables – or, you can eat the sucrose (sugar) in a less concentrated form – in the whole fruits and vegetables, with more fiber, water and nutrients. You are still consuming sucrose (sugar) regardless. You cannot get around eating sugar – it is impossible, unless you are willing to live with an eating disorder, or on a calorie deficient diet, which leads to slowed metabolisms and lack of energy, both of which contribute to weight loss.

    For those that doubt, google ‘chemical composition of glucose fructose sucrose’, and compare the molecular structure of each.

    • Kelly says

      Table sugar is actually a combination of glucose and fructose. The problem is not sugar really, but rather the amount, and the refined nature of it. The artificial colors and chemicals in the ‘foods’ and ‘drinks’ that it’s added to, are often more of a problem.

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