Sugar is increasingly at the centre of research and studies about human health and nutrition. Whereas in past years fat was thought to be the nutrient that caused most diet related health problems, in recent times the sweet stuff has been found to be more of a problem, the overconsumption of which can cause heart disease, obesity and contribute to the development of diabetes.

Sugar has also been at the centre of a debate about addiction, with some people believing that the substance is as addictive as illegal and recreational drugs. Others say that it is simply a tasty treat that can be easily over consumed.

We take a closer at evidence on both sides of the argument to answer the question “Is sugar addiction a real thing?”

“Yes.”

There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that when it comes to neurochemistry and sugar, the reaction within the body is frighteningly similar to that occurring when recreational drugs are consumed. This is thought to be down to the natural endogenous opioids that are released into the body when sugar intake is sensed.

Not only are the chemical reactions comparable, but the behavior of animals and humans when consuming sugar are similar to other drug induced behaviors. These include a psychological increased tolerance of the substance; withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and irritability; experiencing cravings; bingeing and reward effects [1].

This indicates that there are substantial parallels between sugar and other drug induced behaviors. Another sign that sugar addiction is a real thing is that people will consume it even when it is obviously bad for their health – the immediate physiological and emotional effects of consumption outweigh the long term negative impact, in the same way that drug users lose sight of the long term in favor of the short term feelings.

In scientific studies sugar has been found the produce more symptoms than are necessary to be classed as an addictive substance and a research project by Princeton University showed that rats displayed signs of sugar addiction, bingeing on sugar water and then showing withdrawal signs such as shaking and teeth chattering [2].

Further research has found that the effects of sugar on the body can be blocked with the same medication that blocks the actions of morphine and that sugar can act as a painkiller for adults, suggesting that it is more similar than expected to other drugs. [3]

“No.”

Although consuming sugar does create some comparable physiological effects to that of drugs, there is more to diagnosing addiction than looking at the effects that a substance has on the body. In order to develop an addiction there must be elements in a person’s life that predispose them to addictive behaviors and tendencies.

The research results that are used to support the idea of sugar addiction have been sensationalized by media and omitted facts that are key to the truth that sugar-addiction is not a diagnosable condition. When the dopamine response is triggered by sugar, it is markedly different to the response when it is triggered by drugs of abuse.

After the initial exposure, dopamine decreases quickly when triggered by sugar, but when it is triggered by other drugs it increases the longer term stimulation. In addition, repeated exposure to other drugs causes users to be desensitized, whereas this does not happen with sugar [4].

The body’s response to consuming sugar can be compared to that of other pleasurable activities such as playing video games, shopping or having sex. Overall it can be said that although the neurochemical response to sugar underpins its strong reinforcement effects, it does not affect the plasticity of the body in the same way that other drugs of abuse do.

Conclusion

Consuming sugar can certainly induce effects and behavior in people that are similar to those displayed in those with addictions to drugs of abuse. However, the neurological processes that occur when sugar is consumed compared to other drugs are significantly different, even though some of the initial feel-good sensations of relaxation are comparable.

Sugar is certainly not a substance that should be consumed in large amounts due to its effects on the body, including blood sugar spikes, the development of diabetes and fatty deposits in the arteries that can potentially lead to heart disease, stroke and cardiac arrest. Blood sugar spikes and falls can lead to mood instability, irritability and headaches and so whether sugar addiction is ‘real’ or not, it is important to maintain a low sugar intake and avoid bingeing.

If you have concerns about your sugar intake or its effects see your own physician for help and advice.

Hannah Canavan
Hannah Canavan
Researcher at DietProbe
Hannah is a health and lifestyle journalist with a passion for veganism and nutrition.
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