Part One – Sugar vs. Cocaine
“Do you know how much sugar is in that?” questioned my friend as I downed what was my second can for the evening. “I’m sure too many,” I replied laughing. No stranger to healthy food or knowing just how bad junk food can be, I shrugged off the comment and continued to enjoy my sugar fix. A few days later I found myself drinking another can of coke. It got me thinking, what would happen if I gave up refined sugars? Just how hard would it be to give up something that I consumed on a daily basis since before I could remember? The answer, it was almost downright impossible.
MIT University have been investigating the addictive properties of food on the brain, and what it does to affect an individual’s mental health. Working with mice they were able to see that a particular circuit in the brain regulates the compulsion for us to consume sugar. They were able to decode our addiction to the consumption of sugar.
The chemical dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for a multitude of functions within the brain, the main function being the way we behave. In particular focussing on behaviours related to our cognition, pleasure and motivation. When we consume substances that release dopamine in the brain it causes these neurotransmitters to be released.
Professor Selena Bartlett, a neuroscientist from the University of Queensland has been investigating the effects of sugar on the limbic system. Her research reveals that sugar can “repeatedly elevate dopamine levels, which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine.”
The image to the above is a simplistic representation of the dopamine cycle within the brain, and the movement of the neurotransmitter through the brain. A major role of the Dopamine is the mediate pleasure. When we consume large amounts of sugar in one go, dopamine receptors begin to down-regulate, therefore we have less dopamine regulators. In turn we begin to increase the amount of sugar we induce in order to compensate for the lack of receptors and activate our reward system. This creates a vicious cycle of sugary addiction.
I came to realise that our brains respond to sugar in the exact same way as it responds to the consumption of recreational drugs. Some of these drugs are:
These drugs focus on the area of the brain that involves the reward system. This area of the brain is where dopamine is released. Starting to sound familiar? By releasing copious dopamine, a sense of euphoria is evoked thus leading to us creating a connection between drugs and a sense of bliss.
I started to realise how reliant I really was on sugar. I assumed this task would be easy, that giving up sugar wouldn’t be a challenge. It got me thinking… If the brain responds to drugs and sugar in the same way, does that mean that the average person is as addicted to sugar, as junkies are addicted to drugs? Are we so different?
Psychology Today 2014, ‘Addiction, substance abuse’ Retrieved Feb 3 2016. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/addiction>
Grow youthful 2008, ‘Grow youthful, health at any age’ Retrieved Feb 3 2016 <http://growyouthful.com/remedy/sugar-addiction-recovery.php>
MIT NEWS 2015, ‘Decoding sugar addiction’ Retrieved Feb 5 2016 <http://news.mit.edu/2015/decoding-sugar-addiction-0129 >
Independent 2016, ‘Sugar addiction should be treated as drug abuse’ Retrieved Feb 5 2016 < http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/sugar-has-similar-effect-on-brain-as-cocaine-a6980336.html>