The Role of Sugar in Addiction

sugar addiction

Addiction is a brain disease that is demonstrated through compulsive substance use. That substance could be drugs, alcohol, or even sugar. People who are addicted have an intense focus on using that substance to the point where it can take over their life, without regard to the consequences. The role of sugar in addiction is complex, as it is involved in the addiction to certain drugs and it can be an addictive substance itself.

Sugar and Drug Addiction

Research studies have determined that chronic opioid exposure is associated with increased sugar intake.  There is strong evidence that opiate use and a preference for sweets are linked. Health conditions resulting from this type of substance use can include excess body fat, weight gain, dental issues, and abnormal blood sugar levels.

When the researchers studied heroin addicts, however, they found that they were typically underweight. Their condition was more than likely a result of spending more money on drugs than on food. Those heroin addicts who underwent methadone treatment typically demonstrated significant weight gain, possibly related to strong cravings for sweets during an extended period without using heroin.

The researchers advise that, in light of the growing body of evidence linking the opioid system to food intake and risk of obesity, proper exercise and dietary habits should be reinforced with opioid-dependent patients. Opiate antagonists, like naltrexone, appear to be at least weight neutral, and possibly weight reducing, by decreasing preference for sweet foods. 

An Addiction to Sugar

When the addiction is to sugar itself, that can also cause significant health issues. The role of sweets in addiction can sometimes be that sugar is the addictive substance itself. Eating sweet items releases opioids and dopamine in the body. Dopamine is the key part of the reward circuit associated with addictive behavior.

Regardless of whether the substance is a drug, alcohol, or sugar, it causes an excess release of dopamine, which then gives that pleasurable “high” feeling. The behavior is continuously repeated to re-experience the elation. The brain then adjusts to release less dopamine and the only way to continue to get the same “high” is to repeat the substance use in increasing amounts and frequency.

More Addicting Than Cocaine

Healthcare professionals, such as Cassie Bjork, RD, LD, believe that sugar can be even more addicting than cocaine. Bjork says that “Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward center, which leads to compulsive behavior, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more.” She adds that “Every time we eat sweets, we are reinforcing those neuropathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug.”

More Socially Acceptable

While studying the role of sugar in addiction, researchers from Connecticut College found that Oreo cookies activate more neurons in the pleasure center of rats’ brains than cocaine does (and, interestingly, just like humans, the rats would eat the filling first).

Eating sugar is more socially acceptable than doing drugs or drinking alcohol excessively. Sugar is also more prevalent and available as well as being harder to avoid. Eating Oreos is typically not questioned by friends or family, even though the consumption of sugar may become addictive and detrimental to the individual’s health.

Signs of Addiction

The signs of sugar addiction are very similar to the signs of an addiction to drugs or alcohol. If you recognize any of these signs in yourself, it may be time to reach out for help.

  • You hide your sugar consumption
  • You need more and more to satisfy the craving
  • You eat it even when you’re not hungry
  • You always crave sweets
  • You crave salty foods (cravings for salty and savory foods are one way that your body might be telling you to take a break from the sugar and eat something more nutritious)
  • You try to quit and have unusual symptoms
  • You use sugar to soothe
  • You know the potential consequences and eat it anyway
  • You go out of your way to get sugar
  • You have feelings of guilt about eating it

Addiction Treatment for Men in Southern California

Addiction is a serious disease that can impact your life in many ways. PACE Recovery Center is focused on helping men who struggle with addiction begin the journey of recovery. The professionals at PACE can help you find structure, purpose, and accountability as you overcome your addictive behaviors. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you.