The Most Unhappy of Pleasures: This Is Your Brain on Sugar
March 10, 2012
By Dr. Mercola
You sprinkle it on your cereal. Add it to your morning cup of coffee. Lovingly bake it into your children's birthday cakes...
And then, of course, it's a key part of some of our most favorite "treats" and comfort foods -- cookies, candy, soda pop, ice cream, all those "yummy" foods meant to be reserved for a special indulgence -- but which many consume on a daily basis.
Then it's hidden in most processed foods—from bologna to pretzels to Worcestershire sauce to cheese spread.
Even most infant formulas contain it.
I'm talking about sugar, of course, and to put it all into perspective, based on USDA estimates the average American consumes 12 teaspoons of sugar a day, which equates to about TWO TONS of sugar during a lifetime.
Why we eat this much sugar is not difficult to understand -- it tastes good, and it gives us pleasure by triggering an innate process in your brain via dopamine and opioid signals.
What it is doing to us on both a physical and emotional level is another story entirely, and when you delve beneath the surface even slightly you'll begin to see that eating sugar may not only be making you unhealthy but also unhappy.
If You Eat Sugar, There's a Good Chance You're Addicted to It
When you eat sugar it triggers production of your brain's natural opioids -- a key ingredient in the addiction process. Your brain essentially becomes addicted to stimulating the release of its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin.
As written by Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, in The Atlantic:
"... the war on drugs has taken a back seat, but not because it has been won. Rather, because a different war has cluttered the headlines -- the war on obesity. And a substance even more insidious, I would argue, has supplanted cocaine and heroin. The object of our current affliction is sugar. Who could have imagined that something so innocent, so delicious, so irresistible -- just one glucose molecule (not so sweet) plus one fructose molecule (very sweet) -- could propel America toward economic deterioration and medical collapse?"
Researchers have speculated that the sweet receptors (two protein receptors located on your tongue), which evolved in ancestral times when the diet was very low in sugar, have not adapted to the seemingly unlimited access to a cheap and omnipresent sugar supply in the modern diet. Therefore, the abnormally high stimulation of these receptors by our sugar-rich diets generates excessive reward signals in your brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, thus leading to addiction.
Dr. Lustig continues:
"The brain's pleasure center, called the nucleus accumbens, is essential for our survival as a species... Turn off pleasure, and you turn off the will to live... But long-term stimulation of the pleasure center drives the process of addiction... When you consume any substance of abuse, including sugar, the nucleus accumbens receives a dopamine signal, from which you experience pleasure. And so you consume more. The problem is that with prolonged exposure, the signal attenuates, gets weaker. So you have to consume more to get the same effect -- tolerance.
And if you pull back on the substance, you go into withdrawal. Tolerance and withdrawal constitute addiction. And make no mistake, sugar is addictive."
Like many types of addictions, sugar addiction can in fact be deadly. Evidence is mounting that sugar is a primary contributing factor causing not only obesity and diabetes, but other chronic and lethal diseases. There's really no doubt anymore that sugar is indeed toxic to your body, and it's only a matter of time before it will be commonly accepted as a causative factor in most cancer, in the same way that now we accept without question that smoking and alcohol abuse are direct causes of lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, respectively.
Sugar's Pleasurable Effect is Only Fleeting…
Sugar may taste good in the moment it is consumed, but its cumulative impact on your health may leave a bad taste in your mouth…
Of all the molecules capable of inflicting damage in your body, sugar molecules are probably the most damaging. Fructose, in particular, is an extremely potent pro-inflammatory agent that creates harmful advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and speeds up the aging process. It also promotes the kind of dangerous growth of fat cells around your vital organs (visceral fat) that are the hallmark of diabetes and heart disease. Sugar/fructose also increases your insulin and leptin levels and decrease the receptor sensitivity for both of these vital hormones, and these hormonal abnormalities are a major factor in premature aging and age-related chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease.
Keep in mind that while it's perfectly normal for your blood sugar levels to rise slightly after every meal, it is not natural or healthy when your blood sugar levels become excessively elevated and stay that way -- which is exactly what will happen if you're eating like the typical American, who consumes a staggering 2.5 pounds of sugar a week on average!
And when you add in other low-quality carbohydrate-rich foods such as white bread, sugar, pasta, pastries, cookies, and candy, which also break down to sugar (starch is broken down into glucose) in your body and often contain added sugar as well, it's not so difficult to see why so many Americans are in such poor health.
This high-sugar (high-carb) diet is what's driving the obesity epidemic—not diets high in fat, as is commonly assumed. An infographic created by Column Five for Massive Health, based on Why We Get Fat by science writer Gary Taubes, explains why. In short, carbs, like fructose and other sugars, destroy your insulin and leptin sensitivity, which in turn cause your cells to accumulate more fat, and makes it more difficult to get rid of the extra weight as well.
IMAGE COURTESY OF MASSIVE HEALTH. READ ABOUT THIS INFOGRAPHIC
Eating Sugar Really is an "Unhappy Pleasure"
Dr. Lustig was spot on when he called sugar "the most unhappy of pleasures." Because if eating sugar leads to poor health, and poor health ultimately leads to unhappiness, where will those few short-lived moments of artificial pleasure get you? They won't get you happiness, that's for sure. But they will perpetuate the addiction cycle, making you crave more and more sugar, and ultimately (and ironically) speed your journey to potential misery.
So what can you do about all of this? Stop eating sugar, for one. Dr. Lustig writes:
"As we have spent the last 30 years pursuing sugar for pleasure, we have become most decidedly unhappy. Our society has lost sight of the difference. Coca-Cola's most recent marketing tagline is "Open Happiness." Couldn't be further from the truth. As our obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and dementia rates continue to skyrocket due to our sugar over-consumption, the idea that a bottle of Coke holds the key to happiness is nothing short of pulp propaganda."
How to Kick Your Sugar Cravings
I realize that, due to its addictive nature, cutting down can be a real challenge for some, especially if you're consuming very high amounts. If you're struggling with sugar addiction, I highly recommend trying an energy psychology technique called Turbo Tapping, which has helped many "soda addicts" kick their sweet habit, and it should work for any type of sweet craving you may have. A couple of other tricks to try to kick your sugar cravings:
- Exercise: Anyone who exercises intensely on a regular basis will know that significant amounts of cardiovascular exercise is one of the best "cures" for food cravings. It always amazes me how my appetite, especially for sweets, dramatically decreases after a good workout. I believe the mechanism is related to the dramatic reduction in insulin levels that occurs after exercise.
- Organic, black coffee: Coffee is a potent opioid receptor antagonist, and contains compounds such as cafestrol -- found plentifully in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee -- which can bind to your opioid receptors, occupy them and essentially block your addiction to other opioid-releasing foods.1,2 This may profoundly reduce the addictive power of other substances, such as sugar.
Remember that in order to minimize your sugar intake, you need to avoid most processed foods, as most contain added sugar. Even savory foods like salad dressing, soup, and bread often contain sugar. For optimal health, eat natural whole foods primarily, and limit your fructose consumption to below 25 grams per day.
If you still want to use a sweetener occasionally, the sweet herb stevia makes a good sugar substitute. (Avoid ALL artificial sweeteners, which can damage your health even more quickly than sugar.)