Could Sugar Be Even More Addictive Than Drugs?

Have you been trying and struggling to remove sugar from your diet?  Has that inner voice calling you to eat sugar become too loud to ignore? Could something as simple as sugar, one of the most common ingredients be more addictive than illegal drugs?

Before we look at the study, let’s understand a key hormone in the brain defined by Psychology Today. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.  

It is widely understood that dopamine, when released in large quantities form overstimulation, becomes left effective. Substances such as drugs, alcohol, and nicotine have been shown to cause a release dopamine in higher than normal quantities. This hijacks the brain’s reward system and causes the individual to become addicted to the substance.   

In 2007, French researchers conducted a study with rats to determine if there was a difference between how drugs and  sugar effect the brains reward system. The rats were allowed to choose between one of the following: Plain water, water sweetened with saccharin (artificial sugar) water sweetened with table sugar (sucrose), and cocaine.   The results didn’t take long to materialize. After the first day of sampling all of the options, well over 94% of the rats chose water sweetened with table sugar vs. all other options. Within the study were rats who were already addicted to cocaine.  These rats also preferred to consume the sugar water instead of the cocaine, despite their addiction.

The researchers now believe that sugar and saccharin can also hijack the human brain’s reward system and make the person extremely susceptible to addiction. Other studies have found very similar results time in and time out. The results are shocking.

Princeton Neurosciene Institute has also been studying sugar addiction in rats.   What the Princeton researchers discovered was not just an addiction but a behavioral pattern caused by the consumption of sugar as well as withdrawal symptoms when sugar was removed.   Lead professor Bart Hoebel said,

If bingeing on sugar is really a form of addiction, there should be long-lasting effects in the brains of sugar addicts.   Craving and relapse are critical components of addiction, and we have been able to demonstrate these behaviors in sugar-bingeing rats in a number of ways. We have the first set of comprehensive studies showing the strong suggestion of sugar addiction in rats and a mechanism that might underlie.

In one experiment, lab animals were allowed to consume sugar and developed the habit or craving for sugar.   The rats were then denied sugar for a period of time and then then sugar was reintroduced. After the reintroduction, the rats consumed even more sugar than before, just like an addict would act if they were to relapse back to their addiction.  

In other experiments, the researchers removed food from the rats while they slept and kept food away for the first 4 hours of the rats waking up.   “It’s a little bit like missing breakfast,” Hoebel said. “As a result, they quickly eat some chow and drink a lot of sugar water.” And, he added, “That’s what is called binge eating -- when you eat a lot all at once -- in this case they are bingeing on a 10 percent sucrose solution, which is like a soft drink.”

The study was able to show that rats that  binge eat sugar in large quantities also had neurchemical changes in the brain.  These changes mimicked those caused by other substance abuses such as cocaine, morphine, and nicotine.  “In certain models, sugar-bingeing causes long-lasting effects in the brain and increases the inclination to take other drugs of abuse, such as alcohol,” Hoebel said.

When the rats consume sugar, dopamine is released an triggering motivation towards the sugar, thus creating a want and desire.   As this want and desire are reinforced, an addiction will occur.

As the rats consumed sugar, they had an immediate surge of dopamine fill their brains.   After 4 weeks, the rats brains adapted to the increased dopamine levels, thus having fewer dopamine receptors than prior to the sugar addiction.   In other words, the rats needed to consume more and more sugar to experience the same level of pleasure.

What was interesting was how the rats displayed signs of withdrawal when the sugar was removed.   Dopamine levels dropped and as a result, anxiety increased. The rats teeth chartered and were unwilling to learn a new maze, instead preferring to stay put in their normal area.   

It seems possible that the brain adaptations and behavioral signs seen in rats may occur in some individuals with binge-eating disorder or bulimia,” Hoebel said. “Our work provides links between the traditionally defined substance-use disorders, such as drug addiction, and the development of abnormal desires for natural substances. This knowledge might help us to devise new ways of diagnosing and treating addictions in people.”

What can you do?

Know that sugar IS as addictive as cocaine, morphine, and nicotine...if not more powerful.   Sugar can override your ability to experience pleasure and when you consume it, you will keep trying to consume more and more in an effort to increase your dopamine levels.    

Avoid sugar at as much as you can.   If you do consume it, proceed with caution.   As long as you can keep it limited to small amounts and consume it once a week or once a month, you should be fine...pending your current state of health.  I look at consuming sugar in a similar way to alcohol consumption. Some people can consume alcohol in moderation but need to be very cautious that it doesn’t overtake their life.Some people can consume alcohol then go weeks without it and not miss it at all. Try to treat sugar the same way, When handling sugar, proceed with extreme caution. When clients ask me how much sugar they should consume per day, I remind them that I have never seen any study showing the health benefits of consuming sugar.   They are disappointed when I explain that they should consume zero sugar per day. This is by far the most optimal option for a healthy lifestyle.


Steven Zahn

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