Why We Get Sugar-Addicted — And How to Break the Brutal Cycle

The white stuff may be the most common and primary addiction — a cycle that starts with a stressed brain, triggering further unhealthy eating. Breaking this vicious cycle starts with understanding it.

Sugar addiction is universally rampant and a leading cause of ill health and disease. Few people, however, realize that addiction to this dangerous substance is also at the root of other addictions as well — including alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, and even vices such as gambling, sex, shopping and working too much.

Most people with addiction issues tend to believe their personal compulsion or obsession is the worst of the world’s addictions. The fact is an addictive personality housed in the brain plays a primary role in the addictive process.

Feeding the brain with artificial rewards is a primary problem that must be addressed if addiction is to be properly remedied. The brain is influenced by lifestyle, which influences actions. In the case of addiction, this means seeking unhealthy habits that reward the brain. The highly complex process goes something like this:

  1. Physical, biochemical and mental-emotional stress affects the brain.
  2. These stresses affect the body’s metabolism in an unhealthy way.
  3. Stress leads to carbohydrate cravings.
  4. Cravings can lead to disordered eating.
  5. The use of drugs or actions that reward the stressed brain follows.
  6. This leads to what is known as addiction.
  7. As poor diet further impairs the metabolism, it usually increases body fat. (Those who don’t end up with increased body fat still have the metabolism of an overfat person.)
  8. And the cycle continues . . .

Since the immediate and long-term influence of carbohydrate food can dramatically impact the brain, influencing the metabolism and cravings, stress and poor dietary habits are the two main factors that fuel the addiction cycle.

 

addiction-cycle

 

Lifestyle Stressors

Drs. Rajita Sinha and Ania Jastreboff from Yale University School of Medicine have extensively reviewed the published research on this topic in “Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addiction” in the journal Biological Psychiatry (May 2013), and the topic is also researched by other experts in this field.

My perspective is as a clinician, with many years of helping people eliminate the causes of addictions. Stress is almost always a key factor. It comes in many forms and often plays a key role in instigating the addiction cycle:

  • Physical stress such as muscle and joint problems, dental neglect, neck pain, foot problems, excess sitting, poor posture or gait.
  • Biochemical stress including hormone imbalance, digestive problems, poor diet and drug problems (excess alcohol or caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, etc.), prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
  • Mental-emotional stress can be seen in poor personal relationships with people both personally and professionally. This may be partially due to physical pain, brain injury, confusion or lack of understanding about one’s health, such as how best to eat or work out, and even understanding addiction.

The accumulation of stress adversely affects the brain, impairing metabolism, and causing abnormal blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to carbohydrate cravings. One common reward-seeking behavior is eating refined carbohydrates, AKA sugar. Eating these foods affects the brain’s reward center. Addiction follows, and if one does not address this key factor, the vicious cycle continues.

The process also leads to increased body fat, weight and BMI, adding to more disordered eating, and more stress. While some people reduce food intake as a result of stress, many people eat more, especially through added snacking on junk food.

Addressing addictions by removing secondary substances such as alcohol, nicotine or cocaine, while a positive step in the process, may not break the addiction cycle because the primary problems in the brain and metabolism that influence cravings and the need for rewards remain. Often, the person finds another addictive substance, or just continues rewarding the brain with sugar, maintaining addiction.

Let’s look at the addiction mechanism with a wider more detailed view.

Brain Overdrive

Mechanisms in the hormonal and nervous systems are responsible for the brain’s stress response. While this mechanism is intended to help us adapt, the ongoing driving stress can lead to disordered eating and addictive behavior, along with reduced immune function, chronic inflammation, impairment of glucose metabolism, and carbohydrate intolerance. Some end-result signs and symptoms include:

  • Increased body fat.
  • Weight gain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Physical injury.
  • Pain.
  • Intestinal dysfunction.
  • Infections and other illness (e.g., allergies and asthma).
  • Increased hunger.
  • Cravings for sweets.
  • Poor sleep.
  • Hormone imbalance.
  • Metabolic syndrome.
  • Overtraining syndrome (in people who exercise).

When chronic, the process of disease development follows:

  • Diabetes.
  • Alzheimer’s.
  • Cancer.
  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Associated conditions such as high blood pressure, stroke, high blood cholesterol and triglycerides, cognitive dysfunction such as memory loss, and poor quality of life.

Reward: Food

Food reward is a behavioral issue common with stress, with sugar singled out as the most common food. Continuing to consume it can maintain the vicious cycle with stress triggering a desire for a sweet reward, followed by addiction and more food stress.

Basically, as researcher’s Sinha and Jastreboff write, stress potentiates cravings for desserts and other carbohydrates. Stress also diminishes emotional, visceral and behavioral control, while increasing impulsivity and leading to greater use of reward.

In addition, it does not take long for the brain to learn the reward, with memory and emotional processes involved in negotiating behavioral and cognitive responses.

Sweet foods are rewarding, stimulating the brain’s reward pathways and, via learning and conditioning mechanisms, increasing the likelihood of seeking out more sugar, just like the incentive that draws people to drugs like alcohol, nicotine and cocaine. Studies show that those with higher body fat seek rewards more easily.

The clinical indications of these addiction patterns were evident many years ago, and the most effective approach in dealing with addiction for my patients — and me — was simple: Eliminate the sugar addiction first, then any and all other addictions to drugs or other issues would more easily be eliminated.

The Fix: Break the Sugar Addiction Cycle

It was not long ago that the mention of sugar addiction would be countered by questions such as, “what?” or, “where’s the research?”

Today, many clinicians, researchers and most others have jumped on the sugar addiction bandwagon with a new common question: “How do I know when my sugar addiction is gone?” Like other addictions, the short answer is simple: when sugar no longer controls you. More importantly, when addiction itself no longer controls you.

Others ways we know include:

  • When the sugar devil no longer can tempt you.
  • When you stop rationalizing that refined carbs are part of a healthy diet.
  • When you no longer believe that humans are glucose-dependent.
  • When you understand that sugar does not give you long-lasting healthy energy.

After reviewing some of the mechanisms behind the very common problem of sugar and other secondary addictions, here’s the key point: The remedy is simple — breaking the cycle. I don’t wish to oversimplify an emotionally painful and complex physiological condition, but this involves reducing stress, especially from the diet. While individuality is important, in my experience there are two starting points:

The Stress List. This can help you organize your primary physical, biochemical and mental-emotional stresses in a way that begins the process of eliminating some, reducing others, and helping the body best adapt to those that remain.

The Two Week Test. This helps break the stress cycle by reducing excess carbohydrate foods, addressing sugar addiction, and helping to learn intuitively how to individualize healthy eating habits.

By kicking your addiction to sugar and reducing other stress factors, you will be confronting the root of all addictive processes, which can lead to successfully giving up other bad habits and addictions as well.

20 Comments

  • Chrissi says:

    Interesting research is being done on how our gut microbiome contributes to our cravings. “Bad” bacteria release chemical messengers which travel along the gut-brain axis. These bacteria evolved to use their environment (our digestive systems) to their advantage. Research is showing that these bad bacteria may play a role in our moods and behaviors.

    Interesting stuff!

  • Nicole says:

    Is there ever a point where a sugar addict (who has completed the two week test by the way and feels great) can have sugar in small amounts and not fall off the wagon? Or is it pretty much best to be avoided for ever? just seems like a lot to ask as sugar and refined carbs are pretty much in everything.

    • Nicole:

      When someone “falls off the wagon” it’s because they still have a sugar-based metabolism that is still tugging them towards trying to eat more sugar. When someone is fat-adapted, it means that their body starts preferring fat over sugar. At that point, there’s no problem with a bit of accidental sugar here and there. And people don’t get addicted. But when someone is anticipating that cheat meal, looking for when they’re going to be “allowed” to have that latte (or whatever), those are signs that they are still not fat adapted—they’re still craving, which means that they’re still addicted.

      It’s not so much about what we’re asking, but about what’s healthy: we are eating thousands of times more sugar than we ever ate for 99.9% of the time humans have existed.

      In that sense, there is no situation where it’s healthy to eat “moderate” amounts of sugar. Whether eating little to no sugar is untenable for someone because of the variety of constraints that we’re subjected to—lifestyle, work, etc.—is a different question, one whose answer won’t change whether it’s healthy or not.

      By setting the bar and saying “this is what 100% means,” then people can choose what they do: 99%, 95% of what’s absolutely, perfectly healthy, while never forgetting where that bar is. And don’t get me wrong here—I’m a 90% at best. I’m not a monk, and not an absolutist. And for an athlete with very small carb intolerance and almost nonexistent chronic health issues (like me), 90% is not a bad place to be. But what I don’t want to say to someone is that 90% is still healthy, because I don’t want them misinterpreting that and thinking that 90% actually means 100.

      I hope this answers your question!

  • Kyle @ SKORA says:

    Most days I stick with a “rule” of eating nothing with any form of added carb in the first three ingredients, in an effort to reduce my sugar consumption a bit. One day a month a relax on that a bit, maybe get some ice cream after a long run or race! This strategy has worked incredibly well for my dietary happiness 🙂

  • Michelle Hurn says:

    I’m a registered dietitian, and this is a FREAKING FANTASTIC article. It makes me sick how many carbohydrates we prescribe to the general public! Most processed carbohydrates are LOADED with sugar and white flour. It’s a good way to keep people sick and on their way to diabetes.
    True health comes from a high vegetable, higher fat, higher protein (note both fats and protein should come from good/clean sources such as grassed fed beef, organic free range eggs, and grass fed butter to name a few examples) and minimal, grown in the ground carbohydrates (when’s the last time you saw a cookie tree, pasta tree, bagel tree, cracker tree, pizza tree, etc etc…)

    I hope I can be a health professional that’s part of the solution…not part of the problem…again very nice article!
    -Michelle Hurn RD

  • James says:

    Hi Ivan – can you explain what Dr Maffetone means with regard to this ‘As poor diet further impairs the metabolism, it usually increases body fat. (Those who don’t end up with increased body fat still have the metabolism of an overfat person.)’
    Thanks
    James

    • James:

      Obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses that can be subsumed under the term “metabolic syndrome” stem in large part from sugar addiction. Sugar addiction is essentially a resource mismanagement issue—flooding the body constantly with sugar makes the body less and less likely to use fats for fuel. Furthermore, since fat-burning creates more stable energy levels, a poor fat-burner will often have fluctuating energy levels, and more chronic diseases. So, this energy mismanagement issue won’t necessarily increase body fat, but it will have some negative repercussions.

  • Cameron says:

    I didn’t realize sugar and carbohydrate addiction existed for me until I began eating a higher fat, lower carbohydrate diet. While I don’t believe I was addicted to sugar, it was certainly more of a staple in my diet than I would like. Now, that I don’t use sugar, I see tremendous benefits — more even energy throughout the days, better sleep at night, no insatiable hunger before or after workouts. I wish this message could be brought to schools, families, and the younger generation so they can beat the addiction as well. I’ll do my best to spread the word.

  • Pdiddy says:

    Interesting. I definitely suffer from some level of sugar addiction, and there is no doubt it is stress related.

    I’m happy to try reducing stress as a way of reducing my compulsion to eat sugar. Even if it doesn’t work, being less stressed is ok on its own.

    of course, much easier said than done. I’m in an occupation where stress literally kills many of my colleagues and do a pretty good job of controlling it. Still, there’s always more to be done.

  • Sugandhi says:

    How does a vegetarian like me stay off carbs, they are my staple! Added sugar yes I can eliminate that from my diet but there are not many vegetarian sources of fat that can keep me full for long.
    Please advise.

  • Danielle says:

    I have been dealing with a huge amount of emotional stress related to my job, which led to leaving one stressful job in October, only to start another stressful job. My new job has the same amount of emotional stress, but the stressors are different. Basically, I’ve swapped stressors for stressors. Around the same time as I was leaving my old job, I went from 95/5 Mark Sisson primal eating to eating the occasional slice of cake, cookie or scone, and rationalising this as being 80/20 primal. This continued into the holiday season, which led to five instances of illness (throat infection, colds, stomach flu), bowel issues as well as a flare-up with my eczema – which had been dormant for ten months. I am a fat-burner, and was able to maintain my fat-burning metabolism during this more lenient period, and thankfully never experienced any cravings. After reading this article, I now know that this desire to ‘have my cake and eat it too’ was a result of my emotional stresses. I have since cut out the cakes, and my eczema and bowel issues are going away. I still need to work on the stress though, because the desire for cake still lingers. Thank you for this article, I will be using the MAF stress strategies to help with my emotional stresses.

    p.s. Your answer to Nicole was brilliant 🙂

    • Danielle:

      Glad you liked my response. Be sure to comment about your successes and failures with MAF here on the blog; it’s always useful to trade stories so that people can learn from one another. And don’t hesitate to ask questions should you have any.

  • Wade says:

    Ivan,

    Can you provide reference(s) for the statement that “Studies show that those with higher body fat seek rewards more easily.”? I’d love to dig into this concept further. Thanks.

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