The term “sugar addiction” isn’t new, but is there any research to back it up? Some have compared sugar to other highly addictive drugs, and there are actual treatment centers for people with this issue, as the problem is often concurrent with other mental health issues.
Researchers at Aarhus University were curious to see how true these rumors were and whether the addictive element of sugar could actually be scientifically compared to that of certain drugs. “There is no doubt that sugar has several physiological effects, and there are many reasons why it is not healthy. But I have been in doubt of the effects sugar has on our brain and behavior; I had hoped to be able to kill a myth,” says researcher Michael Winterdahl, Ph.D.
Unfortunately, the myth about sugar and the brain appears to be true.
What did researchers find?
Winterdahl and other researchers conducted an experiment on pigs to study how the brain’s chemistry is affected by sugar. Pigs were given 2 liters of sugar water each day over a 12-day period while researchers used brain imaging to track any changes throughout the process.
“After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems,” says Winterdahl. These systems are typically activated in our brain when we see something that makes us happy and gives us a sense of enjoyment.
According to Winterdahl, there are “natural” and “artificial” stimuli. The natural stimuli consist of things like socializing and sex while artificial can be things like sugar or drugs.
“If sugar can change the brain’s reward system after only 12 days, you can imagine that natural stimuli such as learning or social interaction are pushed into the background and replaced by sugar or other ‘artificial’ stimuli,” Winterdahl claims. “We’re all looking for the rush from dopamine, and if something gives us a better or bigger kick, then that’s what we choose.”
Researchers find it better to focus on the natural stimuli, which are things that can still give us a dopamine rush but are actually beneficial to our health as well. The artificial stimuli, however, may be activating our reward systems even more, which makes our brain prioritize them.
If you feel like you’ve become a victim of the addiction of sugar, check out how this nutritionist overcame her sugar addiction or a doctor’s recommendations for quitting sugar for good, plus seven healthy hacks to beat cravings.
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