Nibbling on one biscuit quickly turns into devouring the whole packet, telling yourself that this time…this time you’re quitting the sweet stuff for good, but finding yourself chomping on the chocolate two days later. Needing more sugar to achieve the same blissful feeling one bar used to provide, withdrawal effects when not eating sugary foods and continuing to eat sugar despite the negative physical or psychological consequences…sound familiar?!
For many people sugar is like a bad relationship we just keep going back to. We know it’s not good for us…but we just can’t seem to stay away. Why is it that sugar can have such a hold over us and is there really such a thing as sugar addiction?
Whilst sugar addiction in not a well-established clinical concept like drug addiction’ the behaviours exhibited by individuals in the clutches of sugar addiction have great similarities to commonly recognised addictions.
As humans, we are motivated by our potent brain chemistry to undertake certain behaviours that ensure our survival. Activities such as sex and eating stimulate the release of brain hormone, called dopamine. Dopamine shapes behaviour through association learning, if something is pleasurable, the brain releases dopamine to motivate us to keep performing that same activity.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter produced in vast quantities in response to eating sugar. Low levels of vitamin D, B6 and B9 (folate) can lead to low levels of dopamine. Low social stimulation, high levels of stress and inflammation and low oestrogen are also associated with low levels of dopamine.
Dopamine-seeking behaviours such as compulsive eating may be driven by low levels of dopamine. Eating highly sugary and fat-laden foods, sees our dopamine levels spike, quickly followed by a drop, driving us to eat more sugar to maintain high levels of dopamine.
Whilst the brain accounts for just 3% of our body weight, it demands 25% of our energy use. Brain cells are very prone to a common condition called insulin resistance. Insulin is a crucial hormone for transporting glucose from the bloodstream after we eat and into the cells. Insulin unlocks the cell door to allow glucose to pass into the cell, however, high sugar consumption over a long period of time, results in insulin no longer being able to open the door to allow glucose into the cells. Imagine the door becoming heavy and difficult to open, more and more insulin is needed to usher the glucose into the cell. Rising levels of insulin blocks our ability to lose fat, which can be very frustrating!
A very important area of the brain, the hypothalamus, is responsible for hunger and appetite. Insulin is responsible for getting glucose into the hypothalamus, however, if the hypothalamus becomes insulin resistant, then we can lose our sense of feeling full and hunger is prolonged, driving us to want to eat more to satisfy the brains need for glucose. Other areas of the brain may also become insulin resistant, impacting memory, brain fog, focus and mood.
Why is sugar so rewarding to us?
Getting sweet stuff into the body has a lot to do with taste as well as the impact that sweet food has on rising blood sugars. When we crave something sweet, we are craving the taste and your body is craving the impact of that sweet food will have on your blood sugars. Foods that lead to a big impact on blood sugars often have a sweet taste. We have sweet receptors that give us a preference for sugary taste meaning when we ingest something sweet it send a message to the brain saying, pay attention, this tastes good.
Sweet tasting food activates the release of dopamine, driving us to take action towards consuming more. Preference for sweet foods is in part due to taste but also in part due to a subconscious conversation between neurones in your gut and your brain. These neuropod cells respond to the presence of sugar within the gut. The neuropod cells are able to register the presence of ‘sweet,’ and send messages to the brain via the vagus nerve, triggering the release of dopamine.
So, anytime you eat something sweet, your gut is telling your brain to eat more of this! This is why food companies spend a great deal of money and science creating the perfect formula to stimulate our taste buds but also the subconscious chit chat between the gut and the brain. Hidden sugars in food…pasta sauce, breads, crisps, is not an accident! Sweet flavours are concealed with salt.
So your sugar-hungry brain is hardwired to encourage you to seek and consume sugar whenever you get the chance. Our ancestral biology, designed to survive in a world of scarcity, is drowning in dopamine!
Five ways to overcome the urge to ‘Eat More Sugar!’
Foods that cause a sharp rise in dopamine makes them far more addictive. The level of dopamine spike as well as the rate of dopamine increase has a profound effect of whether you want to eat more of that food.
Managing our blood sugars spikes can help to reduce the impact sugar has on our body as well as helping to prevent insulin resistance…which is key for better brain function and appetite regulation! A sharp rise or high rise in blood glucose is a more potent signal for our brain cells, versus a slower rise and lower rise.
1. Blood sugar spikes result from what we eat and what we eat it with…
Eating fibre alongside foods with a higher glycaemic index, will lower the impact on our blood sugars. A large salad with your pizza reduces the blood sugar spike from the pizza. Eating your dessert immediately after a fibre-packed lunch will lower the blood sugar impact of the dessert. Choose whole foods rather than processed, such as whole fruit rather than dried fruit which results in higher blood sugars. Eating a piece of fruit or adding the whole fruit to a smoothie rather than drinking fruit juice will result in a lower impact on blood sugars.
Lime or lemon juice consumed before a meal is also a cost-effective way of reducing blood sugar spikes. Sour flavour also impacts the way the brain perceives sweet flavours…so a double benefit for team citrus!
Going for a walk immediately after eating will also lower the blood sugar spike of that meal. A walk after lunch and dinner lowers the sharp rise in blood glucose resulting in improved insulin sensitivity and better blood sugar stability.
3. Omega-3 supplementation
Sugar sensing neuropod cells in the gut also respond to amino acids and essential fatty acids. The neuro pods have three jobs, to detect amino acids, fatty acids and sugar.
All three will trigger the neurones to release dopamine. Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation can release dopamine via the neuropods in the gut, helping to reduce sugar cravings. This can be achieved by the EPA fatty acids in fish oil supplements, or via a plant-based source called ahiflower. Ahiflower is a sustainable oilseed grown in the UK and is a superb source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids that convert naturally to EPA, found in a supplement form called Catch Free Omegas by Wiley’s Finest.
4. Collagen to the rescue
Increasing amino acid intake can also reduce cravings through stimulating the neuropods in the gut, which communicate to the brain that we 'have what we need.'
Easy to absorb protein powders, collagen peptides, or food source protein can increase satiety and reduce cravings.
Hunter & Gather marine and bovine collagen peptides can be added to coffee, smoothies or breakfast bowls first thing in the morning to help manage hunger and reduce cravings. Collagen also has many other benefits to skin, hair and nail health, making it a great daily addition to your diet!
The quality and length of sleep affects our appetite through impacting hunger and satiety hormones. Aiming for seven hours of good quality sleep can reduce craving and over eating tendencies.
To learn more about the impact sugar has on your brain, hormones and how to free yourself from the clutches of sugar addiction, pre-order Pauline Cox MSc new book, Hungry Woman
- eating for health, happiness + hormones. A signed copy is available via Sow & Arrow, or order at other major retailers, including Amazon
, Waterstones and WHSmiths.