By Kelley Herring
We all know that certain foods can impact how we feel…
We reach for coffee to help wake up in the morning and give us an afternoon “pick me up”. We crave chocolate because it contains compounds that make us feel blissful. And we yearn for a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes to give us the fuzzy feeling of nostalgia.
But the foods you eat can also impact your psychology… and even your behavior.
In today’s article, you’ll discover:
The drug-like activities of the foods you crave
The one type of sugar linked with aggression, ADHD and bipolar disorder
How a sugar detox can help reset your brain
When Food is a Drug: Sugar, Dopamine and Opioids
It’s well-known that addictive drugs increase production of the neurotransmitter dopamine – the “craving neurochemical”. In turn, this dopamine boost increases the desire to consume more of the drug. This is the vicious cycle of addiction.1
And while illegal drugs like cocaine are well-known to elicit these neurochemical changes, research shows that sugar has the same effects of substances of abuse! In fact, many people claim that they feel compelled to eat sweet foods, in a similar way that an alcoholic might feel compelled to drink.
In addition to impacting dopamine, sugar also acts on opioid systems in the brain. Research shows that the effects of sugar in the brain are similar to psychostimulants and opiates, although to a lesser degree.2,3
Given these facts, it’s no surprise that we are often drawn to sweets to fill an emotional need, rather than to stave off hunger. We seek these foods to alleviate boredom. To lift our spirts. To provide an energy jumpstart. But we also know that the energy and euphoria are fleeting. And we are always left feeling sluggish, tired and with spirits flagging when the “high” wears off.
It’s no stretch to say that people can become truly “addicted” to sugar, and even exhibit the behavioral traits of an addict – simply by consuming carb-rich foods.
And that’s exactly what a recent study found…
Fructose Puts Your Foraging Instincts on Overdrive
Research published in the journal Human Evolution & Behavior, suggests that hyperactivity, impulsivity, and mania all stem from ancient foraging instincts. And these powerful survival instincts are triggered by a high intake of fructose.
While fructose does provide caloric energy, it actually depletes energy at the cellular level. Unlike other simple sugars, which are converted to energy directly in skeletal muscle, fructose is metabolized in the liver.
This process requires ATP, the most basic form of “energy currency” in every cell. In fact, for each molecule of fructose metabolized, a molecule of ATP is “burned”. The subsequent depletion of ATP sends a signal that energy is scarce. And because the body’s primary mission is survival, this stimulus leads to foraging behavior and the storage of fat as a protective measure against perceived starvation.
This might have been an evolutionary advantage for our ancient ancestors, who consumed very small amounts of fructose. However, the excessive intakes common in our modern world work against us.
The authors of the study published in the journal Human Evolution & Behavior state that it can cause a “hyperactive foraging response that stimulates craving, impulsivity, risk taking, and aggression that increases the risk for ADHD, bipolar disease, and aggressive behavior”.4
In addition to the research linking sugar intake to these behavioral issues, specific changes have also been observed in the brain of sugar addicts. In fact, positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the brains of drug-addicted subjects look very similar to those of sugar-addicted obese subjects!5
Quit the Sugar & Reset Your Brain for a Happier, Healthier Life
Quitting sugar is a top priority when it comes to your brain, your mood and your long-term health.
Here are a few quick tips to help you quit sugar today:
1. Plan Your Meals
When you have a plan, there is less risk of deviating or succumbing to cravings. Have healthy foods prepared so you can easily make the right choices. Some of my favorites to have on hand include hard-boiled eggs, grass-fed beef franks, wild sardines and grass-fed beef jerky.
2. Choose Healthy Substitutes
While some people recovering from sugar addiction choose to avoid anything with a sweet taste, natural sugar alternatives – such as stevia, erythritol, monkfruit and xylitol – can offer a sweet treat… without the sour health impact of fructose.
3. Exercise & Sunlight
Converting your body from a sugar burner to a fat burner and increasing insulin sensitivity are critical to improving your response to carbohydrates. And there are few things (besides avoiding carb-rich foods) that can restore your native metabolism faster than vigorous exercise and vitamin D production from sensible sun exposure.
4. Incorporate Mindfulness
A study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that incorporating mindfulness and meditation into addiction treatment could lessen the risk of relapse.6
It’s important to remember that the longer you have been addicted to sugar, the longer it may take to break some of your ingrained habits and emotional pathways. But the good news is that the physiological addiction to sugar can be overcome within a few short weeks. Be patient with yourself, and recommit to ancestral, sugar-free living when you “fall off the wagon”.
Read more health and wellness articles from Kelley Herring on our Discover Blog.
Kelley Herring is the author of the brand new book Keto Breads – which includes more information you need to know about why it is so important to avoid wheat and grains in your diet, plus how to use healthy replacements for these foods to create all the breads you love… without the gluten, carbs and health-harming effects. Click here to learn more about Keto Breads…
- Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
- Hoebel BG, Rada P, Mark GP, Pothos E. Neural systems for reinforcement and inhibition of behavior: Relevance to eating, addiction, and depression. In: Kahneman D, et al., editors. Well-being: the Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. Russell Sage Foundation; New York: 1999. pp. 558–572.
- Rada P, Hoebel BG. Acetylcholine in the accumbens is decreased by diazepam and increased by benzodiazepine withdrawal: a possible mechanism for dependency. Eur J Pharmacol.
- Richard J. Johnson, William L. Wilson, Sondra T. Bland, Miguel A. Lanaspa. Fructose and uric acid as drivers of a hyperactive foraging response: A clue to behavioral disorders associated with impulsivity or mania? Evolution and Human Behavior, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2020.09.006
- Wang GJ, Volkow ND, Thanos PK, Fowler JS. Similarity between obesity and drug addiction as assessed by neurofunctional imaging: a concept review. J Addict Dis. 2004;23(3):39-53. doi: 10.1300/J069v23n03_04. PMID: 15256343.
- Witkiewitz K, Lustyk MKB, Bowen S. Retraining the addicted brain: a review of hypothesized neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness-based relapse prevention. Psychol Addict Behav. 2013 Jun;27(2):351-365. doi: 10.1037/a0029258. Epub 2012 Jul 9. PMID: 22775773; PMCID: PMC3699602.