Tuesday January 17, 2017

Sugar acts similarly to alcohol or cocaine in our brains, says neuroscientist

Diet and addiction expert Nicole Avena says sugar addiction is real and should be treated accordingly.

Diet and addiction expert Nicole Avena says sugar addiction is real and should be treated accordingly. (Sam Hodgson/Reuters)

Listen 25:16

Read story transcript

Karen Thomson calls herself a recovering addict of sugar but her own struggles with addiction didn't start with sugar.

As an inpatient in a rehabilitation program treating alcohol and cocaine addiction, Thomson discovered that her behavioural addiction to illegal substances started with her sugar intake at a young age.

"My first memory of using sugar to soothe myself, to make myself feel better … was when I was four-years-old and there was a big trauma in my family at that time," Thomson tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

She remembers her dad at the time coming home at night with a Coca-Cola and a chocolate — representing safety and security to Thomson. 

Donuts

Brain activity of people addicted to sugar matches that of people addicted to other substances, says neuroscientist Nicole Avena. (rpavich/flickr cc)

"From that time I started associating the sugary product with these feelings of love and comfort."

Thomson now practices abstinence from sugar as she does from alcohol and drugs.

"Very often as with other addiction there's an underlying trauma that hasn't been dealt with. And that's why they're addicted to an external substance," says Thomson, also the author of  Sugar Free: 8 Weeks to Freedom from Sugar and Carb Addiction. Thomson has used her experience to establish the HELP clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, to help others kick the sugar habit.

Neuroscientist Nicole Avena, who specializes in diet and addiction, tells Tremonti that research going back 15 years shows how the brain reacts when a person consumes an excessive amount of sugar.

"There's activation in areas of the brain that are similar to what you see with an addiction to a drug abuse."

It also means sugar withdrawal can have similar symptoms to nicotine or morphine withdrawal such as irritability, tremors and shakes.

Avena says addiction treatment follows different approaches that work for different people but suggests using a harm reduction model: cutting out the problematic food can help control intake over time and slowly reduce it.

"Often this is done many times with cases of alcohol misuse and … get to the point where they are regaining control of their behavior and then are slowly able to reintroduce it — with a lot of self-checking along the way to make sure that they're not having those old habits creep back into play."

Listen to the full conversation including author of The Hunger Fix, Dr. Pamela Peeke.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry and Sam Colbert.