The Effects of a High Sugar Diet on the Brain
For those of us that are addicted to sugar, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt it acts like an opiate in our brains. We have watched ourselves crave, overconsume, and crash despite known adverse and unwanted consequences too many times to doubt this fact.
But many scientists and doctors are unaware of this.
Do you know why?
When scientists test the ‘addictiveness’ of a substance or even behavior, they measure how intensely and how quickly the behavior or substance elevates dopamine in the brain. Sugar, it turns out, does not create a huge rise in dopamine at least for most people (though human studies are rare and sometimes inconclusive). For this reason, it flies under the radar as a ‘real addiction’ in the mainstream medical community.
But it shouldn’t!
Sugar doesn’t just impact dopamine, it has the potential to spike 3 other feel-good neurochemicals (catecholamines, serotonin, endorphins) that taken together can create quite an intoxicating cocktail, especially in refined-carb-sensitive types like us.
Drugs/substances that spike the release of feel-good neurotransmitters above baseline, above equilibrium, can get us ‘high’ (as in ‘higher’ than normal transmitter levels). Refined carbohydrates absolutely can do this. They can boost serotonin that makes us happy, relaxed, and affectionate. Elevated endorphins can take the edge off physical and emotional pain. And spiked dopamine can make us feel energized and motivated.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? Like us ‘sugar-sensitives’ are the lucky ones.
But we are not.
What goes up, must come down. And indeed our sugar-spiked happy feelings don’t last, the crash always comes. If we dropped back down to our normal feel-good baseline, all would be well, but that is not what happens. Instead, our brain overcompensates, the pendulum swings too far back in the other direction, and we wind up with lower than normal levels of the neurotransmitters we need circulating in our brains to feel good.
Now we are left with a dilemma.
We can do the hard work of rebalancing our brain through simple acts of self-care such as deep sleep, exercise, time in nature, laughing, good nutrition, meditation, spiritual reading, and other activities that help bring the brain back to baseline. But that’s going to take some time. And we’re going to feel pretty awful and anxious while we wait for these activities to do their healing magic.
Why does it take so long for these activities to make us feel good again? A number of reasons. Here are two:
First, our body has to manufacture and replenish neurotransmitters.
Second, it has to re-open receptor sites to uptake the chemicals. They were down-regulated to manage the ‘above baseline’ crisis it perceived while we were busy getting high/happy on chocolate cake.
The obvious downside of this path to feeling good again (over and above the fact that it requires sustained self-care effort on our part) is that while we’re waiting to return to normal neurotransmitter levels, we can feel restless, depressed, anxious, irritable, and struggle with intense cravings. Ugh.
Or we can go with option number 2! The one that offers immediate gratification… Just eat more sugar!
We can jack up our neurochemicals again quickly and easily, and with great pleasure, just by busting into a box of cookies. Hardly any effort is required.
I mean who wouldn’t choose this option?
Our brains aren’t dumb. They know the fast track to feel good again. Unfortunately, it's single-minded maniacal begging for the narcotic-buzz and numbing pleasures of sugar is also, at the same time, working against what it most wants. To feel good.
Let me explain why.
What we’re coming to understand quite clearly through addiction science is that the more we pursue the pleasure of narcotics, and yes sugar is a narcotic even if it is less narcotic than meth, the more vulnerable and less tolerant to distress and pain we become.
What research is showing is that when we use substances that spike our neurochemicals, our threshold for pain gets lower. And the more we use the worse it gets. This means that we become less resilient emotionally and physically to pain as our addiction progresses. This drives our addiction. The more pain we feel, the more sugar we desire. It becomes a vicious cycle.
This really sucks. Because over time we have very little pleasure and an ocean of pain.
And the only real hope we have of breaking the cycle and reversing the brain damage is abstinence.
And I mean radical abstinence. The kind of abstinence that allows our brains to heal, and our dopamine and other neurotransmitter chemicals to replenish and return to baseline levels.
For some of us that can take anywhere from 1-3 months, for others 6 months or more. The younger we are, the quicker we bounce back.
But! The fact that it takes time and we will feel worse before we feel better is no reason to not get started on the path to feeling good ASAP. Because as long as we’re hoping that we will feel good again while indulging in sugar, we are wildly deluded.
Every day we continue to eat sugar, we are heading in the wrong direction. We will only ever feel worse. No exceptions.
Now, one last really interesting thing to know about addiction science…
If we want to heal our addiction and heal our brain, it’s not enough to just unhook from refined carbohydrates. We actually have to unhook from all substances that elevate dopamine above normal in our body. This includes a long list of street and pharmaceutical drugs, but it could also include everyday substances such as caffeine, gluten, casomorphine, alcohol, and even chocolate.
The good news is after one month of giving our brain a break from dopamine-spiking substances, we will have crossed a healing threshold. We will be able to see more clearly the negative consequences of our food choices, as well as how much better we feel off of them, and this insight is pure gold. It is a “quantum shift” moment.
The bottom line is this… Just while we’re becoming increasingly intolerant to the pleasurable effects of refined carbohydrates, our ability to handle stress and distress is diminishing. Said another way, while we are busy binge eating sugar for pleasure, the pain in our life is rising. It’s like trying to bail out a leaky boat. The research on this point is unequivocally clear.
Thus, fellow sugar lover, the truth is this… if we actually want to feel good, we need to both abstain from our drug of choice and engage in self-care that can repair our brains and heal our bodies. Sure it takes effort, but it works.
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