Until recently, although we could see and feel the ‘pull’ of sugar, it was not actually proven that this was a real addiction. However, a recent study showed that sugar binges and subsequent removal of the sugar, showed classic withdrawal symptoms, including “the shakes”, teeth chattering, anxiety and changes in brain chemistry. The addictive qualities of sugar have been shown to be similar to those of drugs of abuse.
We know that sugar increases the dopamine (feel-good reward neurotransmitter or brain chemical) and opioid levels in the brain that can create a sugar addiction. Low levels of the sleep and mood neurotransmitter serotonin also create a self-medicating craving for sugar as when our levels are low, our bodies survival mechanism uses insulin – the hormone produced to move sugar out of the bloodstream into cells – to get serotonin quickly into the brain. Balanced blood sugar helps regulate all of these brain mechanisms, balancing out mood and moving us from a cycle of negative coping patterns including sugar, but also any excessive behaviour pattern and mood swings.
- Sugar, starch and/or stimulant cravings
- Increased or ravenous appetite beyond your energy needs
- Difficulty losing weight
- Energy slumps and/or fatigue
- Insomnia and waking in the night
- Depression and/or poor motivation
- Irritability and/or mood swings
- Difficulty coping with stress
- Binge cycles and/or overeating
If so, moving out of sugar addiction cycles needs to be approached systematically:
- Reduce sugars (alcohol, soft drinks, junk foods, convenience foods, pastries, biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolate) slowly, deciding a time limit to fully eliminate – you may feel too awful to work or operate if you simply go ‘cold turkey’ and this can backfire and lead to cravings and binges from withdrawal.
- To recover from sugar addiction you may need to include well placed snacks (nuts are best) eg mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon for at least a while, although ultimately when blood sugar levels are stabilised you should be happy with three meals a day and no snacks. Our bodies should be able to go without food for at least 3-4 hours! Constantly grazing can put a strain on digestion and feed into constant oral gratification as a self-soothing mechanism.
- Ensure protein with every meal to level out release of sugars from food into the bloodstream and support your adrenal glands so that the stress response doesn’t interfere with recovery; include lean meat, fish, eggs, goat’s cheese, nuts, seeds or pulses. Protein for breakfast can really make sugar reduction later in the day seem easier!
- Get out into sunlight daily; low levels of serotonin exacerbate sugar cravings and a walk will help relieve reduce stress hormones that upset blood sugar balance.
There are three main rules for moving away from dependence on sugar as a source of instant gratification taste-wise and your body’s habit of relying on energy surges rather than sustained release. As well as the eating plan suggested below, the following will help reduce the reactive knee-jerk want for sugar by reducing highs and lows caused by the stress response, stimulants and blood sugar lows:
- Stress causes the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism where the hormone adrenaline causes a flood of sugar into the system, to ready us for physical exertion that we may not use. Continual stress adds to the “highs and lows” of a blood sugar imbalance and can lead to cravings. Identify areas of your life where you can reduce stress, make time for relaxation and recovery and get away from overstimulation as much as possible – a walk rather than watching TV is a good start!
- Be aware that stimulants like alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and recreational drugs also cause a rise in blood sugar, so if you reduce your sugar load you may find yourself increasing levels of any of these that you partake in. Ideally it is best to reduce these to help the issue, but this may not be the best time to break more than one habit……choose a limit for any of the list you habitually use and stick to this, remembering that sugar in tea and coffee and alcohol do count as the sugars to be reduced. Ultimately balancing blood sugar levels will support your adrenal glands and therefore breaking addictive cycles from stimulants so you can think long-term about your relationship with these.
- Use healthy snacks to move into a sugar addiction ‘recovery stage’ – nuts, whole fruit, Greek or wholemilk yogurt and coconut will keep up your blood sugar levels between meals as your body relearns to regulate itself. Unless stressed, tired or exercising a lot, you may not need to keep these up but it is crucial to avoid hypoglycaemic or low blood sugar levels to resist cravings.