How to stop eating Sugar – Part 2

By April 10, 2009Uncategorized

Chemical addiction is something that is still not completely understood by medical researchers.  What they do know is that certain stimulants such as amphetamine, caffeine, cocaine, nicotine and now fructose stimulate the release of dopamine in our brains. 

But anything you do from which you gain pleasure will stimulate a dopamine response.  I enjoy gardening (not really, but I was looking for a vertical activity so as to keep my G rating), but I’m not addicted to it.  A lack of exposure to garden beds doesn’t cause me to become depressed or moody.  I don’t feel the urge to break into parked cars to steal change so I can buy compost.  I don’t carry a shovel in case I come across an unloved garden.

No, addiction is not about enjoyment.  Ask any smoker whether their first cigarette was enjoyable.  They’ll tell you they almost choked.  Ask any alcoholic if their first drink was enjoyable.  They’ll tell you it was repellent (unless they learnt to drink using wine sprizzers at Schoolies week).

Very recent research on the mechanics of addiction suggests that addictive substances do more than stimulate dopamine response.  They actually change your brain.  These drugs take over our brain’s learning function.  When we learn or practice something we strengthen the links between neurons.  These strengthened links help us remember and apply knowledge.

When you repeatedly feed rats cocaine, it appears to hijack this function.  Links are created and thickened which reinforce the behaviour of taking the drug.  They become hard-wired to seek out that behaviour.  This may be the crucial difference between merely enjoying something (like gardening) and being addicted to it.  Even worse, the research suggests that as the addiction links in our brain strengthen, we no longer even get the dopamine response.  So we keep doing it but can’t even pretend its fun.  I guess crack addicts don’t really look much like they’re having fun and come to think of it neither do smokers nor people who’ve pigged out on sugar.

I don’t remember my first taste of sugar and neither do you.  It is the only highly addictive drug that we feed to babies way before they’re capable of remembering anything.  By the time any of us are conscious of sugar, we are already well and truly addicted.  Our brains have been hard-coded to seek out sugar as surely as the cocaine addict is wired to seek out things to sniff (preferably in nice neat lines).

An addicted person is wired to think that the only way they can feel normal is when they have access to the addictive substance.  When it’s not available, they feel as though something is missing.  Their brain reacts by going into mild depression or even severe depression if the abstinence is prolonged.

Any sugar addict (that is anybody) will tell you that sugar makes them feel better.  The reality is that they are suffering a mild downer caused by the time since the last hit of sugar.  Taking more sugar simply lifts them back to how an unaddicted person feels all the time.  This vicious cycle of mild pleasure followed by mild withdrawal which in turn is relieved by mild pleasure is the simple mechanism of addiction.  It is the same no matter which is the poison of choice, from cocaine to sugar.  Just because it’s sold in supermarkets rather than back alleys doesn’t make it any less addictive or dangerous.

Anyone who’s read Sweet Poison fully understands the downside of their sugar addiction.  There is no upside and there is downside by the truckload, from obesity to cancer and everything in between.  But simply telling an addict that ugly things will happen to them will have no effect whatsoever.  It’s why people still merrily buy cigarette packets plastered with photos of diseased lungs and amputated limbs.  They know they will eventually pay the price, but right here right now all that matters is the gnawing neuron driven need to push back the downer and feel good again.

Sugar addicts are in exactly the same position except that (for now) they can get their fix without having to see the gangrenous outcome of Type II Diabetes.  Most diets ask us to exercise willpower, and just like willpower based methods of quitting smoking, they don’t work.  If they did, there wouldn’t be a diet industry.  You cannot overcome an addiction by feeling like you are depriving yourself of something.  That’s how the addiction works.  It makes you feel deprived.  If you add to that by consciously feeling deprived then you are in fact feeding the addiction.  Asking you to exercise willpower is a recipe for disaster because it tells you to feel deprived every minute that you do not have access to sugar.  It is doomed to failure.

Believe it or not, the power to stopping addiction is to firstly understand what it is, secondly know that it will end and thirdly think about it the right way.

Thinking about it in the right way is the key to successfully stopping an addiction … and that dear reader is the subject of next week’s post.

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