Sugar Addiction, A look at Biochemical Factors

In my practice as a nutritionist, it has become obvious that the prevailing concern of my clients is an addiction to sugar.

In order to be successful, treatment for this addiction must be multi-faceted. The existing protocols that call for a diet completely eliminating sugar ultimately fail because they do not address the underlying causes of the sugar addiction. In fact, after the root cause of the addiction is corrected, most of us can consume sugar on occasion without fear of triggering a relapse.

An addiction to sugar is the body’s cry for help. We often turn to sweets in order to obtain the energy we are not receiving from the nutrients we are taking in. Even if we are eating what we consider a “healthy diet,” our body may not be getting the right amount of macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to support the formulation of our neurotransmitters (“feel good” chemicals like serotonin and dopamine), regulate blood sugar, handle physical and emotional stress on the body, and support digestion and detoxification processes. Malabsorption of nutrients caused by genetic factors and glitches in the digestive and detoxification processes need to be examined. Usually, sugar addicts have low levels of neurotransmitters, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and difficulty managing blood sugar

As we look at your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, let’s first understand the role of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that we often think of as necessary only for clearing sugar from our blood; however, it was designed to take all the nutrients in our food and push them into our cells to use as energy. The journey begins when we ingest sugar, raising our blood sugar levels. When that happens, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pancreas to emit insulin in order to strip the sugar and move it into the receptor cells. This should normalize your blood sugar. But in people who have issues with blood sugar regulation, the pancreas overreacts and infuses too much insulin. Sugar is then stripped from your system, completely causing your blood sugar levels to decline to such a level that you're left with low blood sugar.

By itself, low blood sugar can cause you to crave sugar or alcohol because your brain is in panic mode. Signs of low blood sugar include irritability, anxiety, depression, fatigue, ravenous hunger, blurred vision, rapid heartbeat, nausea, shakiness, weakness, cravings and sweating.

We also need to look at the opposing hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is a life-sustaining hormone and is required by the body to maintain blood sugar, regulate stress and blood pressure, reduce inflammation, metabolize fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and is used in the production of energy. High and prolonged levels of cortisol can be damaging to your health.

High levels of stress, whether emotional or physical, can elicit the same physiological response as a diet high in sugar. We all know that issues like divorce, losing a job, and managing work and family can cause stress on our bodies. But these are emotional stresses; there are other conditions that can raise cortisol including dieting, low carbohydrate consumption, insomnia, over-exercising, food intolerances, allergies, and high levels of inflammation or infection in the body.

When the body deals with stress, the adrenals secrete cortisol. As cortisol prepares for the "fight or flight" response, the body is flooded with glucose to supply an immediate energy source to the muscles. Now you have not only spiked your cortisol, but blood sugar is raised and your hypothalamus sends a message to your pancreas--which responds by sending in insulin. This is what your body was designed to do. But, like insulin, cortisol was not designed to be used to the extent it is. We are over-secreting insulin and cortisol in order to handle the extreme amount of stress being placed on our bodies.

Another piece of the problem is the connection of sugar addiction to our neurotransmitters. Typically, addicts have low levels of the “feel good” neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that transmit signals throughout our brain and body. Those deficient in these neurotransmitters can exhibit addiction, blood sugar instability, depression, anger, insomnia, difficulty regulating appetite, and fatigue. We also should look at GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid), often referred to as the brain’s Valium. Often, addicts turn to substances to calm themselves. When GABA is insufficient, we naturally look for other ways to perform this function.

When we consume sugar, we trigger a surge of dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and endorphins into the brain all at once--and we feel great. But, as with high levels of blood sugar, once the sugar is processed we feel a crash --and then we feel very low, depressed, and lethargic. We then crave more of the same substance because we want to experience the same “high.” However, as we build up tolerance, it becomes harder to reach it. Eventually, an addict needs those substances to feel normal and happy.

Also, if we are constantly releasing dopamine and other neurotransmitters due to stress on the body (the physical and emotional stressors), high intake of alcohol or sugar, eventually neurotransmitters will be drained. Due to insufficient nutrients, the body is already experiencing low levels of these neurotransmitters and compounding the injurious results.

In resolving your sugar addiction, steps need to be taken to regulate blood sugar, reduce and manage stress, and increase formation of your neurotransmitters. Using nutrient-dense foods, by balancing macronutrients, increasing intake of micronutrients, supplementing and addressing causes for malabsorption of nutrients are all part of the healing process.

I hope I have brought to light some of the biochemical reasons that contribute to sugar addiction. As you embark on the road to recovery, it is critical that you stop feeling guilty for your lack of self-discipline. The constant shame, guilt, and barrage of self-deprecating thoughts only magnify a challenge that is already difficult to overcome. I hope this article causes you to pause and consider how diet and life choices can impact not only your physical but mental health.

Melissa Brunetti, C.N.C

Embrace Balanced Health LLC.

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