Over the last few years, marijuana has been reviewed, studied and reframed as a potentially life-changing natural drug to treat everything from chronic pain to cancer, assuming appropriate use. At the same time, opponents still choose to label it a “gateway drug”. But as further studies have been done on the effects of THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, it has also spurred research into other possible natural drugs and the one natural source emerging as perhaps the most dangerous drug has been a surprise.

Our First High

While many of us laugh about the sugar high kids get, the fact is, calling it a high might be more accurate than we’d like to believe. As kids, eating sugar is usually our first experience with a food that noticeably changes the way we feel.

A number of studies have been done on the effects of sugar on the body and mind in both children and adults. Quite often, these studies directly compare sugar and fat to highly addictive drugs, including several forms of opiates. In just the past few years, these studies have netted results that have made international headlines. The comparison between Oreos and cocaine, for example, has completely revamped the way many people see nutrition in general and, more specifically, sugar.

In 2008, researchers from Princeton University published their study Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake, which found sugar met the criteria normally associated with labelling something a drug. The authors noted that excessive sugar intake “can lead to behavioral and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse.”

The Addictive Nature of Sugar

So what makes sugar so addictive? The same thing as drugs, basically. Sugar intake triggers the release of insulin which moves the sugar to the bloodstream resulting in that sugar rush or high we experience. That translates into a release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the brain’s natural feel-good drug, released as the ultimate reward no matter what the source. Dopamine is released during our happiest and most intense moments – most noticeably when associated with love, lust, sex and addiction.

While the effects on dopamine levels with sugar may not be as extreme as the changes brought on by heroin, the similarity is obvious. In fact, people recovering from substance abuse often discuss the effects of sugar levels on their chances of relapse. The cycle of craving that dopamine release can become so intense that their sugar craving gets translated and acted out as a relapse for their original drug of choice. The issue has become so widely discussed that there are now a number of studies focusing on the issue.

A 2010 report, The Relationship Between Opioid and Sugar Intake focused on the relationships between sugar intake and opioid dependence. This included comparing it to opioid use, as well as the effects for addicts. Ultimately, the team found that “sweet-tasting substances are associated with activation of the endogenous opiate system, leading to clinically significant analgesia that may augment opiate treatment, or hinder it through tolerance.”

The Drug We Can’t Escape

The more sinister problem when it comes to sugar is how pervasive it is. While natural sugar found in fruit and other whole foods are a part of a healthy diet, added sugars are an entirely different issue. Added sugars are pretty much exactly what they sound like – natural and manufactured sweeteners added to processed foods.

There are many negative effects of sugar on our body. Some of the symptoms associated with sugar addiction specifically are fatigue, brain fog and inability to concentrate, blotchy skin, hair loss due to blood sugar level spikes and weight gain, just to name a few.

According to the American Heart Association, Americans eat about 20 teaspoons of added sugars daily. That’s just under a half cup of sugar Every day. How are we eating that much sugar without realizing it? Partly because of the cycle of craving sugar sets off as well as the fact that so many of our foods are pumped full of the stuff. Sweets like candy, cookies, ice cream and baked goods are pretty obvious sources of added sugar but sugar is also added to:

  • Barbecue sauce
  • Salad dressings
  • Salsa
  • Coleslaw
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Spaghetti sauce
  • Granola
  • Coffee drinks
  • Ketchup
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Boxed cereals
  • Waffles
  • Canned soups
  • Bread
  • And most other processed and convenience foods!

With the pervasiveness and power of sugar, is it any wonder more and more people are starting to call it the true gateway drug? Today, more and more people are looking back on their sugar intake to gain insight into how vulnerable they are to addiction. This approach may lead to new discoveries on the mechanics, origins and potential treatment options for substance abuse and addiction.

About the Author

William Hartfield has a biomedical degree and runs the blog Hair Loss Revolution where he advocates the use of dietary and lifestyle changes to help beat hair loss naturally. The restriction of sugars and other high glycemic index foods to maintain a healthy and stable blood sugar level is one of the major initial changes he promotes.