Sugar addiction: is your environment contributing?
This article considers some of the factors involved in the increase in high blood sugar levels in the UK population. It starts by outlining why sugar is so addictive, and then looks at why some people may be more likely to consume more sugar than others. It finishes by outlining some of the treatments found to be effective forms of treatment for sugar addiction.
Current figures on diabetes
It’s no secret that diabetes is on the increase and now accounts for approximately 1.5 million deaths a year. It is also known that a further 2.2 million deaths (43% of these before the age of 70) are linked to high blood sugar levels. Cases of diabetes have nearly quadrupled since 1980 from 108 million cases to 422 million in 2014 and the main increase is in type 2. In other words, poor lifestyle choices are the most likely cause (Gallagher, 2016). So why are people consuming larger and larger amounts of sugar?
Why is sugar addictive?
1. Eating sugar causes a massive amount of a chemical called dopamine to be released in the brain. This causes a feeling of happiness (a reward) which creates an incentive to repeat the behaviour.
2. When we eat sugar (or foods containing sugar) the dopamine receptors in the brain start to down-regulate. In other words, eventually you will need more of the sugar in order to get the same amount of happiness as you did the first time. The brain craves more in order to get the same reward - this is a similar process to drug addiction. In fact.
3. The areas of the brain (reward centres) that are triggered when you eat sugar are the same areas of the brain involved when taking drugs such as cocaine.
4. Sugar is a source of energy so when you’re tired you are more likely to want sugary foods.
It is also suggested that our brains become hard-wired to like the taste of sweetness because, for babies sweetness means mother’s milk. What the above fails to explain is why there has been such an increase in the amount of sugar consumption in recent years. An obvious factor is that it is much more easily available and affordable. However, is this the whole picture?
Are our environments causing us to consume more sugar?
A series of studies conducted in the 1970s highlight two points in relation to sugar and addiction. First, that sugar is more addictive than morphine (the lab form of heroin), but interestingly, that environmental factors play a role in the extent to which an individual is likely to become addicted to drugs. My hypothesis is that poor living/environmental conditions also play a role in sugar addiction too because they create boredom and a lowered sense of happiness (I hasten to add that, to the best of my knowledge this has not been empirically tested in relation to sugar - so for anyone looking for an interesting research idea...)
The ‘Rat Park’ studies:
In the 1970s psychologist, Bruce Alexander conducted a series of studies which have become known as ‘Rat Park'. Alexander suspected that previous studies which showed that rats would always select morphine (the lab form of heroin) over water had failed to take into account the rats living conditions.
The initial studies compared the difference in the amount of morphine rats who lived in isolation consumed compared to rats who lived in rat park. ‘Rat Park’ was an enclosure where the rats lived in colonies and which had decorated walls, running wheels, nesting areas and lots of food. The rats who lived in isolation had no such luxuries but instead lived in a cage with nothing other than eating/drinking to occupy them.
Alexander found the rats living in isolation consumed 20 times more morphine than those in rat park. In other words, sociable creatures need interaction with others, and need to have their minds stimulated, as well as having basic needs such as hunger and warmth met. The next bit is slightly scary though:
Alexander found that the rats in Rat Park could be induced to drink more of the morphine if it were mixed with sugar. Further studies which blocked the effects of the morphine in the morphine/sugar based mix found that the rats still consumed more of the sugar based mix. The studies concluded that this was because the sugar tasted better (or is it because sugar is so addictive?). This said, even with the sugar/morphine mix, the rats in rat park still did not consume as much as the rats in isolation.
The point is that sugar is highly addictive, but this addiction is likely to be increased if environmental factors are poor, particularly in relation to socialising. If you consider yourself to be a sugar addict, take a look around and ask yourself the following questions:
a. Are you socialising enough?
b. Do you spend much of your time either in front of the TV or gaming?
c. How often are you bored?
How to overcome your addiction
Overcoming sugar addiction is challenging but not impossible. Possible changes could include, changing your online habits, e.g. engaging in more social networking as opposed to simply surfing the net; taking more exercise, especially outside and with other people - fresh air is amazing! Or seeking professional help for your addiction.
Many people have found therapies to be incredibly helpful for overcoming sugar addiction. These can include hypnosis, acupuncture, behaviour modification therapy, psychotherapy and more recently, BrainWorking Recursive Therapy which offers an incredibly rapid form of treatment and is having some amazing outcomes.
Alexander, B.K., Coambs, R.B., Hadaway, P.F. (1978). The Effect of Housing and Gender on Morphine Self-Administration in Rats. Psychopharmacology 58: 175-179.
Gallagher, J. (2016). Deadly Diabetes in unrelenting march. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35959554 on 6th April, 2016.
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