The Number One problem with Sugar and Sweetners – even the natural ones – is that they’re addictive. Yes, they are low in – or empty of – nutrition, they are high in calories, and they cause insulin levels to spike and fall, and all of those things potentially explode into a whole host of serious health problems. But the Number One issue is that they are addictive. Like tobacco, heroin or cocain, once you’ve boarded that train to the Pleasure Zone of Sugar and Sweeteners, it’s very hard to get off.
The Food Industry knows this too well. They sneak sugar into all kinds of packaged products. In baked treats, sugar is often the second highest ingredient. But if you read the labels on ham and bacon, mayonaisse and tomato sauces, and pretty much anything else that you find on the supermarket shelves, sugars and sweeteners will be in there, in some manner or form. As well as habitualising us to the flavour, food manufacturers play on our psychology. There’s a reason why you always find children’s candy bars by the cash register. Get them hooked early, and they’ll be with you for life.
It wasn’t always so scary. Back in the days, sugar pushers weren’t lurking on the street corners. ’Sweet’, ‘Salty’ and ‘Fat’ were, quite simply, the flavours found in nature which signaled to the brain that we had found a nutrient-dense source of energy (sweet), a means of regulating fluids (salty), and a concentrated source of energy (fatty). When we consume natural foods with these flavours, we are easily satieted. Satiety is the brain’s way of acknowledging that the body has received an adequate amount of nutrition. It turns off the signal to keep eating. But as well as feeling satisfied nutritionally, the body responds with signals of pleasure and reward. This is the important bit with regards to the addictive quality of sugar and sweeteners.
The powerful synergistic messages of pleasure, emotion and reward cause the brain to release dopamine. This neurotransmitter activates our desire and energises our behaviour. It makes us really, really want that piece of cake, and sends us out to find it. Dopamine promises a little bit of ecstasy if you just give in to that urge. It doesn’t care how you go about it. White sugar, maple syryp, muscovado, stevia, honey, molasses, a banana or strawberries. It’s all the same, as far as those chemicals are concerned. The brain wants a sugar hit. And it wants it now.
Dopamine holds true to it’s promise. When sweetness ignites our nerves, the brain releases Opiods. Opiods are endorphins, or ‘feel-good’ hormones. When opiods flood into our system, our stress is relieved, and we start to glow with pleasure and positive emotion.
Now, this is all well and good in a healthy individual who is eating natural, unrefined foods. These are natural, biological signals which have evolved over millions of years. But when we were hunting and gathering, that sweet satisfaction would happen every now and again – we’d find seasonal fruits, the occasional honey hive or a sugar-ant nest. Along with the pleasure, we’d receive antioxidants and a whole host of bioavailable vitamins and minerals. The problem we face now is three-fold: Sweet foods are always within reach, they are empty of nutrients and their sweetness is over and beyond anything found in nature.
Dopamine and the Opiods are addictive chemicals. They have to be, because if they weren’t addictive, we’d have little motivation to seek food. They provide signals which have to be satisfied. But they are also prone to becoming habitualised to certain levels of stimulus. People who consume recreational party drugs on a regular basis know how this works. At the beginning, a tiny quarter of whatever pill will be enough to provide that all-night high. But after a while, the pleasure centres of the brain get used to that, and need more of the substance to arrive at the same peak. If the craving is continually given in to, that little quarter develops into being one and a half. Or two, or five. And the down-side of not having the drug in the system is terrible sadness and unmanageable anxiety. So the pill gets taken more often. When the neurological pathways are reinforced to the extent that they turn into freeways, they light up at the mere thought of that substance. This is craving.
I teach yoga in a Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Community for young men. There is a particular yoga breathing exercise which I would love to do with the partecipants because the results are so immediately calming. But I’m not allowed. The practice, called ‘Nadi Shodana’, involves breathing through alternate nostrils. You close the right nostril, and breathe in through the left. Then close the left nostril and breathe out through the right. Breathe in through the right, close it, and breathe out through the left. The reason I’m not allowed to practice this in the context of classes at the Community is that many of the program’s partecipants are recovering from Cocaine addiction. Just that simple act of closing one nostril and breathing in through the other will light up the dopamine and opiod pathways in the brain. This will trigger craving, which will undo the good work we are doing to deconstruct those patterns.
Addiction to Sugar and Sweeteners is no different. Same chemicals, same patterns. The high quantity of sugars in processed foods, the prevalence of them, and the fact that many sugar alternatives are actually sweeter than sugar itself, means that the opiod and dopamine receptors demand more and more in order to be satisfied. What was once sweet is no longer sweet enough.
Dependance sets in. The body quickly adapts to being reliant on sugar for energy. It stops burning fat, and the negative health impact is catastrophic. The refined sugars and sweeteners contain no nutrients, so the body-brain never receives the message of satiety, which means you keep eating. All the unburned carbohydrates are turned into triglycerides and are stored as body fat. Blood sugar levels rise too high and too often. All this leads to leptin resistance, which makes you eat more. When all the cells in the body are stuffed so full that they can’t take any more, insulin resistance sets in. This promotes psychological and physiological stress, and the high cortisol levels send you reaching for sugar once more. The bad bacteria in the gut just love this. They feed off all those sugars and keep multiplying, which leads to gut dysbiosis. Gut dysbiosis is neither pleasant for you, nor for those in your immediate vicinity. The inflammation of gut dysbiosis contributes to Leaky Gut, which in turn leads to sistemic inflammation. Sistemic inflammation rears it’s head in lots of ugly ways, from undiagnosed aches and pains, to seasonal allergies, to autoimmunity disease. And then there are the problems of heart disease, blocked arteries, risk of stroke, etc.
It’s not a pretty picture. And because of the Opiods and Dopomines involved, it’s a very, very difficult habit to break. As we wake up to the horrors of refined sugar, we invent all kinds of ways to keep that sweetness in our lives. We’ll substitute refined sugar for stevia, molasses, muscovado, or dates, all the while convincing ourselves that these are ‘healthy’ because they are natural. And that’s not entirely wrong. I’m not one to demonise honey and dried figs. The problem is that to a Sugar Addicted brain, it’s all the same.
Anyone who has tried to give up sugar will tell you the same story. Everything was rolling along fine until one day they ate a Paleo Cookie that had been made with stevia drops. Then they ate another. And another. And then they couldn’t stop. That stevia doesn’t cause insulin peaks, or that dates are full of magnesium, is not the issue. The sweetness lights up the opiod and dopamine pathways like a slot machine, and at that point you’re back to square one. Well, maybe not square one. Because when that happens, you really understand what you’re in for.
Paleo Diet and Lifestylers say: Drop the sugar. Get over it. Do what you have to do, for your health’s sake.
Here at Paleomantic, we say: Get that Sugar Habit under control. Reduce your desire for sugar from a flood down to a trickle. And know that this will take time.
My main reference for this post is the life-changing book, It Starts With Food by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, founders of the Whole 30 nutritional reset program.
We know what this is about. We’ve been there, and the Sugar Addiction continues to challenge us. I’ll be writing about our own experieces in an upcoming post, so stay tuned, and be sure to sign up for the Paleomantic Newletter so you don’t miss out.
Would you consider yourself addicted to sugar? Are your kids addicted to sugar? What happens when you don’t give in to that urge?
Thanks for reading and for being a part of Paleomantic. I love reading your comments, and look forward to hearing about your own experiences. Please share this with anyone who might find the information useful, and thanks so much for sharing on your Social.
Best Wishes, Good Health.