The Nature of Sugar Addiction

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How does it feel to be a sugar addict? Withdrawing from sugar I experienced headaches, low moods, flu-like symptoms, fatigue, and cravings for sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol. Through research I came to understand the bigger picture of sugar addiction, linked to brain chemicals, emotions, hypoglycaemia, underlying stresses and traumas, nutritional deficiencies and not enjoying ones life enough.

sugar addiction
'Simple carbohydrates' are used by your body like sugar.

My Sugar Addiction

As I'm writing this I am trying to understand addiction. For the past two days I have been suffering of sugar withdrawal, with all the classic symptoms: fatigue, sugar cravings, flu-like symptoms, headache, low moods and a lack of interest in usually enjoyable things.

I am sitting at my desk at home looking outside to the river view and a sunny day. It's 28 degrees Celsius outside (82 Fahrenheit), I have a time off work, yet I have no desire to go out or to take a trip to the seaside today. In fact, I am feeling cold, with a woollen blanket wrapped around me. It is a struggle to motivate myself to write, although usually I can't get enough of it.

I keep wanting to go to the shop to buy a beer or a doughnut - or a cheesy croissant. I keep telling myself that I can do whatever I want today as long as I don't eat sugar or drink beer but the desire is strong and this way of thinking doesn't seem to help much. I just read about sugar withdrawal online and some of those who had gotten past this stage assured their readers that eventually the desire to eat sugar will completely go, never to come back. But even that didn't seem like a consolation! I feel like I don't even want to get to that point because that would mean that I would never get to taste the nice flavours of ice cream, chocolate bars, cold cider and pastries again.

On the other hand I am feeling afraid that I won't be able to stay off sugar in the long-term, because I know that once I am past this and feeling more energetic (I have quit sugar before) I will not remember how hard it was to quit - or not care - and indulge in something on a 'special' occasion, thinking it is ok in moderation. The problem I personally have, however, is that when I eat one pastry, or drink one beer, I will then want more. And alcohol will make me crave heavy foods, whereas pastries will make me fatigued and crave alcohol to pick me up - or another stimulant, usually caffeine, pasta, chocolate cookie, ice cream, candy or more pastries.

The vicious cycle of addiction.

You may think that I am trivialising addiction but I recognise that sugar habit really is a form of addiction from my experience of quitting smoking before... and with at least some of the more serious forms of addiction I believe that the withdrawal may feel similar in many ways, though the symptoms can be a lot stronger, of course.

I am abstaining from all junk foods as I have decided that this is the beginning of a new life. No more strict diets with strict rules, just staying away from everything that I know for a fact to be bad for me. The 'quit all junk' -diet! That includes sugar, refined carbohydrates, gluten and dairy products. In addition I am keeping processed foods to a minimum. So, in fact, some of these symptoms might be due to dairy withdrawal as well.

The main component in addiction, in my experience, is emotional. The above-listed withdrawal symptoms of sugar are very subtle, yet at the same time powerful. You expect addiction to feel different than it does. It is hard to describe the feeling that compels you to eat sugar or smoke cigarettes, it almost feels like a demand from your spirit, with very little explicit physical symptoms or other recognisable feelings. Therein lies the power of it: the unexpected nature of addiction, the fact that it feels very different from what you expect and that it feels very subtle, mild even. Allen Carr described the feeling of wanting a cigarette as a type of hunger, which is a good description.

People's bodies crave foods rich in certain minerals according to their deficiencies. Your body also forces you to sleep if you try to stay up too long and it is so successful, that if you stay awake for long enough, say a week, eventually nothing else matters to you than to sleep. It also compels you to want sex, to not eat when you're ill, and to desire many more things that it needs. The ways that our body-mind-spirit compels us to do things are very powerful and easily capable of overwriting anything as feeble as willpower.

Luckily the body must know that sugar addiction is not a matter of life or death, so it doesn't put its full force into compelling you, because if it did, no-one would ever survive sugar addiction! We would eat it until we choked. Yet something is out of balance and some powerful signals are used by your body to make you want to eat sugar, or smoke a cigarette, etc. And the harder it is to put your finger on why you want it, the easier it is to trivialise the issue and say to yourself, it's just one cigarette, why not? Don't underestimate your mind's ability to post-rationalise as well: it will come up with endless supporting reasons on why you should quit another day, or why you need the cigarette now, to get over a certain situation, for example, etc.

But once I was free of cigarettes I didn't want them anymore at all, and day by day I felt better for not wanting them. But even then you still occasionally wonder whether you should have one, just to see how it felt or tasted, just one. Because now the effort you put in it seems a distant memory, and you think that one won't be enough to make you into a smoker again.

And yet, for some unexplainable reason, I does make you into a smoker again. I experienced it myself and I have seen it in others. The biggest step is to smoke the first cigarette after quitting. Once you convince yourself of that, you can easily convince yourself to have another one, even if it is many days or weeks later. And it is so surprising to notice that you want another one! Why would you? Once I quit drinking alcohol for three months the glass of wine after tasted horrible! And the same goes for cigarettes if you stay non-smoking for long enough (and I hope the same goes for sugar). Yet, you still want another one. And you still can't explain why. You still don't have a clear feeling, just a kind of hunger which is not really even physical. But you know you need it and you can only temporarily get it off your mind before it pops up again.

Now, I believe a lot of this to be a matter of how you condition your mind. If you believe you are addicted you will be, and if your desire to quit is strong enough, you will be able to do it. Somehow belief, faith and optimistic attitude can override the feelings of addiction. I don't think they will be able to override some of the more serious physical symptoms of drug addiction but they can override the feelings of 'hunger' that make you want to get readdicted. And not everyone gets addicted, at least not to the same things.

So in terms of my addiction to sugar there are two things on my mind right now: First, a general sense of loss from never being able to eat sugar again, especially since it seems that all this effort is wasted if I do eat it again. Second, a fear that I will inevitably end up eating sugar again, and that will inevitably cause me to get readdicted. Both of these two reasons right now seem good enough reasons to go out and buy a beer or a caramel doughnut.

But then I decide that I won't because I want to see how energetic I will feel when I'm sugar-free. I know from before that within a week or so I will be feeling very good: more energetic, more happy and upbeat, enjoying the things I am used to enjoying again and at the same time I will be doing my long-term health a huge service, since I have insulin resistance and sugar really wrecks my system because of it.

So if I just stick with it and wait, the subtle yet powerful cravings will go. Meanwhile, I also have to deal with the dialogue in my head... Beer tastes good, it will help me concentrate, I will be able to enjoy writing, it will override the flu-like symptoms I'm feeling, it will give me energy and relax me, I could go out and enjoy the day, it would make me feel good... and how long until I will be able to feel myself again and enjoy life? ... And I have quite similar arguments for the caramel doughnut.

So when you weigh one sugar doughnut against life-enjoyment, the doughnut seems like a very trivial, insignificant thing. And I think that's why people go for it. It is also hard to believe that sugar would cause so many problems, since most people eat it and it is promoted everywhere, constantly. And the negative effects usually build up slowly, which makes sugar seem fairly innocent.

And what is more, many of us have never known what it feels like to be sugar-free! Some of us were even born addicted to sugar!

So while writing this, and trying to process through these feelings of sugar addiction, I am doing some research to understand my current situation better. I will summarize my findings below.

Definition of Addiction

I define addiction as:

  • Anything that you take or want to take to excess,
  • and you don't naturally want to stop when a physical or nutritional need in the body is satisfied,
  • and without which you feel that life wouldn't be as enjoyable,
  • and which you cannot just decide to not have again as you feel you need it or want it very much,
  • and which you feel you need during emotional highs and lows,
  • and which is negatively effecting some aspect of your life,
  • and which cannot be replaced by a healthier choice without the feeling of deprivation and loss.

Apart from the obvious: drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and prescription medicines; people can also be addicted to sugar, carbohydrates, dairy, any food that they are intolerant/ allergic to, other people, power and authority, sex, money, risk-taking, perfection, work, TV, internet, impulse shopping, ego-boosting activities and behaviours, etc.

But not everyone who indulges in the above things is addicted. Everyone's addictions seem closely linked with their personal weaknesses, whether weaknesses of character, physical imbalances, emotional traumas or stresses, or other weaknesses. If you are not addicted, you can just take it or leave it and you tend to prefer things that you know are good for you and enhance your life in the long-term.

The Chemical Side of Addiction, Dopamine

Listening to various experts on addiction on You Tube, i.e. Tommy Rosen, John Dupuy, Ashley Turner, and Sherry Gaben, I found out a little bit more about how addiction works.

Addictive substances affect the most primitive part of the human brain, i.e. the reptilian brain, also called the mid-brain. What this means is that it plays with our survival instincts, our primitive urges and the rewards we feel for those primitive urges. It is the nature's way to compel us to do things, to reproduce, to eat, to sleep, and to eliminate. The reward we get for our addictive tendencies is profound.

Dopamine is a brain-chemical involved in the pleasant feelings of 'reward' and these feelings are naturally achieved through the above-mentioned activities - but also through exercise, being in nature, achieving things, love, positive thinking, socializing, mind-body work, etc. It is as if the cells, the nervous system and the energy body are communicating their well-being to us, and rewarding us.

But sugar addiction has recently been compared to cocaine or heroin addiction because of this link with the brain's 'reward center', the feel-good hormones, opiate receptors, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.

The connection between dopamine and food addiction, however, may not be as straightforward as some foods giving you more dopamine and thus making you feel better. Addiction is also only partly based on dopamine and even speaking purely in terms of brain chemistry, other things are at play as well, i.e. a memory of a desired effect, the need to recreate it and after some time: a conditioned response to repeat the behavior that lead to the desired effect.

Just to caution you against oversimplified explanations about the connection between dopamine and sugar addiction, this article will highlight that the research on this area shows a lot of complex issues at play: "The Unsexy Truth About Dopamine" by Vaughan Bell in the Observer.

The below paragraph includes quotations from Helpguide.org's summary of research published in 'Harvard Health Publications' (the unquoted parts are my summary and elaboration):

"In a person who becomes addicted, brain receptors become overwhelmed. The brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors." ... as a result dopamine has less effect on the brain's reward centre and the pleasure associated with the addictive drug subsides. But at the same time, it becomes harder to feel pleasure from anything. The memory of the desired effect and the need to recreate it (the wanting) persists. "Conditioned learning helps explain why people who develop an addiction risk relapse even after years of abstinence."
The problem I have with the dopamine theory of addiction, and the idea that some addictive substances, e.g. cigarettes, give a dopamine surge to the brain, is that cigarettes aren't enjoyable in the beginning. They become enjoyable once we are addicted. And then the enjoyment comes from removing the uncomfort of missing the addictive substance. Or perhaps it is the addiction and the reward for the addiction that is enough to create the dopamine surge. It is definitely more about the learned, conditioned response and the association of pleasure, at least in the beginning, than a straightforward chemical pleasure.

I think other rewards have probably as much to do with the development of the initial addiction as does the pleasure derived from the drug. After all, you get a dopamine surge from telling a good joke, from doing group sports, and other social situations. Basically you get a dopamine surge any time something makes you feel good and relieving addictive symptoms and cravings, feeding the hunger, makes you feel good, so... the dopamine reward probably comes only after you are addicted to something, whether it's a chemical or a behaviour like impulse shopping, or something else.

But, still, there is of course a clear physical aspect to addiction as well:

"When rats in the Princeton study went cold turkey, they began bingeing on alcohol, which suggests an abrupt drop in dopamine levels promotes addictive behavior."

To conclude, I believe that dopamine has a lot to do with addiction but I think the concept needs to be problematized, i.e. understood in a more complex way: It is not as simple as too much dopamine = addiction.

Emotional Eating

"The pleasure I gained from watching TV was directly associated, in my mind, with the dopamine hit I got from the sugar. It's possible to disassociate the two activities but you won't do it by abstaining from both using will-power. The trouble with addictions is that they frequently attach themselves to otherwise-pleasurable experiences and it becomes impossible to distinguish the two."
- 'The Sweet Poison Quit Plan' by David Gillespie

Or perhaps the TV conveniently allows for the sugar habit? Perhaps the enjoyment is more from the sugar than the TV but only after the person is already addicted. Many people have to change their lives to some degree when they come out of years of addiction because they realize that the old habits and ways of being are not serving their new purposes anymore.

Tommy Rosen talks about the importance of a fact-finding mission when coming out of addictions: "You are on a mission to find out what truly serves you and what doesn't. [....] Is what I'm getting in the short-term out of this habit worth what I have to pay in the long-term?" He suggest that to find out if you are addicted, you can take a test to give up for 30-days what you think you are addicted to. If you can't give it up you might have an issue.

Emotional/ Spiritual Side of Addiction

All of these experts seem to agree that at the very base of addiction is some sort of trauma, or lack of love, or just a general sense of insecurity. This could also be 'learned negative thought-patterns' and/or self-doubt. "They live in the body as stuck emotional energy", Tommy Rosen says.

And instead of feeling these uncomfortable feelings, which I believe we all have, we choose to try to distract ourselves away from them, dumb them down, medicate them away, postpone the thinking and feeling until tomorrow. We cover our true feelings and pretend they are not there. Yet the less we allow ourselves to feel what our hearts and our body are trying to communicate, the more we block life itself.

And sometimes, when everything in our lives is going perfectly well, we feel a void, an unhappiness or a sadness, some uncomfortable emotions that seem to have no reason and no explanation. This is our true self trying to communicate, or an old hurt trying to release.

Anaesthetizing Pain, Anaesthetizing Joy and Happiness

Dain Heer explains in a YouTube video, loosely paraphrased, that part of changing into a new you, or changing into a better life, involves dissolving your old reference points, getting out of your comfort zone. With change come certain feelings, insecurities and fears. "The only way you can feel good all the time is by not changing", he says. He then continues:

"Don't resist it - move right through it. What you find on the other side of what you've been calling uncomfortable is a level of joy that was never possible before, a level of enthusiasm for living, a level of intensity of being, a level of spaciousness that was never possible from these old, solid places that you just asked to let go of. So please, don't make yourself wrong when it gets uncomfortable, learn to surf through the uncomfortable. [...]

"This is why so many people do not live lives of greatness and possibility, do not step into their total awareness and do not step into their total capacities, because for them, when it gets uncomfortable, they go back in the other direction." - Dain Heer

Tommy Rosen explains that in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a discussion about:

"... a strange phenomenon that happens when people are on the verge of success - they go out and drink. They've been sober for a very long time, they've brought their life back up, and they are at the verge of some successful business venture, like something great is about to happen, and they completely freak out, go off the wagon and start drinking. That's a real phenomenon within that programme. We see it a lot."

So sometimes we even anaesthetize the feeling of joy. Why is that? Is it because all strong feelings are somehow threatening? Is it because the pressure of succeeding gets higher, especially with a business venture? Is it because our life changed too fast and we weren't able to adjust to the new way of being with mindfulness and due attention to our feelings? Is it because we are suddenly not sure if we are not going the right way? Perhaps it's just that the old world has become too comfortable and something on a subconscious level does not want to let go. Apparently the same problem is seen in relationships as well, self-sabotaging a loving relationship because it is somehow too good or perfect, and thus scary. Perhaps there are deep fears where we believe that we don't deserve it. Or perhaps it is a question of mind power and not believing that we can do it, start a new life. Often we quite blindly act according to our beliefs.

Another possibility is that the adrenalin or other hormones that get released through excitement make us feel nervous and we need a drink to 'calm our nerves'. After all, anxiety and excitement are similar, they both work with adrenaline, and if you don't react well to adrenaline because of a ran-down nervous system, blood sugar problems, or adrenal fatigue, then you probably won't feel good about excitement. Maybe you feel like you want to numb it down and maybe you feel that happiness and excitement make you nervous.

So in conclusion, all addiction seems to have an aspect of anaesthetizing the real world. I remember writing in my diary as a teenager that 'life without alcohol is almost unbearably exciting'. And later, during university years, I got into the habit of marking both life's joys and sorrows with a drink.

But since my recent years of healing myself through nutrition and other means, I have begun to realize that when we anaesthetize or numb down insecurity, sadness, and other emotions through alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, etc., we also anaesthetize the excitement and the happy moments in life.

We need some lows to create the highs. And if we don't challenge ourselves, live a too easy life, and stick to the old, comfortable sugar habit, we will never come through the other side and experience the energy and joy of having succeeded and allowed our body and mind to function at a higher level.

Coming Out of Sugar Withdrawal

This morning, a day after writing the above article, I feel well and the idea of never eating sugar again seems appealing, and not like a doom scenario anymore at all! It may be that the cravings hit again later today but I am definitely on the road to kicking the habit and I'm happy that I made it through yesterday. It may seem very trivial to you but it did feel very hard to fight the sugar cravings. But the point I'm trying to make that is that it was hard in a strange way that I can't easily explain, as I wasn't in pain and I didn't have severe symptoms. The difficulty was more trying to keep my mind focused and to accept that I wasn't going to feel very upbeat that day.

I have decided to start a 30-day experiment of meditating one hour each day, which should help with getting in touch with my true emotions and feelings and also to work through any addictive or self-destructive tendencies. I will link to this experiment soon.

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Adrenal Insufficiency

Understanding Sugar Addiction (Carbohydrate Sensitivity) from a Nutritional Angle.


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