Pour Some Sugar on Me

Why is it so hard to quit sugar?

Ialmost fell asleep behind the wheel yesterday. Today, I got lightheaded and almost fell out of the shower.

I slept eight hours last night, took the dog for a walk this morning and have had a busy day at work, but none of that is unusual. The only thing that is unusual is that I’m trying to not to eat any added sugar.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

I’m exhausted, but I’m not jittery, anxious, clammy or cranky, so I know it’s not low blood sugar. Nor am I hungry. I am, however, convinced it’s the lack of sugar that’s causing my brain fog.

All my life I’ve had a sweet tooth. My mouth was full of fillings by the age of ten. My mother didn’t allow us to have juice or soda, but ice cream was always in our freezer and sweetened cereal in our pantry. Now I use more artificial sweeteners than I do sugar, but research shows that over time your body learns to react to them the same as sugar.

We all know that any food that tastes deliciously sweet can’t be good for you. Besides weight gain and cavities, sugar is linked to diabetes and fatty liver disease. There’s no diabetes in my family, but I’ve gained some weight and I figure my liver can use all the help it can get.

The sugar industry has spent a lot of money to promote positive findings on the effects of sugar on the body. A cursory look at the funding behind research papers quickly demonstrates that research findings in support of sugar and high fructose corn syrup are funded by companies such as the Canadian Sugar Institute, Kraft, Pepsi and the Corn Refiners Association. Unfunded, heart association- or government-funded research tends not to paint such a rosy picture. Those efforts find that high fructose corn syrup can damage the liver, “contribute to metabolic disorder and altered dopamine function” and increase the risk of heart disease.

But let’s go back to that dopamine function for a minute. Low dopamine activity can depress your mood; high activity can cause mania. Kate Brophy reported in the University Health News on October 18, 2018, that

“ Your brain releases dopamine when you feel pleasure — while eating your favorite foods, for example, or during sex. The “feel-good” factor, however, is one of the elements behind dopamine’s darker side: Several illegal recreational drugs stimulate its release and increase the amount of dopamine in the brain.”

In fact, much of the research on sugar addiction and withdrawal compares the effect of sugar on humans to the effect of opiates. “Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential,” Princeton researchers determined in 2007. They found that rats injected with opioid-blocker Naloxone and rats restricted from sugar both exhibited opioid withdrawal symptoms. Their conclusion? “…We suggest that sugar, as common as it is, nonetheless meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be ‘addictive’ for some individuals when consumed in a ‘binge-like’ manner,” albeit to a lesser degree than drugs such as cocaine.

Those results were duplicated by UCLA and Mount Sinai researchers in 2018. Their study also found evidence of both sugar addiction and sugar withdrawal in rats. They liken sugar’s addictive qualities to caffeine or nicotine rather than hard drugs. But think: millions more people are addicted to caffeine and nicotine than to cocaine, and an entire industry exists just to help smokers quit.

There is little scientific research on sugar withdrawal. The few studies that mention it describe it in terms of opioid withdrawal, partly because they are chemically similar and partly because drug withdrawal has been well-documented. The Princeton scientists found that rats exhibited tremors, depression and anxiety after twenty-four sugar-free hours. A 2015 study published in Physiology and Behavior “confirm[ed] the parallel effects of addictive drugs and sugar and suggest[ed] an increase in impulsivity as a consequence of sugar deprivation.” Research results published in the March 2018 issue of Neuropharmacology state that sugar withdrawal can cause depression and anxiety. And a September 2018 study at the University of Michigan found that “sadness, irritability, tiredness and cravings peaked during the initial two to five days after [participants] quit eating junk food, then the negative side effects tapered off, which parallels the time course of drug withdrawal symptoms.”

There is, however, an abundance of anecdotal detail on sugar withdrawal. A Google search for “sugar withdrawal” will return hundreds of articles from sites like Livestrong, Business Insider, and Healthline. In addition to the depression and anxiety that scientists found, anecdotal sugar withdrawal symptoms include lightheadedness, headaches, confusion, nausea, tingling and fatigue.

Personally, if you’re considering dropping sugar from your diet, I’d recommend starting on a week when work is easy and you don’t have to think too hard about anything.

I ran into a woman at the dog park this morning who told me she quit sugar a few years ago. Within three days she couldn’t stand sweet foods; her taste buds reverted that quickly. But like a smoker trying to quit, her resolve didn’t last. Within a few months she was back to eating sugar. She joked that she eats even more sugar now.

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Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

So why is it so hard to quit sugar? Part of it seems to be its addictive qualities. Perhaps a larger part, though, is the fact that it’s in virtually every processed food — bread, meat rubs, sauces, soup, cereal. It takes time and effort to avoid it, and most of us don’t have either one. The path of least resistance leads through the sugar cane field.

And you have to be prepared for food to taste bad, but you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. I thought unsweetened Greek yogurt would be tart and unpleasant; instead, it tasted far creamier than it used to. I discovered that the sweetness of sugar had been overwhelming the mellowness of cream all these years.

It has only been a week for me, and the headaches kicked in today. We’ll see if I’ve got the resolve to go the long haul.

Motto: “Weirdness is magic turned inside out with the label showing.” Mark Feeney, Boston Globe 11/26/20.

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