There is controversy when it comes to determining what is characterized as an addiction versus what isn’t. For example, is food addiction real? Many experts say yes, even though it’s not a diagnosable condition based on the DSM-5. Another area of controversy occurs with sugar. Is sugar a drug? If so, how is sugar like a drug? When does consuming sugar go beyond having a sweet tooth and become something more troubling?
The Debate- Why Is Sugar Called a Drug?
There are a few different reasons people ask is sugar a drug, but first, what are the facts about sugar? Why is sugar such a controversial thing right now and why is consuming sugar being compared by some to heroin addiction?
Many people in America and also countries throughout the world consume far too much sugar. Much of the sugar we consume regularly comes from processed foods and snacks. Sugar accounts for up to 17 percent of the caloric intake of adults in the United States and up to 14 percent for children. Sugar is also one of the primary causes of obesity and a range of chronic diseases in the U.S. including diabetes.
Other facts about sugar, sugar’s effects, and sugar consumption include:
- So-called liquid sugar is one of the biggest components of what’s often called a sugar epidemic in the U.S. Drinks including energy drinks, sports drinks, and soft drinks are the single largest source of added sugar in the diets of Americans according to research from the USDA. These sugary beverages amount to 36 percent of the added sugar consumed.
- Having one soda per day can increase the risk of dying from heart disease by almost a third according to research cited in JAMA Internal Medicine.
- Having soda and other sugary drinks one to two times a day can increase in a 26 percent higher likelihood of type 2 diabetes.
- Fructose, which is one type of sugar, can be nearly as harmful to the liver as alcohol. Fructose is difficult for the liver to process, and there is growing evidence linking the consumption of high levels of fructose to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and non-alcoholic steatophetatis, which is liver inflammation and scarring.
- Sugar can lead to metabolic syndrome, which is a term referring to a number of serious chronic health conditions including liver disease and heart disease.
- The American Heart Association’s recommendation is no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day for women, yet the average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons of added sugar every day.
One of the most surprising things you might learn about sugar? It can cause effects in the brain that lead to intense sugar cravings and possibly addiction. Sugar can affect the brain as much as cocaine and alcohol, which is why some people wonder is sugar a drug?
Sugar and the Brain’s Reward System
When someone uses certain substances considered addictive, such as cocaine, opioids or nicotine, the brain has a certain response.
For example, with opioids like heroin, the drugs affect opioid receptors in the central nervous system. With activation of these receptors, the brain’s emotional response to pain changes, which is why opioids are effective at relieving pain. At the same time, dopamine is released in response to the exposure to opioids
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good because it’s released in response to pleasurable activities. Along with substances, certain activities can create a natural dopamine release in the brain—for example, sex.
However, certain substances including illicit drugs lead to a higher-than-normal amount of dopamine to flood the brain. This dopamine response then creates a reward response in the brain.
The brain is wired to want to continue seeking out stimuli that create pleasure, and in the case of illicit substances, that can lead to an addiction. That’s one reason addiction is considered a disease—essentially certain substances that trigger the reward system can overtake or hijack the brain. When this happens, a person’s use of that addictive substance is no longer in their control, and their use becomes compulsive.
Sugar activates the same reward system in the brain as drugs and drug addictions and triggers a release of dopamine because of its effects on what’s called the mesolimbic dopamine system.
Does Sugar Meet the Criteria for Substance Use Disorders?
The diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While there isn’t currently a category for sugar addiction, it would seem in many ways the symptoms of a potential sugar addiction could closely overlap with those of a substance use disorder.
For example, some of the symptoms of a substance use disorder include:
- Strong urges or cravings
- Continuing to use the substance despite adverse consequences
- Developing a tolerance to the substance and needing more and more to get the same effects
- Trying to quit unsuccessfully
- Withdrawal symptoms occur when quitting suddenly
Just looking at the above criteria and re-evaluating the original question of “is sugar a drug,” it would certainly seem there are some similarities at least in terms of the addictive qualities.
Research shows sugar triggers a dopamine release in one specific part of the brain—the accumbens—which is the same part of the brain involved in addiction to heroin and cocaine.
Additionally, sugar also causes the release of opioids in the brain. That, in turn, leads to a rush or a high that’s similar to what happens when someone injects heroin.
Developing a Sugar Tolerance
When your brain is exposed to something that triggers the release of a large amount of dopamine, and then this repeatedly happens, it can lead to tolerance.
In the case of opioids, to go back to the original example, tolerance can occur relatively quickly. Even after using opioids only a few times, the dopamine reward system starts to adapt to the stimulation and the flood of dopamine.
Then, the person using opioids no longer feels the same powerful high they did when they first used the drugs. At that point, they continue to use opioids to try and get the same effects, because it’s no longer in their control, and often because they’ve formed a physical dependence and if they were to stop, they would experience withdrawal.
The same thing can happen with sugar. When you consistently expose your brain to sugar, your reward system adjusts to the overstimulation, and you don’t feel the same sense of pleasure and satisfaction you initially do.
This can lead to other issues such as the development of binge eating disorder. Much like an addiction to other drugs, ongoing sugar addiction can lead to a host of physical and mental health problems including increased risk of weight gain and the associated complications that come with metabolic disorders and obesity.
What is Sugar Withdrawal?
One of the biggest obstacles for people addicted to certain substances such as alcohol, stimulants and prescription drugs is the withdrawal period. The brain and body adjust to the effects of the substance over time. The brain changes its production of certain chemicals based on the presence and effects of the substance you’re using.
Once someone develops a dependence on a substance, if they try to stop using it suddenly they will likely go through withdrawal. Withdrawal is the body’s response that occurs as it’s trying to readjust without the presence of the substance, and once again normalize and balance neurotransmitters in the brain.
As with addictive substances, evidence suggests sugar withdrawal is possible.
The following are some of the potential symptoms of sugar withdrawal, which as with other drugs, can be both mental and physical.
Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
- Depression often occurs along with an inability to find pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable
- Anxiety and feelings of irritability, nervousness, and restlessness can occur as someone detoxes from sugar
- Sugar detox and withdrawal can lead to changes in sleep patterns—for example, having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Cognitive issues are common with sugar withdrawal. People often have problems concentrating and they may feel unfocused and forgetful as they detox from sugar
- Strong cravings for sugar and other high carbohydrate foods can occur when someone goes through sugar detox
- Nausea, tingling, and fatigue are some common physical symptoms of sugar withdrawal
- Headache is one of the symptoms of sugar withdrawal that occurs most often
While going through sugar withdrawal can be difficult, typically How to Overcome Food Addiction (and 5 Books That Can Help)an addiction to sugar can be broken in around 10 days.
The Takeaway—Is Sugar a Drug?
Sugar is in much of the food we eat and often is naturally occurring which is one of the reasons doctors and researchers may be hesitant to describe it as a drug. Food is something we need for survival, unlike other drugs.
At the same time, if you’re asking is sugar a drug, you can’t ignore the research indicating that it has harmful effects, and can activate the same reward pathways in the brain as drugs like heroin and cocaine. There are certainly similarities, and for people who struggle with sugar addiction, the consequences can be just as damaging as with an addiction to many other drugs.
Too much sugar is linked with some of the most devastating health conditions, and these conditions can significantly diminish quality of life.
So, is sugar a drug? Maybe, maybe not but it’s certainly something to be aware of in terms of its effects on the brain and the body.
Schaefer, Anna, and Yasin, Kareem. “Experts Agree: Sugar Might Be As Addictive As Cocaine.” Healthline. October 10, 2016. Accessed March 5, 2019.
The Conversation. “Fact Or Fiction—Is Sugar Addictive?” February 22, 2017. Accessed March 5, 2019.
Santos-Longhurst, Adrienne. “How to Beat Sugar Detox Symptoms and Feel Better Than Ever.” Healthline. November 26, 2018. Accessed March 5, 2019.
Krans, Brian. “Sugar Is a Drug and Here’s How We’re Hooked.” Healthline. September 18, 2013. Accessed March 5, 2019.
Barnes, Zahra. “9 Disturbing Facts About Sugar You Need to Know.” Women’s Health. November 13, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2019.
Nunes, Laura. “What Do Sugar and Cocaine Have in Common?” Brain MD Life. August 31, 2017. Accessed March 5, 2019.