Sugar, Cocaine, Heroin Equally Strong Addictions, Study Suggests

It’s really not news.  Silent film star Gloria Swanson knew it way back when.  William Duffy’s 1975 bestseller, ‘Sugar Blues,’ quotes her as saying, “That stuff is poison.”  Wouldn’t even allow it in her house.  Now a new study from Princeton University, using modern-day scientific equipment, has documented how sugar affects brain function the same way cocaine and heroin do.

Princeton psychology professor Bart Hoebel led researchers through a study of sugar’s effect on the brains of rats and their evidence indicates a sugar binge alters brain function and fuels the desire for more of the sweet stuff.  The alteration to brain function worked pretty much like the brain functions when addicted to cocaine and heroin, complete with psychological and physical symptoms of withdrawal when sugar was denied.

First comes the sugar high, including the feel-good rush drug addicts crave.  Hoebel says this is due to the release or increase in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, in a particular part of the brain associated with addictive behaviors.

Next comes the blues of withdrawal.  Chattering teeth, anxiety, desire for isolation, refusal to participate in everyday activities.  These symptoms of sugar deprivation mimic closely withdrawal symptoms people experience when tobacco, alcohol, and drugs are withheld.

Of course, some people can enjoy a cocktail or cigarette without developing an addiction and some can enjoy cinnamon rolls for breakfast every day without craving sugar the rest of the day.  But some people cannot.  For these sugar-holics, Dr. Louis Aronne says there are treatments available that will help kick one’s desire for sweets, although those who eat sugar first thing in the morning have a much more difficult time of controlling their sweet tooth the rest of the day.

Aronne is director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Weill Cornell Medical Center.  He suggests eating protein and vegetables in the mornings to minimize cravings for sweets that may thwart best intentions as the day goes by.

Shunning sugar certainly didn’t hurt Miss Swanson, who made Duffy her sixth and last husband, happily married until her death at age 84.