Sugar addicts: The brain's activity in each stage


Sugar- a carbohydrate component– is one of the vital requirements in our meal. Only desserts make us feel full and satisfied after a good meal. There are different types of sugar sources– chocolates, cold drinks, and alcohol too. Many people all around the world consume sugar despite the consequences. This high intake leads to Diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and heart complications. Although they are aware of the results, they are unable to stop their desire. This psychological condition is ‘sugar addiction.’ There are different stages and types of sugar addicts.

What happens in the brain of sugar addicts?

Sugar is also a component that is capable of releasing Dopamine and opioids into the system. Any substance that is capable of inducing the release of Dopamine or Opioid, by binding to its receptors, is considered addictive. With the release of these neurotransmitters, the addiction also increases. Addiction is a psychological condition where you can’t stop doing a specific activity despite the consequences. He/she considers self-medication by leaning towards sugar, falling into a vicious cycle of obesity and eating disorders.

Subjects also report that though the primary effect is not the same, the addiction towards sugar is similar to other drugs like heroin, cocaine, and morphine. Intake also results in Dopaminergic and cholinergic effects like psychostimulants. Similar to drug addiction, stopping one’s desire toward sugar is challenging.

Types of sugar addicts

1. Binge eating addicts

Bingeing is the first stage of addiction. Eating food for comfort is a characteristic symptom. People also tend to binge when they ever feel unsatisfied or moody; sugar is their rescue. They eat sugar when they feel the discomfort, increasing intake with each time. Tolerance is the result of enhanced intake.  

2. Withdrawal and relapse

Withdrawal is the second stage. In this stage, the person is aware of the consequences and tries to reduce intake. Withdrawal may either be due to absence, or chemical blockage. The symptoms due to the lack of sugar include aggression, depression, anxiety, dysphoria, and temperature drops. The drop in temperature is an indicator of low sugar levels.

The symptoms due to Naloxone blockage include teeth chattering, and head throbs. In the events of relapse, he/she intakes more than the prior intake.

3. Craving addiction

Craving is the third stage. It is the enhanced stage of motivation and occurs mostly after relapse. In other words, it means the intense desire for self-administration and extreme motivation. 

4. Cross sensitization

Cross sensitization is the moment where the individual moves on for other options to reduce sugar intake. Unfortunately, with sugar abstinence, they tend to lean towards alcohol intake– ‘cross-sensitization.’ In clinical terms, it is the ‘gateway effect.’ Rats under forced abstinence enhanced alcohol intake. This study suggests that conditioned sugar access is a gateway to alcohol use. Neurochemical alterations in the brain are the underlying reason behind this phenomenon. Intermittent sugar access can also alter the Enkephalin gene, reducing the Opioid effects.

Role of neurotransmitters in the brain of sugar addicts

Neurotransmitters are to be blamed for one’s addiction to substance abuse. In sugar addiction, Dopamine, Opioid, and Acetylcholine play a vital role.

1. Dopamine (DA)- role in bingeing addiction

Dopamine release from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is the first step with sugar intake. Opioids and neurotoxins accompany the release of Dopamine from VTA to nucleus accumbens. Some sugars also act as Dopamine terminals. Sugar acting as Dopamine terminals and inducing dopamine release is evident for sugar abuse. 

An increase in the concentration of extracellular Dopamine increases drug withdrawal. When the Dopamine concentration increases, the system compensates for the release by reducing the receptors. This condition eventually leads to tolerance. At this moment, the tolerant individual needs to consume more sugar to experience the same effect as before. 

Although Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter defining sugar addiction, it cannot explain the withdrawal symptoms. On the other hand, Opioids are responsible for all the sugar withdrawal symptoms we experience.

2. Opioids- role in bingeing and withdrawal

Opioids accompany dopamine systems. The Dopamine systems process the release of Opioids. The Opioid Enkephalin is responsible for the ‘reward.’ Enkephalin increases the mu and delta receptors, which thereby increase the Dopamine receptors. Repeated use of sugar increases these receptors, eventually resulting in sensitization. Mu receptor antagonists can help stop heroin effects too.

In contrast, the agonists increase intake. This effect is similar in sugar addiction too. In other words, Opioid modifications are the primary reason behind one’s withdrawal. Moreover, the antagonist Naloxone also targets Opioids. 

3. Acetylcholine (Ach)- role in the withdrawal and relapse

Acetylcholine, on the other hand, expresses contrasting effects. It can modulate the Enkephalin gene, inhibiting the peptide release. Moreover, Nicotine or alcohol withdrawal is evident when Acetylcholine’s concentration is more compared to Dopamine. This alteration can result in an aversive state of an individual, leading to behavioral depression.  If it acts as an antagonist of M-1 receptors, the effects are contrasting. It acts as a Dopaminergic brake.

When you have your first meal of sugar, the ACh release is delayed until satiation begins. Its release occurs when this first meal is drawing to a close.  

Hypothalamus maintains Acetylcholine and Dopamine balance. Norepinephrine reduces Ach with eating– except the neuropeptide-Y that does not affect DA or Ach levels. Increased DA levels indicate satiety, and decreased levels indicate behavioral depression. 

Tips for sugar addicts to reduce intake

  • Eat a healthy meal whenever you are hungry.
  • Take a shower that helps reduce craving.
  • Exercise regularly, especially whenever hungry. Exercising releases feel-good hormones that reduce craving.
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid stress and craving trigger

Related: Eating disorder types – Which one can you relate?

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