A quick personal “case study” regarding sugar and then on to how the dopamine receptors are causing your sugar cravings, why it’s happening, and what to do about it.
Halloween brought an interesting experience for me. My son performed at a local retirement home and was given candy after the show. He doesn’t like chocolate so much of it wasn’t of interest to him. I, on the other hand, saw a bit sized Three Musketeer Bar sitting in the bag. I remember back in the days when my dieting including counting fat grams and a Three Musketeer was the lowest fat grams so my office mate and I frequently indulged (thinking ourselves so nutrition savvy at the time).
Now, understand that I do enjoy sweets – usually about once a month on date night with my husband. Otherwise I enjoy a little honey in my tea or occasional coffee and once-in-a-blue-moon maple syrup instead of fruit on a Sunday breakfast treat, like waffles. My sweet tooth is definitely more sensitive now that I seldom eat refined sugars. So, you can imagine my surprise when the first bite of the Three Muskateer hit my mouth and the sugar was so sickeningly sweet. I actually considered spitting it out, but what kind of mom spits in front of her son and his 31 classmates?
Within seconds the sugar didn’t seem too bad any more. As the first bite hit my stomach there was a severe lurching of unhappiness. Yet, I popped the second bite right into my mouth without hesitation. Sweetness decreased. Stomach still not happy. Brain firing with a love for sugar! I wanted to search that bag for another bar!
What???? It wasn’t all that pleasant but I was considering going back for more?
This is the state people live in constantly without even being aware of the sugar problem or what to do about it.
Sugar and Dopamine Receptors
Without getting super sciency on you there’s a little receptor in our brain for dopamine. This receptor must be activated or “switched on” in order for us to feel the sense of pleasure. Dopamine triggers this pleasure switch. Sugar increases dopamine, but only in the short run. So by the time I had finished the first bite of Three Musketeers, and since I was slowly savoring the sweet treat (sugar), dopamine started triggering my pleasure switch. My brain registered a happy feeling even though my taste buds and stomach didn’t. This is the evil of sugar.
Research shows that as with other stimulants you begin to need more and more dopamine (sugar) in order to feel the same pleasure. Research also shows that people with sugar addictions, compulsive eating, and obesity have dopamine receptors that need extra stimulation to activate. Some research is showing that sugar addicts have fewer dopamine receptors, but it’s unclear if this is genetic or “burned out” receptors. Whatever the precise reason, the results are the same. Our brain overrides all other bodily functions in favor of the pleasure of sugar. No wonder it’s so easy to sucked into eating sugar and so hard to give sugar up!
So, you’re not crazy or weak when you crave sugar, you’re brain just knows it will cause pleasure and a little energy lift. Unfortunately, neither will last long and you’ll want more soon, and then more, and more, and more . . .
Sugar – What To Do Next
Your best bet is really to eliminate all sweets for two weeks. Yep, go cold turkey. I know, it’s easier said than done but just like other addictive stimulants there really isn’t an ability to “cut back”. I’ve given up sugar for two weeks (many times!) and no, it’s not easy, but it’s worth it by the end.
You can get through the two weeks better with a few tips:
- Tell everyone you’re giving up sugar. That way if you have withdrawal symptoms (headaches, nausea, mood swings) people around you will know what’s happening. Heck, they might even be willing to join you.
- Eliminate all sweeteners – refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, sodas, fruit juices, fruits, etc. These can all trigger cravings during this time.
- Eat a nutritious high protein breakfast.
- Try to eat every 3-4 hours so your blood sugar levels stay consistent.
- Get solid sleep, 7-9 hours per night.
If it’s just too difficult, you may need to try some sugar balancing supplements to get you through the first two weeks. I prefer people try without the supplements, but they are an option if necessary.
Sugar – The Guarantee
Now, here’s the guarantee – you complete the two weeks and your taste buds and dopamine receptors will be altered so that sweet is a whole new thing for you. Foods you didn’t think were sweet before will have an all new flavor. Refined sugars will become too sweet, fruits will be just perfect. Give it a try for two weeks. Now you know what is happening in your body and brain so you can beat the sugar cravings.
Stice, E., Yokum, S., Zald, D., and A. Dagher. 2011. Dopamine-based reward circuitry responsivity, genetics, and overeating. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 6: 81/93.