Sugar: Is It A Drug?

are all familiar with the sweet taste and nostalgia surrounding our favorite sugary beverages, pastries and manufactured concoctions. We should also, hopefully, be familiar with just how detrimental sugar’s effects can be. It is jokingly batted about as a societally-accepted addiction, and as a “harmless” way to have fun. I’m sure many of us remember Friday nights as kids, drinking tons of soda, eating junk food and watching movies or running around with friends. As a once-in-a-while indulgence, this typically has no detrimental long-term effects.

However, when those fun summer nights turn into daily, unending sugar binges – then we have trouble on our hands. And this sad description has enveloped much of America, and the world. The current obesity pandemic is but one element of why sugar is killing our health. Look at the many biological effects which can occur when ingesting too much sugar.

Classifying sugar as a drug though, becomes a controversial matter. Sugar is not acutely toxic, but, it is possible to argue, that sugar is chronically toxic. When humans consume large amounts of sugar, day after day after day, then they become deeply entrenched in both the addiction of sugar, and likely start suffering from metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a much bigger problem than obesity.

Since there are plenty of people who are “TOFI” – think on the outside, fat on the inside, it is important to differentiate between metabolic syndrome and obesity. What may be fine for some outliers (larger amounts of sugar consumption for those with great genetics and who are very active) can be deadly for most.

Metabolic syndrome won’t be clearly seen by just looking at the person, externally. And, since some subcutaneous fat is actually somewhat beneficial, it is vital that a DEXA scan be performed, if looking to measure the real killer – visceral fat. Besides C-reactive protein, visceral fat is one of the best predictors of potential disease.

This also goes along with a test called HbA1c. This will measure your average blood sugar over the past 3-4 months. This is important for a variety of reasons, but importantly it can be linked to risk for dementia. And that is within “normal” range. Think about that, for a minute.

Now that we’ve covered metabolic syndrome, let’s look at sugar’s relationship to another worldwide problem: diabetes. As researched by Dr. Robert Lustig, and using data from 175 countries, a 150 calorie increase in sugar availability (about 1 can of soda) was associated with increased diabetes prevalence. This is one of the many reasons why eliminating soda is possibly the best way to both curb sugar addiction, and to get slimmer. The detrimental effects of sugar are very well explained in the below video.

As can be seen, there is a multitude of reasons why soda should be eliminated from the diet. Some studies have shown that intense sweetness is more rewarding than cocaine. Other studies have shown that food addiction is similar to drug addictions. This differs from behavioral addictions like gambling, since in food (and sugar) addiction, there are actually neurochemical changes.

The more sugar that you eat, the more downregulated your dopamine receptors become. Besides this scary adaptation, there are other neuronal changes. This includes: changes in opioid receptor binding, enkephalin mRNA expression and dopamine and acetylcholine release in the nucleus accumbens. Basically, the more sugar that you eat, the more ways your brain changes – for the worse.

Does this sound like a drug exerting its effects? It certainly does to me.

Of course, we must not forget the withdrawal effects of sugar, once the stimulus is taken away. I’m sure we’re all well aware of the “sugar cravings” that ensue, once you decided to go low carb, or after a bad night of sugary eating. The pronounced ‘hangover’-like effect largely comes from fluctuating insulin levels.

Then, there are the obvious reasons why sugar is terrible for your health. It contains no essential nutrients and will lead to cavities, when consumed in excess. On top of that, fructose, which is half of high fructose corn syrup and half of table sugar (sucrose) – is largely processed entirely by your liver.

This occurs via the GLUT5 transporter. Since the rest of your body doesn’t use fructose for energy (unlike glucose, the other half of this equation) too much sugar can be bad for your liver, as well. We see this in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). As stated in the name, it is also possible to achieve a similar version of this condition, by drinking too much alcohol.

In fact, alcohol is somewhat preferable over excessive sugar. Yes, you read that correctly. For, you see, alcohol is largely self-limiting. Meaning, you can only drink so much, due to its disinhibiting effects. However, your brain doesn’t process fructose like it does alcohol, meaning you are not truly limited to the amount of sugar you can consume.

This accounts for the people who sit in their offices all day, and drink sugared beverages endlessly. This also accounts for large amounts of diabetes. The countries which have no alcohol tend to have the most sugar consumption. Check out this alarming video, which shows that the United States is only 6th, worldwide, when it comes to sugar consumption.

What do you think, so far? Is sugar a drug? Well, it may not exhibit properties that are as strong as cocaine, when it comes to withdrawal and the accompanying high. But – it no doubt has addictive and detrimental effects. Now, is this only when consumed in excess?

New guidelines, outlined in London, call for sugar guidelines to be revised to just 14g of added sugar per day. This, in actuality, is what the guidelines should have been all along. It is only because organizations (which are largely controlled and influenced by food companies) have been extremely lax on reigning in our sugar consumption.

Meanwhile, we have seen everyone in the world get fat and sick, as a result. Obesity rates are up worldwide, and we consume more sugar than ever before in human history. We continue to consume excess sugar, despite its link to heart disease deaths. It’s almost as if we can’t stop. Does this sound like a substance that may be a drug? Again, it certainly does to me.

However, what is more troubling is that “diet” sweeteners have been scientifically shown to lead to weight gain, as well. This means that if you replace sugar with artificial versions, not only do you not lose weight, or even maintain your weight, but in fact you gain weight.

The thinking and reasoning behind this is varied. Though you aren’t consuming sugar, these artificial versions are in fact hundreds of times sweeter than the real thing. This means that your brain is still, arguably, stimulated, leading to cravings and possibly even a slight insulin response.

However, there are definitely differences in how artificial sweeteners affect your brain, when compared with sugar. As researchers state: “on the functional level, sucrose ingestion, compared to saccharin ingestion, was associated with greater activation of the higher gustatory areas such as the insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala”.

So, even though your brain is differently challenged, the end result of unavoidable weight gain…is still the same. What does this mean, for functional human beings? It means that they need to cut out sweet-tasting foods, on a large scale, if they hope to maintain a healthy weight, or if they want to lose weight.

Foods that are not as stimulating will not only generally contain more nutrients, but they will also keep you feeling full, and not craving sugar. None of these statements can be said about sugar-filled foods. This is one of the tenets that make a paleo approach so sensible, and successful. You are eliminating foods which provoke an unhealthy psychological response, and an unhealthy physiologic response.

Think of it like ending a bad relationship.

Since your body adjusts and adapts to what you’re eating, if you cut out sugar for a fairly long period of time, you will find that a little bit will seem very sweet, and likely will seem like too much. Enzymatic changes and neurologic changes are two positive effects of cutting out sugar. The less you eat, the less you crave it.

Now, doesn’t that sound like a drug to you?

What do you think? Is sugar a drug? Let us know, in the comments!

This article originally appeared on PaleoHacks.