As I noted in my previous blog on food addiction, science demonstrates that people can be biologically addicted to sugar and other foods in the same way people can be addicted to heroin, cocaine or nicotine. Bingeing and addictive behaviors are eerily similar in alcoholics and sugar addicts. In fact, many recovering alcoholics switch to another easily available drug: sugar.
The genetics of pleasure
It seems that we all vary a bit in our capacity for pleasure. Some of us need a lot more stimulation to feel pleasure, driving us to a range of addictive habits that stimulate the reward center in the brain — drug and alcohol addictions, compulsive gambling, sex addiction and, of course, sugar and other food addictions. We often see these as moral failures or character defects. In fact, it may be that addicts of all stripes are simply unlucky, born with unfortunate genetic variations in our reward and pleasure mechanisms.
In our brains, the dopamine receptor (D2, or DRD2 for short) must be switched on for us to feel pleasure. Sugar and other stimulating addictions increase dopamine in the short term for most people. The problem is that some people — those with sugar addictions, compulsive eating and obesity — have DRD2 systems that need much more stimulation to feel pleasure. A person with a sugar addiction, it seems, has fewer D2 dopamine receptors and needs extra stimulation (in the form of sugar) to make those receptors “turn on.”
Some studies have pointed to drugs or nutrients that can modulate this defective dopamine reward response. In one study, naltrexone, an opioid blocker (that blocks the effects of heroin and morphine on the brain), was used in sugar addicts. When they took this drug, which prevented them from getting a temporary sugar high, they craved sugar less.
We also know that amphetamines are natural appetite suppressants and reduce cravings. That is why children who take stimulant ADHD drugs (which are actually just fancy amphetamines) that stimulate dopamine receptors have trouble gaining enough weight as they grow.
Overcoming your addiction to sugar
Even if you’re stuck with the sugar addiction, low-pleasure gene, you may be able to modify its activity by modulating your brain chemistry and receptor function with the use of specific nutrients. I have used some of these nutrients in my practice, such as glutamine and other amino acids, with success. Regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters that affect appetite and cravings is complex and involves many factors including how quickly food spikes our blood sugar, stress, sleep, nutritional deficiencies, chemicals (such as artificial sweeteners), food sensitivities (which drive inflammation) and more.
For those who struggle with food addiction, remember that it is not a moral failing or lack of willpower. Here are a five suggestions I offer my patients to help them break their food addictions:
1. Balance your blood sugar: Research studies show that low blood sugar levels are associated with lower overall blood flow to the brain, which means more bad decisions. To keep your blood sugar stable:
- Eat a nutritious breakfast with some protein like eggs, protein shakes or nut butters. Studies repeatedly show that eating a healthy breakfast helps people maintain weight loss.
- Eat smaller meals throughout the day. Eat every 3 to 4 hours and have some protein with each snack or meal (lean animal protein, nuts, seeds, beans).
- Avoid eating three hours before bedtime.
2. Eliminate sugar and artificial sweeteners and your cravings will go away. The trick? Go cold turkey. If you’re addicted to narcotics or alcohol you can’t simply just cut down, and sugar addiction is the same. You have to stop completely for you brain to reset. Eliminate refined sugars, sodas, fruit juices and artificial sweeteners from your diet. These are all drugs that will fuel cravings.
3. Determine if hidden food allergies are triggering your cravings. We often crave the very foods that we have a hidden allergy to. For a simple allergy elimination program, consider trying The UltraSimple Diet or The UltraSimple Diet Challenge Home Study Coaching Program.
4. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Research shows that lack of sleep increases cravings.
5. Optimize your nutrient status with craving-cutting supplements:
- Optimize your vitamin D level: According to one study, when vitamin D levels are low, the hormone that helps turn off your appetite doesn’t work and people feel hungry all the time, no matter how much they eat.
- Optimize omega-3s: Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are involved in normal brain cell function, insulin control and inflammation.
- Consider taking natural supplements for craving control. Glutamine, tyrosine and 5-HTP are amino acids that help reduce cravings. Stress-reducing herbs such as Rhodiola can also help. Chromium balances blood sugar and can help take the edge off cravings. Glucomannan fiber is very helpful to reduce the spikes in sugar and insulin that drive cravings and hunger.
To learn more about food addictions, how you can overcome them, and how you can optimize your nutrition, visit www.drhyman.com.
Now I’d like to hear from you:
Have you ever been addicted to sugar? What was it like?
Do you think the food industry is feeding us products we become addicted to so they can increase profits?
Have you tried overcoming food addiction using any of these steps? How did they work for you?
Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.