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Ah, sugar sugar

By Karli Vezina

If you're one of those Canadians who has cut added sugar from your diet, kudos to you. For the rest of us, the struggle is real when trying to reduce intake of the sweet stuff. We've heard tell of withdrawal symptoms, mood swings, and headaches from those cutting sugar and it sounds like they're going through a horrible time. What's going on in our bodies when we try to cut out sugar?

A feature in BBC Future took a look at the science behind what happens to our brains when we turn off the sugar stream. The jury is still out on whether or not people can actually be addicted to sugar, but it definitely makes waves in the brain.

Sucrose gives us that sweet taste in our mouth which releases dopamine to the brain. Dopamine passes messages between our nerves and our brain, giving us that "reward" feeling. Because this feels good, we’re prompted to do these behaviours again and again to release the dopamine. In short, we are highly motivated by rewards and "Experiments in both animals and people have shown how profoundly sugar activates these reward pathways."

A study done in 2007 showed the internal reward triggered by sugar surpassed the internal reward triggered by cocaine and was able to do so regardless of being injected into the bloodstream or taken orally. This is powerful stuff so it's no wonder we feel poorly when trying to cut sugar out of our diets.

The concept of being addicted to sugar is a touchy subject among scientists, however evidence in rats have shown that sugar is capable of inducing binge eating, cravings, and withdrawal anxiety, just as other addictive substances do.

When we reduce dopamine, we change the chemical balance in our brain. Dopamine is in charge of rewards but it also plays a part in regulating our hormonal control, nausea and anxiety. This explains why reducing dopamine can make us feel unpleasant in the first few days. Are we really addicted? Scientists seem hesitant to say, but if so many organisms have similar reward pathways in the brain, it seems that we could be, to some degree.

Who knows? We may be more like the rats of Nimh than we think.


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