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Your parents probably advised you not to eat too much sugar when you were younger because it can cause cavities. They also probably warned you not to do drugs for the obvious health implications. While a sweet tooth seems like little to worry about in comparison to a substance abuse problem, drug addiction and sugar cravings are, in fact, more similar than people realize. Today we’re looking at why drug addicts crave sugar as well as comparing the impact of drugs vs. sugar on the brain.
It all has to do with the brain. Addiction is a disease that results from changes in the chemical makeup of your brain. For instance, when a person abuses opioids like prescription painkillers or heroin for long periods and develops an addiction, their brain becomes hardwired to crave the drug. When they’re not on the drug, the individual may experience withdrawal symptoms and struggle to function normally without it.
What starts out as a drug use habit will develop into dependence and addiction as the brain begins to rewire itself in anticipation of using this drug again. Specifically, drug abuse often triggers the reward system in the brain. These drugs can disrupt the normal flow of chemicals or cause a surge of neurotransmitters or chemical messengers in the brain, mainly ones called dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Dopamine, in particular, plays a major role in addiction. This is the brain’s feel-good chemical that’s naturally released whenever we do something pleasurable, signaling us to repeat the activity in the future. Because drugs can also activate dopamine, drug-taking behavior is reinforced.
The result is an unnatural euphoric rush that the brain comes to crave. All of these factors work together to make someone dependent on drugs. This is why many addicts struggle to stop on their own without the help of medical detox or inpatient care.
When it comes to understanding the relationship between drug addiction and sugar cravings, it’s been discovered that sugar has a similar effect on the brain. Like many illicit drugs, sugar triggers the brain’s reward system and increases the production of dopamine. It causes the same initial euphoria as drugs, hence the term sugar rush, but is typically less intense.
The sugar crash experienced following the consumption of sugar is also similar to the comedown of some abused drugs. Although people are not as likely to become addicted to sugar in the same ways as they would to drugs, there is some evidence to suggest that intermittent sugar intake can lead to both behavioral and chemical changes in the brain that are similar to the effects of substance abuse.2
Because drug addiction and sugar cravings involve the same chemicals and parts of the brain, some drug addicts will crave sugar in recovery. Drug addicts’ brains have adjusted to expect that euphoric rush and dopamine surge that drugs provide, and they may seek out the same effect by consuming more sugar.
Unfortunately, because the bodies of recovering drug addicts are often used to higher levels of these chemicals, they may consume large amounts of sugar in one sitting to chase this high. In particular, drug addicts in early recovery may start to experience sugar cravings as their bodies go through drug withdrawal and their brains desperately crave these chemical changes that the drugs are no longer providing.
As we previously mentioned, addicts crave sugar because it produces a similar effect on the brain as drugs of abuse, particularly those that activate dopamine. It’s been found that there are significant similarities between eating sugar and using drugs, such as binging, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, dependence, and reward. Even so, sugar is not more addictive than drugs of abuse.
Although sugar can alter the brain in similar ways as cocaine, quitting sugar is significantly easier to do than quitting drugs, and it can be done without professional care. On the other hand, addictive drugs like alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioids require professional inpatient or outpatient treatment to prevent health complications, decrease the risk of relapse, and ensure the individual actually completes their treatment plan.
When a drug addict receives drug or alcohol addiction treatment, it is not uncommon for them to be tempted to replace one addiction with another. For some, this may mean turning to sugar for a more natural high than their substance abuse once provided. Unfortunately, when consumed in excess, sugar can lead to serious health problems.
For long-term drug users, a high-sugar diet can be especially damaging as their bodies are often already in bad health, and they may be experiencing malnutrition. Early on, it is best to avoid making the common mistake in recovery of consuming too much sugar and instead focus on developing a healthy diet. Patients in our Philly PHP and other treatment programs will be educated about nutrition and encouraged to follow a healthy diet.
Whether you struggle with drug addiction yourself or know someone who does, it is time to take action. To learn more about our Philadelphia substance abuse programs, call Banyan Treatment Centers today at 888-280-4763 or give us your contact information, and we’ll connect with you.
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