By Jason Rosenberg ’18
You may not think that sugar, cocaine, and tobacco have much in common. Yet, in one critical way, they are dangerously alike: all three substances are strongly addictive. Powerful cravings, withdrawal symptoms—all of the usual suspects of addiction are present surrounding the intake of one of life’s essential substances.
Sugar plays a vital role in the human body. For instance, glucose, one of the molecules found in table sugar, is an important source of both short-term and, when combined into glycogen chains, long-term energy. However, sugar also poses several health risks. Besides the ubiquitous cavities, it can increase the risk of heart failure, obesity, and liver damage.
The key, therefore, is a moderate intake of sugars. However, as anyone who has succumbed to the cookie jar knows, moderation is easier said than done. Sugar’s addictive properties lie behind these urges. Early in human history, when foods high in sugars were relatively rare, the underlying desire for sugars encouraged humans to obtain requisite amounts of the essential nutrient. However, according to an article in Forbes, the average American now consumes more than twice the maximum amount of sugar recommended by the American Heart Association. The human predilection for sugar has become acutely dangerous.
How does this addiction compare to the addiction caused by, for example, cocaine? The similarities are striking. Sugar consumption causes increased levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are responsible for, among other things, happiness and reward-feedback. Cocaine has this same effect. Furthermore, repeatedly high intakes of sugar can lead to lower and lower levels of serotonin and dopamine being achieved, and hence more sugar is required to reach the same happy and satisfied mood. Withdrawal, as with recreational drugs, is also an issue with sugar. The body wishes to restore higher levels of serotonin and dopamine when deprived of sugar, and humans experience mild depression when these levels are not restored. Perhaps most shockingly, several studies have pointed to a genetic component of a sugar addiction, predisposing humans to consuming excess amounts of sugar.
So when you feel guilty about eating that Hershey’s Kiss, know that you’re not alone in falling for the sugar urge. Just look at me. I had ten of them while writing this post.