Sugar, Cocaine & the Brain: a shared addictive pathway

Sugar is well known in the world of addiction science to be addictive. You may not hear about it often as the media covers addiction issues of hard drugs like opiates, and with good reason of course.

In any case, here's some information about sugar and the brain and how this everyday substance lays the foundation for sugar dependency and even addiction. I will not get into the role of sugar in physical illness disease in this post.

Did you know:

That cocaine and sugar share the same neural pathway in the brain when ingested. Now, cocaine may hit that neural pathway at a much greater intensity due to its chemical makeup but indeed, cocaine and sugar share the same addictive pathway to the brain meaning the high and withdrawal can overlap in symptomology.

The pathway in the brain when sugar or cocaine is ingested, encourages the release of the brain neurotransmitter (chemical), dopamine. The neurotransmitter dopamine creates a sense of "feeling good", happy, excited. The explosive release of dopamine from cocaine rocks the brain's balance and gets someone high. Sugar, while not ingested in ways and dosages as powerful as cocaine, in its own way, does the exact same thing to the dopamine pathway. It releases a flood of dopamine, and gives us that sugar high. People who eat more sugar may need more sugar than most to feel those effects psychologically, but the body and brain recognizes them, even if you are not sitting there acknowledging how high off sugar you feel. You may notice that an adult or kid's mood will improve, for a short period of time.

As mentioned, the withdrawals of both substances (while different in intensity due to the addictive power of cocaine) overlap, also due to sharing the same neural pathway in the brain (what goes up, must come down!). For example, the shared addictive pathway of both cocaine and sugar can be seen in withdrawal of cocaine. It is common to see people who are withdrawing from cocaine to crave and binge on sugary foods.

Now let me be clear: cocaine addiction is not exactly than sugar addiction. Sugar does not take a person down like cocaine does and here's why: chemicals in cocaine are more powerful in terms of addiction than sugar typically is. Cocaine wreaks havoc on the brain's supply of dopamine much quicker than sugar and while the withdrawal of sugar is intense, it is not as intense as cocaine. Additionally, the route of administration of cocaine and sugar differs, which impacts the addiction potential. We typically orally ingest sugar. Cocaine is typically snorted, injected or smoked. Thirdly, cocaine is typically adulterated (mixed) with other substances far more addictive than soy lecithin you find in chocolate bars. So while cocaine and sugar are alike in sharing the same brain pathway and process of addiction in the brain, they are different in that cocaine is a much more powerful drug.

And what's more, there are other substances and behaviours that share the same dopamine neural pathway: cocaine, sugar, alcohol, sex and gambling all share the same neural pathway. Not everyone who ingests cocaine, alcohol, sugar will be addicted, not everyone who has sex and gambles will be addicted. Not every alcoholic will gamble or do cocaine but the potentiality for abuse, dependency and addiction is there due to the neural pathway that is now needing to pump out more dopamine to feel "normal". Keep in mind there is a very big difference between use, abuse, dependency and addiction.

Not everyone who eats sugar is an addict, but many of us would be surprised how intensely we might crave sugar if we cut it down

or cut it out. Try a sugar cleanse for example, it is a powerful and clear way to assess your relationship with sugar.

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