Three times in the past year I’ve experienced euphoric sensation akin to being “high” after consuming sugar. The first was at the end of my competition diet. The night before the show, my coach instructed me to carb load my depleted muscles so they would be fuller and smoother for the stage the next day. I chose a sliver of red velvet cake as my sugar-bomb of choice. My fiancé and a good friend who was staying with us can attest to the fact that I came apart in a fit of hysterics shortly after eating it.
The second and third times happened after I made low-carb my lifestyle in March of this year. Both were triggered by consumption of a sugar-loaded treat (the first time it was ice cream, the second was my niece’s birthday cake), and both resulted in a similar state of hysterics.
I’d always heard of sugar highs, but this seemed to be taking it a bit far.
Most of these myth-busting experiments imply that the concept of the “sugar high” persists for psychological reasons. I did some more digging about sugar’s myriad effects on us and as it turns out, “high” may be an appropriate descriptor for what happens to your brain when you consume excessive sugar.
We’ve all heard of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and most of us know that its job is to alert you when something you’re doing is pleasurable. Dopamine is released in one part of the brain, called the ventral tegmental area, and is received in the nucleus accumbens and cortex. This is just one of the many paths that dopamine travels, but this is the mesolimbic pathway, or reward pathway, that contributes to motivating our behavior.
These graduate students explain that there’s an evolutionary reason why sugar consumption triggers the mesolimbic pathway; sweet-tasting food typically indicated that something was safe to eat. One example they use is the sour flavor of a green (i.e. unripe) blueberry versus the relatively sweet flavor of a ripe one.
As it turns out, this is the same pathway of the brain at play in drug addiction.
It has been hypothesized that as with addictive drugs, the brain adjusts itself to accommodate for the excessive dopamine release that accompanies excess sugar consumption.
Repeated exposure to addictive substance will cause the brain to produce less dopamine in response, or reduce the number of receptors that can receive it, so you need more and more of the substance to achieve the same high. We all talk about this as “tolerance.”
Given the amount of sugar consumed by the average person today, it doesn’t come as a surprise that so many people have such a high tolerance that they don’t succumb to the giggles every time they reach for their morning soda; they need a significantly higher dose to experience the same reaction.
One important thing to note is that food, including sugar, is what neuroscientists refer to as a “natural reward,” whereas drugs, however organic they may be, are not. The dopamine release associated with drug use is astronomically higher than the release associated with natural rewards, but the same reward pathway of the brain is activated with both.
Given all this, it’s no wonder that sugar can be such a powerfully habit-forming substance. But this is especially problematic because of all of its negative health consequences. Aside from the obvious offenders like tooth decay and weight gain, excess sugar consumption over the course of a lifetime has been linked to developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease.
Staying healthy is hard enough without having your brain wired to satisfy a craving that’s ultimately hurting your body.
What do you guys think? Do sugar highs actually exist or not? Either way, its detrimental effects on your health are undeniable. The good news is that there are things you can do to wean yourself off added sugars. Here are five suggestions to get you started:
- Find a substitute for your sweet tooth. Reach for something with natural sugar when you experience a craving, like a sweet peach or apple, instead of a candy bar or a sugary latte. Or use a healthy sugar-free substitute like erythritol. It’s not helping avoid the reward pathway, sure, but at least you’re satisfying the craving with something less toxic than sugar.
- Learn how much sugar is actually in the foods that you consume. And don’t forget, added sugars are present in foods that you may not immediately think of as “sweet,” like bread, yogurt, and alcohol.
- Learn to distinguish between a mental or emotional craving and actual hunger. How often do you reach for something just because it will feel good to eat it, however temporarily? That’s likely more to do with boredom, using food to fulfill an emotional need, or giving in to your brain’s reward system wiring, as we’ve just learned. Teach yourself to eat for nourishment rather than solely for pleasure.
- Experiment with savory. Many people are so used to the concentrated flavors of sugar and salt that when we substitute natural herbs and seasonings they seem bland by comparison. There are so many more options beyond that jar of dried up (and probably expired) oregano in your cabinet! Fresh herbs are packed with flavor, as are low-sugar condiments like curry, hot sauce, and mustards. (Seriously, have you ever actually stopped and looked at how many varieties of mustard there actually are??)
- Most importantly, give yourself time. Stop and think for a second. I bet there is a food you enjoy now as an adult that you hated when you were a kid, or that you can’t stand now but you gobbled up when you were little. Your palate has changed, but that didn’t happen overnight, right? Your taste buds are very adaptable, you just have to give them time. Experiment with new foods and flavors until you find things that you like, and incorporate more healthy options into your diet.