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Is Sugar Like A Drug?

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In her Nutrition Blog at About.com, Shereen Jegtvig answers the question "Is sugar a drug?

Rats respond to sugar binges just like they would respond to morphine, cocaine or nicotine according to a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

"Our findings with lab rats show that intermittent access to sugar can lead to changes in the brain and behavior similar to those caused by drugs of abuse," said Bart Hoebel, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Princeton University. "In certain models, sugar-bingeing causes long-lasting effects on the brain and increases the inclination to take other drugs of abuse, including alcohol."

Hungry rats that were given sugar water had their brains release neurotransmitters called dopamines that are involved in addiction. Withdrawal symptoms were also observed in the same rats.

Jegtvig cautions that animal studies don’t always translate to humans:

I don’t usually write much about diet and nutrition studies with rats and other non-human animals because they don’t always translate well to human behavior. We still don’t really know for sure that sugar is chemically addicting or if there are emotional issues involved with eating too many sweets and suffering from sugar cravings that rats probably don’t experience. However, we know there are connections between sugar craving and having low serotonin levels. One thing I find interesting, though, is that the rats in the study were deprived of food for twelve hours before being fed sugar water, so I’m not sure how much of the dopamine response was just from relief of hunger (though the researchers say this shouldn’t happen with other foods that apparently are boring to rats) or directly due to sugar. In either case, it suggests possible addictive brain chemistry.

I know that we all will face many tempting foods during the holiday season and lots of sugar. Pace yourself and don’t overdo anything – particularly alcohol and sugar.