Addiction to sugar involves compulsively excessive consumption of free sugar, the term for the sugar included in processed food and drinks, as well as that found in honey, syrup and fruit juice. These sugars are called “free” because they are not contained within the cells of food we eat and lack extra nutrients, such as fibre.
We can apply the term addiction in relation to sugar consumption partly because of its effects in the brain. As it stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, the action of sugar has been likened to that of cocaine and heroin. The elevation of dopamine and endogenous opioid production through sugar intake helps to initiate a self-reinforcing cycle of repetitive behaviour characterised by managing peaks and troughs in levels of mood and energy. As with other addictive substances, sugar may be used to reward, relieve, comfort or galvanise. We speak of a sugar “high” or “rush” to convey the experience that comes with the spike in blood sugar levels. In the addicted person, intense craving is commonly experienced when these spikes soon wear off.
Some of the standard criteria used to establish the existence of any addiction can be applied to a person’s pattern of sugar consumption. Perhaps aware of a problem they may have tried and failed to cut down or stop. Having attempted to quit, they may have suffered withdrawal symptoms. Their tolerance will have been affected so that they need to take in more to achieve the same effect. While possibly understanding the risks to their physical health (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, etc.) in particular, they will have found themselves incapable of limiting their sugar intake to healthy levels. Serious concern may have been expressed by people close to them about the amount of sugars and carbohydrates they habitually consume. One problem is that there are generally no immediate harms to deter use. Health problems build up over a period of time; some of them unseen.
Given that we tend to associate rehab mostly with addiction to other substances like alcohol, opiates, etc., treatment for sugar addiction may seem a rather odd idea. But considering the (often hidden) prevalence of sugar in the modern diet it can prove extremely difficult to recover in the home environment. Time in the care of an addiction treatment centre offers an important option for those wishing to reset their relationship with sugar in all its various guises. In an holistic approach, medical teams attend to and monitor physical consequences while working in conjunction with a dietician who can both support the process of withdrawal and the introduction of new eating and drinking habits. At the same time, other therapeutic staff can support the psychological and behavioural changes to the management of mood and energy that will be essential to restoring wellbeing. Detailed health education must form an integral part of any treatment programme.