When I first got sober, my body was completely out of whack. Without a steady diet of cheap vodka and discount wine, it simply didn’t know what to do. For a few desperate weeks, I couldn’t sleep for more than a couple of hours, I’d sweat in cold rooms, I’d shiver in warm rooms, I experienced a low buzzing sound in my ears, I’d get nervous for no reason and my thoughts were all jumpy and frenetic. It was like Oliver Stone was up there in my brain, splicing edits together. Before I knew it, though, I started feeling like myself again (whatever the hell that meant). The weight started peeling off and I was sleeping through the night.
Then, it came out of nowhere. No, not that familiar midnight throb of wanting just one more glass of wine. All the same, it called from deep inside me—an urge as strong as the one that drew me to alcohol. Only this time, I suddenly craved Swedish Fish, Mike & Ikes, Reese’s Pieces, glazed apple fritters and sugared orange slices. I’d never craved these things in my life, like, ever. Still, desserts leapt off restaurant menus like they were auditioning for a new 3D James Cameron movie, and the grocery store candy aisle glimmered with wonder. My weight started creeping back up.
Turns out, sugar is one cruel mistress—in fact, it’s helping drive a worldwide obesity epidemic that is 641 million people strong, according to new sobering data. Sugar addiction isn’t about simply ignoring your sweet tooth. It’s as real and complicated an addiction as any other drug, though a solution may have been found in a very unusual place.
There’s No Sugar-Coating the Situation
Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia have discovered that the drugs used to fight nicotine addiction are also effective in combating sugar addiction. The study, published by the international journal PLOS ONE, is the first of its kind. One of the researchers, neuroscientist Dr. Selena Bartlett, is not only aware of the global obesity epidemic—she’s entirely focused on sugar’s central, almost insidious role in driving weight gain. “[Sugar] has been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels, which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine,” Bartlett said in a press release.
And there it is: dopamine—the magic word that underscores all addicts’ darkest actions and behaviors. It’s the chemical that directly affects every single craving, motivation, emotion, mood and sensation. Knowing this, if you look at sugar cravings the same way you look at, say, alcohol cravings, you have a serious problem that warrants an equally serious treatment. According to the study, both sugar and alcohol run through the same reward and pleasure paths in the brain, influencing dopamine levels in identical ways. Just as cocaine simply makes you want more cocaine, sugar works the same way.
Unfortunately, just like any other drug, a sugar addict requires larger amounts of sugar to reach the same effect—and not without consequences. “We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation,” said Dr. Bartlett. From my own experience, at my heaviest, I was caught up in my own sad cycle of eating one bag of candy after another, chasing the same elusive buzz I’d been chasing for years with my drinking. Between sugar and alcohol, I never caught it.
Putting Sugar Under the Microscope
The study’s researchers decided to test the FDA-approved Chantix, a leading smoking-cessation drug, on rats. Otherwise known as varenicline, the drug stimulates the body’s nicotine receptors—the very same receptors that sugar affects. In the study, two groups of rats were given sugar water over an extended period of time. One group was given Chantix and the other group wasn’t. The result? The rats on Chantix drank less sugar water than the others.
Equal, Sweet’N Low and Splenda don’t get off easy, either. Artificial sweeteners were also used in the test, producing the same effects as actual sugar. Most everyone I know dumps a packet or two in their coffee or iced tea, assuming it’s better for them than the real thing. Not so, the study suggests. One of the study’s authors noted that while more lab testing is necessary, the use of drugs like Chantix “may represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic.”
Come On—It’s Just Sugar
My sponsor gave me some early advice for handling happy hours and work parties where there’d be alcohol: eat. “If they’re having drinks, they’re treating themselves,” he said. “You should treat yourself, too.” So I did (hello, Applebee’s Triple Chocolate Meltdown). In fact, eating something sweet is actually listed as Strategy #9 in the AA booklet Living Sober. “Better to be chubby or pleasingly plump than drunk, right?” the book asks with a straight face. Still, sugar has an inescapable hold on many people’s lives—myself included. In some ways, I’ve just swapped out alcohol for sugar. I’ve shamefully caught myself hiding Peanut Butter Snickers wrappers deep in the trash, almost like how I used to hide bottles all over the house.
Similarly, the study’s researchers clearly don’t view sugar as a lesser threat. “Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them,” Dr. Bartlett said. The study hints that addiction medicine may be evolving in a brand-new direction, starting with changing the popular perception that “it’s just sugar.” As seriously as addiction specialists take the dangers of sugar consumption, they will also need to prepare for a whole new class of addicts. They’ll need to provide sugar addicts with all the same coping strategies and tools they give other addicts in treatment. For me, sugar addiction is as real and devastating as alcohol ever was. It just works its evil more gradually. It takes its time. But until you can only buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in a sketchy, state-regulated candy store on the outskirts of town, sugar’s sway over society isn’t changing anytime soon.
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