We are all programmed to like sugar. New research shows some are genetically much more prone to sugar and food addiction than others. I have observed this in my patients, but now it is becoming clear why some have more trouble kicking the sugar habit than others.
As I reviewed in my previous article on food addiction, the science demonstrating that people can be biologically addicted to sugar in the same way we can be addicted to heroin, cocaine or nicotine is clear. Binging and addictive behaviors are eerily similar in alcoholics and sugar addicts. In fact, most recovering alcoholics often switch to another easily available drug: sugar.
It seems that we all vary a bit in our capacity for pleasure. Some us need a lot more stimulation to feel pleasure driving us to a range of addictive pleasures that stimulate our reward center in the brain - drug and alcohol addictions, compulsive gambling, sex addiction and, of course, sugar, food addiction and compulsive eating. We often see these as moral failures or results of character defects. In fact, it may be that addicts of all stripes are simply unlucky and born with unfortunate genetic variations in our reward and pleasure mechanisms.
The Genetics of Pleasure
In our brain, a little receptor, the dopamine receptor D2 or DRD2 for short, must be activated or switched on for us to feel pleasure. The amino acid dopamine triggers this response. Sugar and other stimulating addictions increase dopamine in the short term. The only problem is it appears that those with sugar addictions, compulsive eating and obesity have DRD2 systems that need much more stimulation to feel pleasure. Those who have sugar addiction, it seems have fewer D2 dopamine receptors and they need extra stimulation to make them "turn on".(i)
Functional MRI studies of teenagers, both lean and obese, found that the obese teenagers whose brains didn't light up as much in the dopamine reward centers were more likely to be obese and gain weight later.(ii) They also were more likely to have the DRD2 gene that coded for fewer receptors.
Some studies have pointed to drugs or nutrients that can modulate this defective dopamine reward response. In one study, naltrexone, an opioid blocker (blocks the effects of heroin and morphine on the brain) was used in sugar addicts. When they took this drug, which prevented them from getting the temporary high from sugar, they craved less and ate less.
We also know that amphetamines are natural appetite suppressants and reduce cravings. That is why children who take stimulant ADHD drugs (which are actually just fancy amphetamines) that stimulate dopamine receptors have trouble gaining enough weight as they grow.
There are also some promising studies of nutraceuticals(iii) that can modulate dopamine receptor function and appetite regulation.(iv) Bruce Ames, Ph.D. found that high levels nutrients can reduce disease in people with 50 different gene variants, nutrients may modulate the function of our genes, improve their function, or affect the activity of enzymes that genes produce.(v) In fact, one third of our entire DNA has one simple job: To code for and produce enzymes controlled by nutrient co-factors. This means that nutrients have a powerful ability to modify the expression of your genes. This is the important field of nutrigenomics.
Overcoming Your Addiction to Sugar
Despite being stuck with the sugar addiction low pleasure gene, you may be able to modify its activity by modulating your brain chemistry and receptor function with the use of specific nutrients that either improve gene expression, or modify the activity, the enzymes, or the receptors, even if they are somewhat impaired.
I have used some of these in my practice, such as glutamine and other amino acids, with success. Regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters that affect appetite and cravings is complex and involves many factors including how quickly food spikes our blood sugar, stress, getting enough sleep, nutritional deficiencies, chemicals such as artificial sweeteners, food sensitivities which drive inflammation, and more.
For those with personal struggles with food addiction, remember it is not a moral failing or lack of willpower. Here are a five suggestions I offer my patients to help them break their food addictions.
1. Balance your blood sugar: Research studies say that low blood sugar levels are associated with LOWER overall blood flow to the brain, which means more BAD decisions. To keep your blood sugar stable:
• Eat a nutritious breakfast with some protein like eggs, protein shakes or nut butters. Studies repeatedly show that eating a healthy breakfast helps people maintain weight loss.
• Also, have smaller meals throughout the day. Eat every 3-4 hours and have some protein with each snack or meal (lean animal protein, nuts, seeds, beans).
• Avoid eating three hours before bedtime.
2. Eliminate sugar and artificial sweeteners and your cravings will go away: Go cold turkey. If you are addicted to narcotics or alcohol you can't simply just cut down. You have to stop for you brain to reset. Eliminate refined sugars, sodas, fruit juices, and artificial sweeteners from your diet. These are all drugs that will fuel cravings.
3. Determine if hidden food allergies are triggering your cravings. We often crave the very foods that we have a hidden allergy to. For a simple allergy elimination program, consider trying The UltraSimple Diet, or The UltraSimple Diet Challenge Home Study Coaching Program.
4. Get 7-8 hours of sleep. Research shows that lack of sleep increases cravings.
5. Optimize your nutrient status with craving cutting supplements:
• Optimize your vitamin D level: According to one study, when Vitamin D levels are low, the hormone that helps turn off your appetite doesn't work and people feel hungry all the time, no matter how much they eat.
• Optimize omega 3s: Low levels of omega 3 fatty acids are involved in normal brain cell function, insulin control and inflammation.
• Consider taking natural supplements for cravings control. Glutamine, tyrosine, 5-HTP are amino acids that help reduce cravings. Stress reducing herbs such as Rhodiola can help. Chromium balances blood sugar and can help take the edge off cravings. Glucomannan fiber is very helpful to reduce the spikes in sugar and insulin that drive cravings and hunger.
To learn more about the addictive properties of food, how you can overcome them, and how you can optimize your nutrition, see www.drhyman.com.
Now I'd like to hear from you.
Have you ever been addicted top sugar? What was it like?
Do you think the food industry is feeding us products we become addicted to so they can increase profits?
Have you tried overcoming food addiction using any of these steps? How did they work for you?
Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
(i) Stice, E., Yokum, S., Zald, D., and A. Dagher. 2011. Dopamine-based reward circuitry responsivity, genetics, and overeating. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 6: 81-93.
(ii) Stice, E., Yokum, S., Bohon, C., et al. 2010. Reward circuitry responsivity to food predicts future increases in body mass: moderating effects of DRD2 and DRD4. Neuroimage. 50(4): 1618-25.
(iii) Blum, K., Chen, A.L., Chen, T.J., et al. 2008. Activation instead of blocking mesolimbic dopaminergic reward circuitry is a preferred modality in the long term treatment of reward deficiency syndrome (RDS): a commentary. Theor Biol Med Model. 5:24. Review.
(iv) Blum, K., Chen, A.L., Chen, T.J. et al. 2008. LG839: Anti-obesity effects and polymorphic gene correlates of reward deficiency syndrome. Adv Ther. 25(9): 894-913.
(v) Ames, B.N., Elson-Schwab, I., and E.A. Silver. 2002. High-dose vitamin therapy stimulates variant enzymes with decreased coenzyme binding affinity (increased K(m)): relevance to genetic disease and polymorphisms. Am J Clin Nutr. 75(4): 616-58. Review.
Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to his newsletter.