A spiral into years or a life of drug abuse can be mentally and physically destructive, but what if sugar addiction reaped the same consequences? Amid the United States obesity epidemic — as well as increasing rates of diabetes and heart disease — researchers are beginning to see sugar addiction in a new light: as something nearly as damaging to health as drug dependence.
In a new study out of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia, researchers suggest that in the future, sugar addiction may be treated the same way as drug addiction. Their research showed that rats addicted to sugar could be treated with nicotine addiction drugs. Like alcohol and drug addiction, consuming high levels of sugar increases dopamine levels and activates the same reward pathways in the brain.
“Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain,” Professor Selena Bartlett of QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, an author of the study, said in the press release. “It has also 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.”
After people eat significant amounts of sugar every day for a long period of time, they experience a reduction in dopamine levels — which spurs them to eat even more sugar to get the same high. It’s a cycle of addiction that leaves a person constantly unsatisfied and reaching for more. Quitting sugar, meanwhile, can cause withdrawal: “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,” Bartlett said in the press release.
In the study, the researchers examined the effects of varenicline, an FDA-approved drug used to aid in smoking cessation, on rats that were addicted to sugar. Varenicline is typically used alongside counseling in helping people kick smoking to the curb; it’s taken in pill form every day and is known as a neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator. The researchers found that the drug was effective in curbing chronic sugar addiction, and concluded that it might be a pathway for obesity treatment if further research supports it.
The study may be the first to find that FDA-approved nicotine drugs may be effective against sugar addiction, but it’s not the first to find that sugar, sodium, and fat can act like hard drugs to our brains and bodies, physically rewiring our brains. As a result, it’s important to investigate potential treatment options for sugar addiction, as its health consequences can be as negative as those of drug addiction. In fact, sugar can impact nearly every part of your body — including your heart, brain, kidneys, and sexual health.
“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,” Bartlett said in the press release. The researchers note, however, that more research will be done before doctors can begin prescribing nicotine drugs to treat sugar addiction or obesity.
Source: Shariff M, Quik M, Holgate J, Morgan M, Patkar O, Tam V. Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Modulators Reduce Sugar Intake. PLOS One, 2016.
Hunched over, hardly moving for hours on end, hitting the same buttons again and again in the hope of a future reward… sound familiar?
I’ve spent most of my 20-year career as a neuroscientist in laboratories, studying rats and other animals to better understand how and why our brains get stuck in vicious cycles of addictive behaviour.
But over the past two years, I’ve also started working with people on applying what I know in the human world of work. And what I see in most of the workplaces I visit – everywhere from corporate office towers to government departments and blue-collar work sites – is strikingly similar to the behaviour of addicted lab rats.
Even when there’s a big cage they could explore, if you set up a reward system where rats repeatedly hit a lever to get another dose of alcohol or sugar, they won’t go anywhere but instead keep doing the same thing, day in, day out, until they die.
Yet there are proven ways to help lab rats and humans cope much better in a stressful environment – starting by realising you can change what’s in your mirror.
Are you someone others want to mirror?
The first sign of an unhealthy workplace is a pervading silence: everyone huddled at their desks, heads down, eyes glued to their screen. In that kind of environment, you won’t see many people trying new things or taking risks; instead, it’s all about looking the busiest.
If you were to ask someone there how well the workplace is working, you’re also likely to discover that people are afraid to delegate or share their work, let alone share credit with others. And there’s little eye contact to be seen, with few signs of social interaction or collaboration.
We’ve all worked in places like that. But be warned: we become like the environment we work and live in, and the people we connect with.
That’s because we are social animals, with mirror neurons that help us mimic each other’s actions. Mirror neurons are one of the reasons we learn quickly and how innovation spreads rapidly; think of the success of Facebook as an advertising platform.
The brain’s mirror neurons have recently been proposed as the basis for the rapid spread of language and innovation that created human civilisations. It’s also a matter of self-interest: being nice to your colleagues is a good idea, not least because rude behaviour is contagious.
The social environment of a workplace powerfully predicts the level of engagement, creativity and innovation of its people and its products.
But you can influence what you see and experience at work – including through movement and connection to others.
For a start, if you’re sitting down reading this, stand up.
Look around for someone to talk to or have a cup of coffee with; and when you do, ask how they are and focus on actively listening, rather than feeling that you should offer solutions to any problems they might raise.
Give your brain a ‘neurobic’ workout
Repeating the same task locks our brains into autopilot and before long we are distracted and bored. Suddenly, we find we have spent several hours on Facebook, checking emails, scanning the news, all to make us feel better and more stimulated, though only for the short term.
Your brain is a thinking and learning machine. When you’re bored, it’s screaming out for something new or challenging to think about – often the very things we choose to put off, such as tackling that 50-page report for your boss, or calling a difficult client.
Professor Kent Berridge and his colleagues have shown that when dopamine is released in response to something novel, it stimulates motivation. His research has shown that blocking dopamine in the brain doesn’t affect how often the rats exhibit pleasure responses – but it reduces the rats’ motivation and turns them into lazy and unmotivated rats.
If we want to stimulate our motivation brain circuits to think more flexibly and creatively, we need to get our brains off autopilot.
How? One way is through “neurobics”, a term coined by the late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz. This involves engaging different parts of the brain by doing familiar tasks using different approaches, such as brushing your teeth or dialling the phone with your non-dominant hand.
Or you could try the inexpensive exercises at BrainHQ, which Todd Sampson used on the ABC TV show Redesign My Brain (screened in the US as Hack My Brain). Or you could read Michael Merzenich’s Soft-Wired, which explains the science behind taking better care of brains of all ages.
Take a deep breath, then watch your thoughts
When you woke up this morning, what was the first thing you said to yourself? Was it “I can’t wait to start the day!”? Or was it more along the lines of: “Thank goodness it’s Friday. I hate my job and my life…”?
When you’re on a roll and thinking positively, good things seem to come your way. When your moods and thoughts are negative, your life seems to reflect that. The pattern feeds itself: whether positive or negative, you are learning and wiring it into your brain.
To start to become more aware of your own thinking patterns, try a deep-breathing exercise. Breathe in through your nose for four counts and out for four counts, and notice what you are thinking and write it down.
Brain scans reveal how much we can change what’s happening in our own minds through controlled breathing, especially when we make it a habit.
Movement, connection to others, “neurobics” and controlling your breathing are all important steps towards a healthier work life.
By rewiring our own brains for the better, we can each cope more effectively with the daily stresses of the rat race. And because we’re social animals, you may even see some positive changes being mirrored back by those around you.