As a professional coach – certified with merit through The Coaching Academy – I have spent this past weekend attending 3 days of intensive training towards becoming a recovery coach…

Through my “newly acquired” lenses of addiction and addictive behaviour, I would like to draw your attention to …


In “This is what happens to your brain when you give up sugar”, Jordan Gaines Lewis – Neuroscience Doctoral Candidate at Penn State College of Medicine – discusses the neuroscientific effects of sugar, and sugar “addiction”.

“In neuroscience, food is something we call a “natural reward”. In order for us to survive as a species, things like eating, having sex, and nurturing others must be pleasurable to the brain so that these behaviours are reinforced and repeated,” Gaines Lewis proposes.

“Not all foods are equally rewarding, of course. Most of us prefer sweet, over sour and bitter foods because, evolutionarily, our mesolimbic pathway reinforces that sweet things provide a healthy source of carbohydrates for our bodies”, adds Gaines Lewis. “When our ancestors went scavenging for berries, sour meant “not yet ripe”, while bitter meant “alert – poison!”

“Modern diets have taken on a life of their own”, warns Jordan. “A decade ago, it was estimated that the average American consumed 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day – an extra 350 calories. A few months ago, one expert suggested that the average Briton consumes 238 teaspoons of sugar each week.”

“With convenience more important than ever in our food selections, it is almost impossible to come across processed and prepared foods that don’t have added sugars for flavour, preservation, or both”, he warns. “These added sugars are sneaky – and unbeknown to many of us, we’ve become hooked”, he claims.

“In ways that drugs of abuse – such as nicotine, cocaine and heroin – hijack the brain’s reward pathway and make users dependent, increasing neuro-chemical and behavioural evidence suggests that sugar is addictive in the same way, too,” warns Gaines Lewis.

“Like drugs, sugar spikes dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens. Over the long term, regular sugar consumption actually changes the gene expression and availability of dopamine receptors in both the midbrain and frontal cortex. Repeated access to sugar over time leads to prolonged dopamine signaling, greater excitation of the brain’s reward pathways and a need for even more sugar to activate all of the midbrain dopamine receptors like before. The brain becomes tolerant to sugar – and more is needed to attain the same “sugar high”, claims Gaines Lewis.

“In a study by Carlo Colantuoni and colleagues of Princeton University, rats which had undergone a typical sugar dependence protocol then underwent “sugar withdrawal”. This was facilitated by either food deprivation or treatment with naloxone, a drug used for treating opiate addiction which binds to receptors in the brain’s reward system. Both withdrawal methods led to physical problems, including teeth chattering, paw tremors, and head shaking. Naloxone treatment also appeared to make the rats more anxious, as they spent less time on an elevated apparatus that lacked walls on either side.”

“Similar withdrawal experiments also report behaviour similar to depression, in tasks such as the forced swim test. Rats in sugar withdrawal are more likely to show passive behaviours (like floating) than active behaviours (like trying to escape) when placed in water, suggesting feelings of helplessness.”

“A study published by Victor Mangabeira and colleagues in Physiology & Behaviour, reports that sugar withdrawal is linked to impulsive behaviour”, says Gaines Lewis. “Rats were trained to receive water by pushing a lever. After training, the animals returned to their home cages and had access to a sugar solution and water, or just water alone. After 30 days, when the rats were again given the opportunity to press a lever for water, those which had become dependent on sugar pressed the lever significantly more times than control animals, suggesting impulsive behaviour.”

“These are extreme experiments, of course”, he reassures. “We humans aren’t depriving ourselves of food for twelve hours and then allowing ourselves to binge on soda and doughnuts at the end of the day. But these rodent studies certainly give us insight into the neuro-chemical underpinnings of sugar dependence, withdrawal, and behaviour.”

Jordan Gaines Lewis concludes, “Through decades of diet programmes and best-selling books, we’ve toyed with the notion of “sugar addiction” for a long time. There are accounts of those in “sugar withdrawal” describing food cravings, which can trigger relapse and impulsive eating. There are also countless articles and books about the boundless energy and new-found happiness in those who have sworn off sugar for good. But despite the ubiquity of sugar in our diets, the notion of sugar addiction is still a rather taboo topic”, he claims.

(Taken from research conducted towards my Amazon best-seller, “What DO You Think?”)