SUGAR: The Gateway Drug
According to the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, the average American (I assume Canadians are roughly the same) consumes about 17 teaspoons of sugar daily. Once a rare treat, sugar is now an appreciable part of the diet (about %14 according to these stats), but there is no free lunch. This sweet treat comes with hidden costs, as we shall see.
Back when marijuana was being demonized, it was often referred to as the gateway drug. Sure it might seem harmless and goofy on the surface (see: Cheech and Chong), but it led to hard drug use ultimately. While marijuana is not without its own potential dangers, the true gateway drug has always been sugar. The book that most influenced me to join the natural foods movement was “Sugar Blues”, by William Dufty (1975). This was the first book to gather all the research pointing to sugar as an insidious villain in modern health.
The brain and body require a certain amount of sugar for fuel, historically acquired from fruits, honey, and carbohydrates. Refined sugar, on the other hand, is a whole other beast, one that can function like a drug, follows the same neurological pathways as many drugs, and is as addictive as many drugs. And, propaganda from the sugar industry aside, it has been well established that “excessive consumption of sugar has been linked to a variety of adverse health outcomes, including weight gain, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes”. (Source)
As well, excess sugar consumption is also known to increase the risk of cancer, oxidative stress, and inflammatory diseases.
Speaking of propaganda, the sugar industry was so powerful by the 1960s that they were able to buy off scientists, getting them to blame saturated fat and cholesterol for the rise of heart disease, when sugar was the actual culprit. “An industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation wanted to “refute” concerns about sugar’s possible role in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.” (Source)
This is Your Brain on Sugar
Most of us are well aware of the connection between excessive sugar intake and diseases related to metabolic syndrome (the above mentioned weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes). But sugar is also linked to cognitive decline. The chemical messengers in our brain (neurotransmitters) are not produced if the brain is lacking in glucose (the form of sugar it uses), so we need a certain amount of carbohydrates (which are converted into glucose) in order to function well mentally. This neurotransmitter production affects both cognitive functions and mood.
However, diets too high in sugar “reduce the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors or BDNF. BDNF assists in the connections between nerve cells also known as synapses. Without this key protein, growth, development, and communication between these nerve cells becomes impaired. When these synapses are unable to communicate properly, a decline in multiple neurological functions can be seen. Further research has linked BDNF to degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia”. (Source)
Now is where we get to the “gateway drug” part.
Sugar triggers the “reward pathway” in the brain, stimulating parts of the brain involved in this system (“mesocorticolimbic”), including the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, to release dopamine. Like with any potentially addictive drug, once this primary system has been triggered, we are left with cravings for more. This occurs because, “these parts of the brain are responsible for behaviour reinforcement, pleasure-seeking, and addiction, according to a study published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2019”. (Source)
Overconsumption of sugar over stimulates the reward system, and all addictive behaviour, from drug addiction to gambling and sex addiction, ride the dopamine pathways. Thus, sugar not only creates a need for more sugar, but these overacted pathways, once they become blunted to the effects of sugar, will seek a more powerful dopamine releaser, such as hard drugs or aberative behaviours. In this way, sugar primes the pump of addiction.
In a study using animal models, published in Scientific Reports in 2019, researchers concluded that sugar “affected reward mechanisms in a manner similar to that of abusable drugs like opioids”. The authors of the 2019 study also point out that diets high in refined sugar have been linked to “deleterious neuroplasticity changes such as hippocampal dysfunction, and emotional disorders like anxiety or depression”. (“If the hippocampus is damaged by disease or injury, it can influence a person’s memories as well as their ability to form new memories.” Source)
Given its addictive nature, reducing sugar consumption can be difficult if one is “hooked”. While some in the scientific community are looking to develop drugs to help control sugar cravings (more irony), there are natural ways to wean ourselves. First, one should turn to natural sugars found in date sugar, maple syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, barley malt, and the like. Stevia and xylitol are great, safe ways to trick the taste buds, but they will not help much with withdrawal, since they do not actually ride on any of the neurotransmitter circuits that sugars are involved in.
Aside from dopamine (the addictive component), sugar, like all carbohydrates, also increases levels of serotonin. Since serotonin is a calming (inhibitory) neurotransmitter, the sugar industry has always argued that it cannot cause hyperactivity in children. As far as hyperactivity is concerned, anyone who has had, or closely observed, children, will tell you that the connection is obvious. While sugar may elevate serotonin in the short run, in the long run it acts as an anti-nutrient, stealing magnesium, zinc, and other minerals and vitamins from the body, the deficiencies of which ultimately lead to hyperactive behaviours.
We can meet our requirement for a quick serotonin fix with more complex carbohydrates like non-tropical fruits, and whole grains foods. These foods are slowly digested, and can sustain serotonin production over a longer period of time. For those who need more help during withdrawal, things like 5HTP, niacinamide, and L-theanine can boost serotonin levels, thus curbing sugar cravings.
A Word About Fructose
For a while in the health food industry we were sold the idea that fructose was a healthier option than white sugar, after all it was found in fruit, right? Not so. Fructose, while lower on the glycemic index than white sugar, in the long run was found to be more unhealthy, even more so when in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Refined fructose found in processed foods is “linked with an increased risk of symptoms like hypertension, insulin resistance, lipogenesis, diabetes and associated retinopathy, kidney disease, and inflammation”. (Source)
Like white sugar, fructose is a synthesized molecular isolate devoid of other nutrients, and thus is no more natural than sugar. Ironically, products now often proudly state that they are made with “real sugar”, which is somewhat less damaging than fructose and its variants. However, when fructose is found in fruit, along with fiber, potassium, vitamin C and other nutrients, it is a far cry from a fructose-sweetened soda pop. “The fructose in a peach, for example, accounts for roughly 1% of the fruit’s weight, whereas fructose can make up as much as half the weight of sugary drinks.”
Keeping Blood Sugar Balanced
There are many supplements we can use in order to alleviate sugar cravings, and to regulate the impact of the sugar that remains in our diet. Chief among these is berberine, an alkaloid extract from Oregon grape root (also found in goldenseal), which is as effective as the drug Metformin for regulating insulin levels. (Source)
Other supplements that keep blood sugar levels stable:
Foods with a reputation for controlling blood sugar and helping to prevent diabetes, include cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric. In the case of cinnamon, one should ensure the product used is “True” cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), also known as Ceylon cinnamon (not the cheaper “cassia” variety).
With regards to turmeric, be advised that many of its properties are fat-soluble, and thus it works best when rendered (cooked) into a fat medium, rather than simply adding powder to smoothies or breakfast cereal. Turmeric supplements however are usually processed in a manner that makes them easy to absorb and utilize.
NutriStart offers blood sugar regulating products including vitamin D (Quick D), chromium and zinc (NutriPods and Mineral Mix), krill oil (NutriKrill), and vitamin K2 (Quick K2). As well, our Liposomal Curcumin/Resveratrol product contains the most absorbable form of turmeric (liposomal) along with highly absorbable liposomal resveratrol, which as luck would have it, is also an insulin regulator par excellence (Source).