sugar-addictionSugar, Addiction & Mental Health

How many of us have the feeling around mid morning or mid-afternoon when there’s a niggly little twinge saying ‘any food around?’

Mid afternoon is mine. I can subside any twinges in the morning with a cup of tea until 10am when I begin with breakfast. I wait for my stomach to turn on and tell me its ready with a few gurgles before starting to eat. And whilst it is only a gentle snack sized meal to begin and I have a bigger meal at lunch, by mid afternoon my stomach says ‘more?’

For many this feeling can accompany a feeling of needing a kick start again. A renewed boost of energy to get through the day, and in this, our very first connection for many is a sweet thought. Longing for the comfort of a sweet treat, ( for some you can add in a blanket, a cup of coffee and a reality show on the TV). At this time we are seeking to either check out and give the brain a rest or check back in and reboot it.

The issue is how common this is, and the WHY this is happening.


It most certainly can be a myriad of things. Food habits in general, sleep patterns, how balanced our life is, how happy we are, if we enjoy our jobs, what our relationships are like, what our overall health is like …. the list is endless. And I want to tell you we can consider all these things, BUT the most reliable common answer is sugar.

With all that we are doing now, in this fast paced high achieving world, we are using sugar as a satisfying and quick boost of energy that stimulates us back to pleasure and awaken us to thinking this is great – i can cope now.

There are plenty of reasons we use sugar. Sugars are a form of carbohydrates and we utilise them to give us energy to burn. Literally. And when we have burnt all our food stores, we seek more. It is simple, but there is more to it when it comes to sugar. I am simply going to focus on one – taste!

We love its sweetness and we find it pleasing AND we are becoming so highly addicted to it, its at levels of danger.! (insert flashing danger and warning signs here)

If this is our way of life that we are reaching for a sweet break at any time of day – mid morning – mid afternoon or late into the evening then we can tell ourselves we aren’t eating properly, which is true and the base line fact of why this is happening, but more to the point, is why in this moment of need we turn to sugar.

Because if we are using sugar in a time of our body needing to refuel and reboot, or out of habit using it as a way of coping with stress, or, even worse, if we are starving ourselves for a week or two at a time to ‘fit’ into some form of altered image that we think is right for us, then give in and binge with half a dozen donuts, all the while feeling intense shame and self-disgust, we can get ourselves into a lot of trouble.

Research tells us we need to be realising our addictions!

In many ways we don’t just use sugar as a boost we use it as a reward. We reward children with it, and we reward ourselves with it — after a particularly stressful day or to celebrate a birthday or a special success, we can find any reason to be rewarded!

We love the sweet stuff. We even crave it. But, are we addicted to it?

There’s an increasing body of research that tells us sugar could be as addictive as some street drugs and have similar effects on the brain. And this study tells us we are already at a level of concern over this addiction!

“Addiction is a strong word,” says Alan Greene, M.D., “In medicine we use ‘addiction’ to describe a tragic situation where someone’s brain chemistry has been altered to compel them to repeat a substance or activity despite harmful consequences. This is very different than the casual use of ‘addiction’ (‘I’m addicted to “Game of Thrones!”’).”

“So, I’m serious when I say that evidence is mounting that too much added sugar could lead to true addiction,” says Greene.

What is an addiction?

The link between sugar and addictive behaviour is tied to the fact that, when we eat sugar, opioids and dopamine are released.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a key part of the “reward circuit” associated with addictive behaviour. When a certain behaviour causes an excess release of dopamine, you feel a pleasurable “high” that you are inclined to re-experience, and so repeat the behaviour. As you repeat that behaviour more and more, your brain adjusts to release less dopamine. The only way to feel the same “high” as before is to repeat the behaviour in increasing amounts and frequency. This is known as substance abuse.

According to researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), excessive sugar consumption increases the dopamine levels in a similar way to other drugs such as cocaine.

The study found that long-term consumption of sugar will eventually cause a reduction in dopamine levels. That means, people need to consume higher and higher levels of sugar in order to reach the same reward levels and avoid mild states of depression.

Professor Selena Bartlett, a neuroscientist from the university’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation,”Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain,” she said. “It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine.

“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.”

YES! It is seriously affecting and impacting on our mental health.

Here’s my point

My biggest concern is this statement, for which I have come to see time and time again with clients.

“Studies suggest that every time we eat sweets we are reinforcing those neural pathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug,”

So what this is saying, is that our TASTE for SWEET increases time and time again and the more we feed it the more we are leading ourselves into a space of addiction and really harmful health issues.

KEY FINDINGS from recent research show us :

  • In 2011-12, Australians consumed an average of 60 grams of free sugars per day (equivalent to 14 teaspoons of white sugar). The majority of free sugar intakes comes from added sugars with an average 52 grams (or 12 teaspoons), with 7 grams of free sugars coming from honey and fruit juice.
  • The majority (81%) of free sugars were consumed from the energy-dense, nutrient-poor ‘discretionary’ foods and beverages. Just over half (52%) of free sugars in the diet were consumed from beverages, with the leading beverages being soft drinks, electrolyte and energy drinks (19%), fruit and vegetable juices and drinks (13%) and cordial (4.9%). The leading foods were confectionary and cakes/muffins (each contributing 8.7%).


Is one of the BIGGEST concerns for our sugar intake.


Where once this was framed as a possible substitute for the sugary drinks we are consuming, we are now finding that the sugar content in many of these drinks is equal to many of the traditional soft drinks. Why? Because then you will buy it. You are addicted to the sweet taste. The more you seek out sweet the more you will think you are going healthy yet seeking sweet.

It may say it isn’t sweet BUT it still tastes sweet due to the flavouring be it natural or artificial.

Back to my above point, that if you continue to buy ANY drink or food that tells you it ISNT sweet yet tastes sweet is loading your neural pathways with the lie of this isn’t sweet but tastes sweet therefore I am keeping and supporting my addiction to sweetness!

Retraining your taste buds

Its the only way. To move away from the addiction to sugars and the SWEET tastes is the only way it is possible to move on from a pending full blown addiction.

“The problem is that we aren’t meant to enjoy sugars in such concentrated amounts. In nature, sugar is found surrounded by fiber, in sugar cane and fruits. It naturally comes in a container that produces a shorter blood sugar response and aids in fullness. Today’s sugars are refined and concentrated.”

“The good news is that we can adapt our taste buds to accept less sugar,’

It is a reframe for your brain and taste buds.

It is making an effort to find ways to curb the sweets.

Some quick hows

  1. To begin with look at your daily eating habits and see where you are using too many fast moving carbs that just aren’t sustaining you. Processed foods etc – you know the bad guys.
  2. Swap them around for as many good carbs – slow releasing carbs as you can.
  3. Add more spice to your foods and life, sometimes it is a lack of minerals that leads us to seeking sweets.
  4. Find good alternatives, like tea, like water, with a slice of lemon or lime that are filling and able to bring you a sense of fullness and also provide a bit of zest.
  5. Get outside and breathe and refresh your mind before you eat anything.
  6. Use whole foods and fruits as first alternatives.
  7. Grab a handle of nuts!
  8. And lastly in the evening, keep a bar of 80% cocoa chocolate in the fridge. Nice and dark, one or two squares of that and you will not take long to lose the sugar buzz!

Cari Taylor is an Holistic Counsellor and brewmaster of Jun, a soft, yet powerfully transforming elixir – a fermented green tea drink, crafted with wild bacteria and yeasts to help heal your body (gut), mind and soul. To find out more go to

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