The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 19 No. 6 • July 2016


An exceptionally informative paper (Avena, 2008) describes the authors’ experiments in rats as well as reviews papers providing a convincing body of evidence that sugar can produce neurochemical effects in the brain that mimic those of addiction to drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In its detailed overview of these effects, the paper provides a description of how sugar can be addicting, using a model developed using rats that depicted the four stages of the addictive process as (1) binging, (2) withdrawal, (3) craving, and (4) sensitization. In addition, the paper elaborates the sequential alterations in brain neurochemistry that take place during each of these stages, offering very useful guidance to many places where intervention may be helpful. “Neural adaptations include changes in dopamine and opioid receptor binding, enkephalin [part of the opioid system] mRNA expression and dopamine and acetylcholine release in the nucleus accumbens.” (Avena, 2008) (The usual limitation applies—that the evidence presented was what was known as of the date of publication, but to our knowledge, their understanding is still the accepted view of addiction.)

Many people feel compelled to eat sweet foods. These feelings are beyond their usual self-control, and are often likened to an “addiction.” But, as the evidence shows, sugar craving is not a metaphor for an addiction, but is a true addiction. The paper presents the authors’ hypothesis that “intermittent, excessive intake of sugar can have dopaminergic, cholinergic and opioid effects that are similar to psychostimulants and opiates, albeit smaller in magnitude.” (Avena, 2008)

Another paper (Morris, 2010) explains that glucose is released from the liver in response to circulating adrenaline (aka epinephrine), a neurotransmitter of the adrenergic nervous system, which is involved in feeding and glucose regulation, as discussed below.


Avena et al. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 32(1):20-39 (2008)

Morris et al. Age-related memory impairments due to reduced blood glucose responses to epinephrine. Neurobiol Aging. 31:2136-45 (2010). (In this paper, the authors found that in a study of rats, adrenaline and glucose were about equally effective in improving memory in young rats, but that in old rats, glucose was more effective in doing so.)

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