By Susan Shekut, MA, Clinical Professional Psychology, Owner, Working Well Massage, Licensed Massage Therapist, Wellness Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer
Today I came across an article about the effects of giving up sugar in our brains, Here is What Happens to Your Brain When You Give Up Sugar For Lent, published in The Conversation. Author, Jordan Gaines Lewis, who is a Neuroscience Doctoral Candidate at Penn State College of Medicine, explains the role of neurotransmitters and the body’s reaction to receiving pleasurable stimuli in the form of sugar. Unfortunately, as the brain becomes addicted to sugar, stopping your sugar intake such as by fasting for a religious reason, can have withdrawal effects similar to kicking the habit of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Although the article may be a bit complex as the author explains the neurological reaction of the brain to sugar, it is an excellent explanation of how our bodies react to the sweet stuff and why we crave it so much!
In another article in The Conversation, The Amount of Hidden Sugar in Your Diet Might Shock You, authors Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Sonia Pombo, Nutritionist at Queen Mary University of London, explain just how much sugar there is in food you might not think had sugar, including bread and cereal, nonfat yogurt, flavored water and even soup! Check out their short article and chart to see just how much sugar is in the food you consume every day.
Interestingly, when we take the explanation of how we can become addicted to sugar and look at the amount of hidden sugar in our diets, it is easy to understand how people have difficulties curbing their sugar intake. And too much sugar intake can be part of the process that leads to Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome. Not to give us an excuse to overeat sugar, but before we can do something about a problem, we must first understand it!
Overcoming Sugar Addiction
If you do find that you have a sweet tooth or a full on sugar addiction, I hope these articles help you understand that resisting the sugar craving is not just a matter of will power. Just like being addicted to drugs like cocaine and heroin, people who feel they are addicted to sugar need help to overcome their sugar addiction. There are some drugs being tested to help reduce cravings, but cognitive behavioral therapy is also widely regarded as a helpful tool in combating addictions, including sugar addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy does help people fighting addiction in a few keys ways. First a pychotherapist uses CBT to help clients to evaluate how thoughts and beliefs may be impacting behavior and allowing the addiction to persist despite potential harm caused by excessive sugar consumption and then helps clients learn how to modify or change those beliefs and habitual thoughts which make it difficult for the client to manage the sugar addiction. Secondly, a psychotherapist uses CBT to work with clients to determine a means to modify or change food consumption and other behaviors in specific ways to overcome the addiction. And according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, (NAMI), “Individuals who undergo CBT show changes in brain activity, suggesting that this therapy actually improves your brain functioning as well.”
Psychology Today has an easy step by step method you can try to curb our sugar addiction on your own in their article, How To Get Over Your Sugar Addiction. Sherry Pagoto, Ph. D. explains how to “train your palette to prefer less sweet.” Her approach is in line with a CBT approach. However, if you feel your sugar addiction is beyond self-help, it is best to consult a licensed psychotherapist who can help you make the changes in your life that will allow you to overcome your sugar addiction. Living in a culture that provides not only an abundance of sugary food at every corner, even in Starbucks, professional help is often needed to build a support system and a behavioral plan to help fight the addiction.