Breaking Free from Sugar Addiction

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By Mayumi Elk Eagle, AMFT, APCC

Halloween candieeees!!!! If you can eat a candy one at a time, that is great. But if you start thinking about eating candy all the time, or if you cannot stop eating candy once you have one, it can be a problem.

Do you know that you can get addicted to sugar? Researchers are finding out that sugar rewards animal brains like drugs do (Wiss, Avena, and Rada, 2018). How? In an animal brain and also in a human brain, there are “opioid and dopamine circuitry” (Maté, 2010, p.171). Both are important systems for your survival, but they are also involved in addiction. The opioid system uses endorphins, which are “natural narcotics” (Maté, 2010, p.158), and regulate your body in many ways. On the other hand, The dopamine system “has been associated with pleasure” and dopamine “has been called the anti-stress molecule and the pleasure molecule” (Blum, Braverman, et al.: as cited in Blum et al., 2015). They found that rats binge on sugar water because it releases dopamine in their brains like drugs do (Avena et al.; Rada et al.; as cited in Avena, Rada and Hoebel, 2008).

On top of that, they found that binge drinking on sugar water changed dopamine receptors in rats’ brains, which means they needed more and more sugar to feel the same pleasure. They also found craving anxiety and withdrawal occurs when rats only could access to sugar sporadically (Avena, Rada and Hoebel, 2008).

Those changes likely occur in human brains, too (Avena, Rada and Hoebel, 2008). We need to eat. Sugar is one of the foods that give us energy. When our food was scarce, our survival mechanism worked well. But “(a) s we evolved culturally, the neural circuits involved in addictive behaviors became dysfunctional, and instead of helping us survive they are in fact compromising our health” (Wiss, Avena, and Rada, 2018).

When you cannot modify your candy-eating behavior, and you became addicted to sugar, you are powerless over sugar or sweets because the opioids and dopamine systems in your brain were changed (Blum et al., 2015). It takes time to reverse the change. If you are repeating the same binge-eating of sugar and wishing someday you will stop, you cannot change your brain. Your brain is used to be in the routine and does not like change. If you try to stop on your own, you may feel fear and anxiety from withdrawal. So, if you decide to break free from your sugar addiction, you need to look for outside help, like going to twelve-step meetings, self-help groups, or seeking psychotherapy.


Avena, N.M., Rada P., & Hoebel, B.G. (2008). Review: Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32,20-39.

Blum, K., Thompson, B., Demotrovics, Z., Femino, J., Giordano, J., Oscar-Berman, M., …Gold, M.S. (2015). The Molecular Neurobiology of Twelve Steps Program & Fellowship: Connecting the Dots for Recovery. Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome, 1,46-64.

Maté, G. (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Wiss, D. A., Avena N., & Rada, P. (2018). Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution. Front Psychiatry, 9:545.

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