Addicted to Sugar
Bart Hoebel, Princeton’s esteemed professor of neuroscience and behavior, has been studying sugar addiction in rats for a decade. Apparently, rats can be manipulated to binge on sugar, and when they do, there are changes in their brain patterns and behavior that are similar to those in drug-addicted humans.
What is addiction?
In medical terms, addition refers to a physical dependence on a substance. Dependence means (1) increased tolerance with chronic use, (2) withdrawal symptoms upon abrupt removal (3) craving for the substance and relapse.
Alcohol, tobacco and controlled substances are physically addictive. Shopping, gambling, video games, sex, working, eating, and other obsessions can be psychologically addictive.
Dr. Hoebel is out to prove that sugar meets the definition for a physically addictive substance.
In the experiments, the researchers denied the rats food for four hours after they awoke. They were famished! When finally fed, the hungry rats binged on sugar, while the levels of pleasure-sensitive neurotransmitters in their brains were being measured. This routine was repeated every day for one month, and at the end, the rats' brains had adapted to need more sugar to experience the same pleasurable effects. In other words, tolerance had increased with chronic use over time.
To demonstrate withdrawal, sugar was abruptly removed from the rats’ diet for 10 days. During that time, the rats were clearly anxious. Their teeth chattered and they hid in their holes for days. Worse yet, the rats started to drink alcohol, suggesting that neurotransmitters changes paved the way to other drugs. When sugar was re-introduced, the rats worked harder to get it and they ate more than ever before, suggesting craving and relapse. Tolerance, withdrawal, craving, and relapse: Sugar is physically addicting to rats.
Make no assumptions
Hoebel states, "Rat studies cannot be applied to humans." Humans are are subject to complex psychological and socio-economic factors, alongside the physical. "Food addiction is much milder than drug addiction.”
IMO, the psychological addiction is just as important as the physical. Much of the craving for sugar is due to the allure of the forbidden. But I do believe tolerance to sugar leads to a desire for more, although I'm not sure about withdrawal (and the chattering of little teeth!) Overall, I think the individual has to manage physically addictive substances like alcohol, and psychological "substances" too. The responsible adult maintains flexible self-control all around. He also maintains a healthy respect for the power of the substance.
What do you think?
Is sugar physically addictive to humans?