Arizona Advanced Medicine Clinic

Sugar - Sweet Deadly Addiction

Sweet is mother’s milk – sweeter than cow’s milk. In the days when breast feeding was considered somehow politically incorrect, Carnation evaporated milk had the formula recipe on its can – it always included extra sugar.

That still does not explain sugar’s allure. Now we are all grown up. We no longer need mother’s milk. What good is sugar? Why do we still crave it?

Some people are just not “sweets” people – they prefer salty (potato chips), or savoury (rich flavors), or sour (lemonade, Kombucha), or bitter (coffee, dark chocolate). Others go for the carbs every time – milk chocolate, bread, Danish, doughnuts… And once they start on the doughnuts, they have a hard time stopping. The box of candy is good to the last piece on the bottom tier. Three spoonfulls of sugar in their coffee…

Research has shown that sugar is highly addictive – as all of us “carboholics” are well aware. We are not weak people, but we are definitely addicted. And the first step out of addiction is to admit that we have a problem. “The models that integrate motivational systems with palatability and hedonic response studies are the ones that we believe can best explain both craving for carbohydrates and related addictive phenomena. “[1]

The extent of the problem is well defined in the literature, although there is some controversy. It’s little like the tobacco companies and the smokers. Everyone knew that nicotine was highly addictive, but nobody was willing to admit it, until the incidence of lung cancer became so high that it was impossible to ignore.

One study found no association between insulin sensitivity, serotonin levels and depression-associated obesity.[2] Another study found that there was no influence of either a single high protein vs high carbohydrate meal on salivary cortisol or mood.[3]

Nevertheless, for those carbohydrate cravers who are well aware of their reaction to sweets, a double-blind placebo-controlled study showed that the carb cravers picked the high carb over the high protein drink when their mood was unhappy, and that they said the high carb drink was more palatable. “Results support the existence of a carbohydrate craving syndrome in which carbohydrate ingestion medicates mildly dysphoric mood.”[4]

So what can we do to relieve the addiction and even learn to love non-sugary foods? Or at the very least how can we help ourselves learn to find them more palatable?

-Decrease exposure (avoid the temptation)

-Do NOT indulge in artificial sweeteners – the body’s taste buds do not know the difference, and insulin levels still go up

-Try low dose Naltrexone to block the addiction response

-Get enough sleep – lowers cortisol and insulin levels

-Remember Fen/Phen? It’s not worth damaging your heart in order to curb the cravings. But there is another way. Sufficient levels of both serotonin and dopamine in the brain will help to relieve the cravings and restore balance to the brain-gut axis.

If you find that the cravings persist, despite your best efforts to turn your back on the carbs, consider working with neurotransmitter precursors for both serotonin and dopamine. It just might be the answer for you.


[1] Ventura T, Santander J, Torres R, Contreras AM. Neurobiologic basis of craving for carbohydrates. Nutrition 30;3:252–256 (March 2014) doi:10.1016/j.nut.2013.06.010.

[3] Lemmens SG, Born JM, Martens EA, Martens MJ, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Influence of consumption of a high-protein vs. high-carbohydrate meal on the physiological cortisol and psychological mood response in men and women. PLoS One. 2011 Feb 3;6(2):e16826. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016826.

[4] Corsica JA, Spring BJ. Carbohydrate craving: a double-blind, placebo-controlled test of the self-medication hypothesis. Eat Behav. 2008 Dec;9(4):447-54. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2008.07.004.

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