Neurobiological Basis Sugar Addictive Substance


Addiction is the psychological and physiological inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug or substance. Scientific evidence shows that addiction to behavior and substance use shares key neurobiological features (Volkow et al., 2011). They intensely activate brain pathway of reinforcement and reward some of which involve the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is key to the reward circuit and related to addictive behavior. Failure to feel pleasure as before leads to an increase in the amount of substance used and frequency which is known as substance abuse. Sugar triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, this means that its consumptions can be linked to addiction. There are two types of addiction which include substance addiction and behavioral addiction. Substance addiction is the adaptive state that develops from repeated use of chemical substance or drug which may result in withdrawal on cessation of the substance i.e. cocaine, caffeine. On the other hand, behavioral addiction refers to addiction form that involves compulsion to be involved in rewarding non-substance linked behavior also known as natural behaviors. Some of the behavior identifies to be addictive include gambling, foods, pornography, and video games. This paper critically evaluates the evidence that sugar is an addictive substance.


Like substance abuse, behavioral addiction activates the brain reward system releasing dopamine and other neurotransmitters that make one feel euphoric. Behavior such as shopping, eating, and video games can be very intensely rewarding this creating a powerful incentive to engage in them. Based on studies, many people linked to behavioral addiction have reported an urge state before initiating the behavior. Additionally, this behavior decreases anxiety and results in a positive mood state. The mesolimbic pathway of the brain facilitates repeated behavior that is exhibited in animals and human. Once we do something pleasurable like sugar consumption, neuron bundles use dopamine to signal nucleus accumbens of the brain and dictate whether to repeat a behaviour or not (Erickson, 2018). For instance, an experiment involving rats was set up where the rats were deprived food for twelve hours each day and given hours of access to regular chow and sugary solution. After a month of the routine, the rats displayed behavior similar to those of drug abuse. The rats binged on the sugar solution in a short period much more compared to regular food. They also had signs of depression and anxiety during the time of food deprivation (Avena, 2010). This is an indication that sugar consumption can result in addiction as per the study. A repeat of behavior can lead to habit; therefore, from this study, we can conclude that sugar is an addictive substance like any other drug.

Moreover, eating flavoured foods can ultimately result in the release of dopamine in the brain. Food stimuli and substances found in the food we consume increase the mental alertness and increase physical activity. This result in the modification of neuron communication by interfering with the dopamine neurotransmitter system (Blumenthal & Gold, 2010). Flavor result to pleasurable experience in the reward center this means to recreate this stimulation, the process of stimuli induction is repeated leading to repeated product consumption. Sugar addiction has been observed to meet the five criteria established under the DSM-5. One of its components is the behavioral sensitization which is a phenomenon linked to several drugs and consists of long-lasting and increased locomotion following repeated administration. Animals sensitized with drugs shows similar hyperactivity once the drug is injected which is similar to studies observed in sugar consumption (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This ascertains the statement that sugar is an addictive substance.

As a person desire a sense of euphoria that accompanies sugar consumption, after some time of use, they find that taking the same amount does not result to a similar sense of pleasure that was felt in the first use. This forces such person to use more and more of a substance to replicate the initial feeling. Binge eating is comfortable for a brief moment as it helps to create ease in unpleasant emotions or depression. Binge eating results in obesity which reinforce compulsive eating. As discussed earlier, sugar consumption activates the mesolimbic dopamine system which results from using a substance repeatedly to satisfy a need and feel ‘good’. Activation of the system requires one to carry out the behavior over and over to experience ‘good' feeling’.

Based on the American psychological association diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5), behavioral addiction has common characteristics. They include experiencing withdrawal if the behavior is restricted. This means that the observation in rats’ experiment is a confirmation of sugar being an addictive substance; suffering physiological consequences like anxiety, diminished ability to control the behaviour. There is some measurement that can be used to determine the level of food addiction. Such scale includes the Yale Food Addiction Scale. This scale aims at identifying people who are most likely to be exhibiting markers of substance with the consumption of high sugar foods. It has 25 items self-report measure which include categories and subcategories. This scale can be used to obtain symptoms like withdrawal, loss of control among other substance abuse symptoms (Ahmed et al., 2013). This measurement is very accurate in determining the level of addiction though food addiction can only be diagnosed when clinically significant impairment and symptoms are present. This means that the kit cannot be used in the early stages of addiction.

Additionally, a study published in the British journal of sports medicine suggested that people addicted to sugar experience similar kind of changes in brain chemistry and behavior as those addicted to drugs. Data collected on preliminary animal research indicate that there was a significant overlap between added sugar consumption and medicine-like-effects including cravings, tolerance, bingeing, withdrawal, cross-sensation, reward and opioid effects (DiNicolantonio et al., 2018). For instance, the study suggests that sugar consumption produces impact similar to that of cocaine leading to the seeking of sugar.

Charles Darwin in his evolution theory suggests that a trait emerges if it contributes to the survival or increases the organism’s success in reproduction. Many animals ingest lesser toxic substances to benefit in their survival. Looking at the Darwin theory, evolutionary adaptations could have driven humans to sugar consumption (DiNicolantonio et al., 2018). This seems to be a strategy to increase chances of survival especially during the time of food scarcity. The unnatural reward that human receives from sugar consumption overrides out self-control mechanisms leading to sugar addictions. Though sugar repeated use can be observed as a mechanism of adaptation, still the repeated use can be assumed to be an addiction.

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Addiction refers to the psychological and physiological inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug or substance. Addiction is subdivided to both behavioral and substance use addiction. Sugar consumption has habit forming just like nicotine and cocaine. As per studies, people addicted to sugar experience similar kind of changes in brain chemistry and behavior as those addicted to drugs. This is a clear indication that sugar consumption is addictive and can act in the same manner as drug addiction. Like drugs, sugar impact the mesolimbic dopamine system releasing the Neurotransmitter dopamine whose purpose is to create a feeling of being content. This call for a repeat of consumption of this addictive behavior. Moreover, the use of sugar contributes to survival success, and this means that every time, species crave for sugar and this behavior can be described as addictions. Lastly, sugar addiction has been observed to meet the five criteria established under the DSM-5. This is a confirmation that sugar is an addictive substance.


  • Ahmed, S.H., Avena, N.M., Berridge, K.C., Gearhardt, A.N. and Guillem, K., 2013. Food addiction. Neuroscience in the 21st century: From basic to clinical, pp.2833-2857.
  • American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
  • Avena, N.M., 2010. The study of food addiction using animal models of binge eating. Appetite, 55(3), pp.734-737.
  • Avena, N.M., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B.G., 2008. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioural and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), pp.20-39.
  • Blumenthal, D.M. and Gold, M.S., 2010. Neurobiology of food addiction. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 13(4), pp.359-365.
  • DiNicolantonio, J.J., O’Keefe, J.H. and Wilson, W.L., 2018. Sugar addiction: is it real? A narrative review. Br J Sports Med, 52(14), pp.910-913.
  • Erickson, C.K., 2018. The science of addiction: From neurobiology to treatment. WW Norton & Company.
  • Volkow, N.D., Wang, G.J. and Baler, R.D., 2011. Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(1), pp.37-46.

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