13/12/2016 09:59 GMT | Updated 06/12/2017 05:12 GMT

Is Sugar As Addictive As Certain Drugs?

"No one can exert cognitive inhibition or willpower over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute, of every day, of every year." - Dr. Robert Lustig (University of California)

The sweet topic of sugar is on the tip of everyone's tongues nowadays. It seems that we are finally waking up to the impact that this foodstuff can have on the health of our body. Last year the recommended daily amount of added sugar was reduced from 10% of total calories to that of 5% of total calories. In real terms this means that we should be having no more than 24g or 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day. There are direct associations now linking the intake of sugar to that of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and weight gain.

Although many of us may know that sugar in the diet isn't good for us, for those of you that have tried to give it up may know how hard it is to do. Under normal conditions, we have systems in our body that are meant to regulate the amount of food that we ingest. However, when it comes to sugar and other junk food, it seems like this system is not properly at play.

Sugar and the reward centres in the brain:

Within the brain, we have an area that is known as the reward centre. One of the reasons for this existing was to encourage us to forage and consume food so that we could stay alive.

When stimulated, this reward centre will release certain "feel good" hormones including that of dopamine.

One problem is, the reward centres in the brain can also be stimulated by other cues including that of addictive substances such as recreational drugs. It is well established that addictive drugs stimulate the release of dopamine which has a direct impact on behaviour reinforcement.

However, it is now being shown that a high intake of sugar can also cause a strong activation of dopamine containing areas in the brain. Indicating that sugar intake could have similar reward and reinforcement outcomes as that of recreational drugs.

All foods can trigger a dopamine response. However, this is more associated with the novelty of a certain food and is more of a survival mechanism, that allows us to work out if a food is going to do us any harm or not. Generally, after time, the dopamine response to foodstuffs will lessen.

When we look at the ingestion of sugar, we see that the above response does not happen. In fact, animals fed sugar, had a constant release of dopamine, that unlike other food stuff, did not lessen over time. This pattern of dopamine release appears to be much more in line with the dopamine release seen with drugs.

Sugar as an addiction:

For a person to be classed as having an addiction, they must meet a certain criterion that has been set according to addiction literature.

Studies that have looked at sugar addiction in animals have demonstrated behaviours similar to the effects of drug of abuse including "bingeing" after long periods of restriction, "withdrawals" often indicated by signs of anxiety and physical shaking and also "cravings", which has been shown in the animal's behaviour. Often the cravings appeared to be so bad that the animals were willing to partake in abnormal or even harmful behaviours just to reach the sweet treat.

To try and see the impact that sugar has in humans, researchers have been using MRI scanning to see what is going on in the brain. Although there are still a limited number of studies, from the ones published, they demonstrate that high sugar intakes promote greater activation in regions associated with reward and motivation.

To help quantify if someone is indeed addicted to sugar or other foodstuffs, a food addiction scale (known as the YALE Food Addiction Scale) has been developed.

Giving up the sweet stuff:

Most of us within the UK, could probably do with looking to reduce our overall intake of added sugars in the diet. Not only to help with your overall health profile, but also aspects such as mood, sleep and the appearance of your skin.

If you have ever tried or are in the middle of trying to give up or even reduce your sugar intake and are really struggling, just remember the strong and potent effect that sugar appears to elicit on the brain. The first 10-14 days of trying to reduce your sugar intake is often the hardest. The great news is though, once you are through that part it becomes a lot easier. After time, things may even start to feel too sweet for you to handle.

Although more research, particularly in humans is needed to fully quantify sugar as an addictive substance. We know that severely reducing or eliminating it from the diet will do more good than harm.