If you feel bad because you simply can’t help eating that next cookie, don’t. Scientists have found that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could also be used to treat sugar addiction. By treating sugar cravings as we treat other drug addictions, we can reduce sugar consumption significantly. Viewed this way, trying to quit cake and soft drinks unsupported seems as ridiculous as quitting cigarettes or alcohol by going cold turkey.
A new study from the Queensland University of Technology used varenicline to treat sugar addiction. Varenicline is usually used to treat nicotine addiction, and is sold under the brand names Chantix and Champix. It does this by stimulating the body’s nicotine receptors, but more weakly than nicotine. The Queensland team found that it also works to reduce sugar cravings.
Sugar consumption makes our brains produce more dopamine, which is a characteristic it shares with other addictive drugs. Dopamine controls the brain’s reward centers, which is why we crave these drugs.
“[Sugar has] been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels,” says researcher Selena Bartlett, “which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse, including tobacco, cocaine, and morphine.”
Like other addictive drugs, they eventually lead to a reduction in dopamine levels, which makes us require ever-larger doses to get the same effect. And, of course, sugar has a rather troublesome side effect: It makes us fat. Not only that, but continued consumption of sugar at high levels can lead to psychiatric problems.
“We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation,” says Bartlett.
And it’s not just sugar that affects us like this. Artificial sweeteners, says the study, “could produce effects similar to those we obtained with table sugar.” So it seems to be sweet foods in general that affect us, not sucrose in particular.
That might make cutting back to manageable levels tricky for some people. Most people can drink a glass of wine with lunch and then carry on with their day, but for addicts, stopping at one is impossible. If sugar blisses us out in the same way as booze and other drugs, then addicts are unlikely to be able to control their sugar intake any better than they can control their drug cravings.
And it may also expose a whole new class of addicts, which is terrifying until you consider that now there may be a new way to help the chronically obese.