This is an idea that has been slowly developing in the back of mind over the last year or so of my experiences with diet and various addictions. I'd appreciate thoughts, feedback, personal experiences, or relevant science that anyone can offer.
Basically, I've been thinking about the relation of sugar addiction to overall compulsive behavior. I know most of you will know what I'm talking about when I refer to the sense of calmness, control, and solidity that a couple weeks of strict paleo will provide. The first time I experienced this I was really impressed with the overall implications it had on my life - and the first time I fell off the wagon into a full on sugar binge, I was amazed how long it took me to pick up the pieces of all the areas of my life that were affected by it.
What I've noticed when I eat sugar these days is an increase in dangerous/compulsive/addictive behaviors in all areas of my life, binge eating included - but it also extends to alcohol and substance use, poor/irrational judgement, selection of partners, sex, social behavior... everything, really. Its like my ability to think about things rationally and make an informed decision just never kicks in.
Does anyone else see this in themselves? Is it due to the action of sugar/insulin on one's neurochemistry? Do you think there is a genetic predisposition and sugar "flips the switch?" Is it simply a cognitive/personality disorder that should be addressed via therapy? Do you have any other theories?
This doesn't surprise me. Eating sugar causes blood sugar swings, and low blood sugar causes lots of problems, including impulsivity and alcohol cravings.
On impulsivity, see for example: The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control
Past research indicates that self-control relies on some sort of limited energy source. This review suggests that blood glucose is one important part of the energy source of self-control. Acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or insensitive). Restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control. Numerous self-control behaviors fit this pattern, including controlling attention, regulating emotions, quitting smoking, coping with stress, resisting impulsivity, and refraining from criminal and aggressive behavior. Alcohol reduces glucose throughout the brain and body and likewise impairs many forms of self-control. Furthermore, self-control failure is most likely during times of the day when glucose is used least effectively. Self-control thus appears highly susceptible to glucose. Self-control benefits numerous social and interpersonal processes. Glucose might therefore be related to a broad range of social behavior.
On sugar and alcoholism, see for example Does a Sweet Tooth Mean Alcoholism?.
Participants with a paternal history of alcoholism were 2.5 times more likely to enjoy sweets. Also, they were more likely to dislike the most diluted sugar solutions. Kampov suggests that the opioid system -- the part of the brain impacted by both sugar and alcohol -- is oversensitive in these subjects.
Alcohol creates a feedback loop, since low blood sugar can cause alcohol cravings, and alcohol can cause low blood sugar. This parallels the feedback loop from eating sugar itself, which can cause low blood sugar, and low blood sugar then causes sugar cravings.
Thus, it appears that the best strategy for impulse control and good judgment is to have steady blood glucose levels. The best way I know to achieve this is to eat such a low level of carbohydrates that you body makes its own glucose by gluconeogenesis on demand. That way you always get exactly enough and not more, which in turns prevents the hypoglycemic swing.
I think some people may have neuro-chemistry that gets triggered by sugar. I don't think this is necessary genetic (though it could be for some Native/Aboriginal folks who have trouble dealing with alcohol physiologically.) Maybe epi-genetic?
What I've noticed personally is that I actually want LESS sugar after a year of eating a fairly low-carb Primal diet (50-80 gm/day average.) I was at a party last night with some cold cuts,cheese, nice-looking cookies & a huge plate of fudge. I ate the meat & cheese and a little bit of the fudge, but I wasn't tempted at all to eat the cookies or over-indulge in the abundant wine or whiskey.
Unlike a lot of folks on this forum, I eat small amounts of sucrose daily since I don't digest most fruits or starchy carbs well. Since it isn't "forbidden" to me, there is no psychological craving and my body is so sensitive now that I feel sick if I have more than a few teaspoons worth at a time.
I used to be a sugar-aholic, but no more...did my physiology change after being low carb for so long?
Wow! My paleo experiences have been almost exactly like yours. I was perfect for two weeks, then I got my hands on some pecan pie for thanksgiving. Ever since, I've only had a few true paleo eating days. For about 5 days in a row, I resisted the temptation of refined sugars by stuffing myself with fruit. My acne cleared up and I felt awesome. Then my unhealthy relatives visited. Everything has been upside-down since then. I believe that people who were raised on junk food stay skinnier than people raised on semi-healthy food, because the bad eater's taste buds think that sweetness is the norm and they never overeat because nothing tastes "amazing" to them. The people raised on good food, not necessarily paleo, have taste buds that see all flavors; bitter, sweet, and spicy, as the norm get absolutely crazed by how "amazing" the refined sugars taste. With this awesome taste, they overeat greatly, gaining fat and weakening their sense of self-control. That sums up what happened to me.
In the past I might have said, "This is me!" I still do, but in a different way. Now I'd say it's all about anxiety, guilt and/or fear. It's both good and important that you're thinking about this, because it probably means you are thinking your way to a breakthrough that will make things easier for you.
Yes, I have body chemistry or a personality that is vulnerable to obsession/addiction. It took me a long time to realize that had very little to do with sugar and a lot to do with me. When I did realize it, I found I could maintain my calm and serenity even when I chose to have some sugar.
Take this week, for example. I started with shortbread, which didn't work out well at all because I had an allergic reaction to the wheat. Okay, then I had some ice cream with lots of sugar--no problem at all. Sweet eggnog? No problem. No anxiety, no guilt, no binge. For most SAD treats this year, I had a "not food" reaction; for those I enjoyed, they were just treats and not enemies.
The bottom line is, I used to transfer my addiction/obsession with sweets to other things like hopping on the scale many times per day or a constant dread of eating something sweet "because then I'll have to binge and I'll gain all my weight back." Self-fulfilling prophecy there.
Now, however, I realize that I am free to have a little sugar and there will be no consequences if I remain calm and serene. I simply return to my normal way of eating whole foods and I'm no different than I was before the sugar. I may skip fruit for a day or so, or skip my morning coffee with cream and honey. But even if I don't change anything, there are no consequences from a day or so of holiday eating if I don't explode and eat everything in sight.
If you indulge as I did this week you can expect some bloating or stomach discomfort which will pass through and be gone. Again, no long-term consequences. A few days of ancestral eating and the body is happy again and whole foods taste better than ever because they don't cause bodily upsets.
On a high-sugar diet, I :
It was the diet. Believe me. As soon as I started paleo, my life turned upside down. I became my old self again. Wanted to have fun again, went to France, went to the beach, went to the university, started studying and working like a lunatic to earn all the money back.
What you're describing is a certain primacy in sugar's capacity to initiate a downward cascade of deeply discouraging proportions. Sugar thus becomes something of a prototype for compulsivity per se. Which is why I have come to steer clear of sugar. At this point I eyeball "sweets" of various types, it doesn't trigger the "gotta have it" response. Key: transform your food choices so that you teach your body to burn fat not sugar. Thus you'll teach your mind to be bored replaying all kinds of speculations about why people who eat sugar crave sugar thus eat more of it.
I tend to think that sugar, with "sweet" being one of the basic tastes, has a profound role in the evolution of humans, and the desire to eat sweet stuff might be deeply ingrained in our behavioural patterns, something that we cannot ween ourselves off (like, for example, smoking).
As we tend to, in our minds, demonize sugar to the point where it is the culprit for literally everything bad happening to us, a natural urge is therefore not only repressed, but in doing so, inflated. Not to be politically incorrect here, but a fitting analogy would be a homosexual person that is allegedly "cured" of his/her sexual "misorientation". At some point, repressed urges will erupt back to the surface (-> Ted Haggard).
Lets say a hunter-gatherer happens to get his hands on a few bites of delicious, oozing honeycomb. He would probably have devoured it straight away. No long-term negative effects just a big bunch of calories stored, making long-term survival a little more likely. Now, say a modern human walks down a street in any of the worlds big cities. How many modern representations of honeycombs do you think he/she encounters? :) We humans like sugar, no doubt, and resisting the primal urge to splurge on the sweet stuff is, with constant exposure, mos likely a serious strain on our psyche.
Does that make sense?
Yeah, sounds like it's tied heavily to Stephan Guyenet's food reward theory of food affecting on brain. If you haven't checked it out I think you'll find it fascinating.