Sugar Addiction

We all know that sugar is addictive. It’s an obsession! We love the way it tastes, feels and what it does to us.

It has a real impact on our body chemistry. We get a little shot of dopamine or serotonin, depending on who we are. Pleasure. It smacks us right in the pleasure centers of our brains and drags us out of whatever funk or low energy state we might be in.

Bad news: it’s temporary. It never sustains itself. It always has repercussions. Our blood sugar rises initially and our brain blisses out. But then the crash comes. Insulin rises, sugar drops, brain goes into spasm, we feel fatigued, shaky, depressed and possibly shamed because we did it again!

Our dysfunctional relationship with sugar is just not worth it! Sugar makes us a lot of promises and never follows through! It leaves us desperate and in the dumps every time! Never mind what sugar does to our microbiome, who love it as well, feed voraciously on it and dump all the fermentation products into our gut so we can enjoy the bloating, gas and diarrhea.

 Processed grain addiction is the same thing!

Seriously, we have a true physiologic relationship with processed grains, especially gluten, that makes us feel enamored and have a hard time giving it up. Again, like sugar, it isn’t worth it! Grains are sugar. I think of them as being one in the same. Grains provide the same pleasure chemistry that table sugar or HFCS does. In addition, gluten, the ubiquitous protein from wheat, barley, rye and contaminated grains has it’s own unique biology that impacts how we feel about it. Gluten is digested into smaller proteins, some of which have opiate-like properties and interact with the opiate receptors in our brains. These “gluteomorphones” are thought to be why we bond so deeply with freshly baked bread and other gluten containing foods. This makes it hard to give them up but the pay off is reduced inflammation and lower levels of sugar in the body. The impact on health can be utterly transformational for some people who are particularly sensitive to the effects of gluten.

How do we manage our sugar addiction?

My rule of thumb is no processes sugar or grains the vast majority of the time. I’m just too sensitive and it’s not worth it. When I occasionally indulge for a holiday, birthday or special family gathering, I make sure that the food is something beautiful and prepared with thoughtfulness and love. I use ingredients that are as healthy as they can possibly be–whole, organic sources. And I typically balance the sugar with healthy fat and protein so that we’re not mainlining sugar right into our livers! Then I eat it mindfully and enjoy the beejeebies out of it! It often takes a lot of self-discipline for me not to repeat the next day (my brain’s pleasure centers took special note of the party!), but that’s what I do. Once in a blue moon.

To stop eating sugar, just stop. Go off of all processes sugar and grains. Read labels carefully. Don’t use sugar additives such as sucrose, maple syrup, honey, agave or coconut sugar. Sugar is sugar! And avoid sugar substitutes. Most have concerning effects on our health and trick the brain into believing the sugar is on its way in, leading to the same neuro-endocrine responses of consuming sugar itself.

I think the best way to interrupt sugar addiction is to just stop–cold turkey, and embrace the deprivation. It’s temporary. Most people will get through it in 3-5 days. Done. If you feel irritable, weak and wimpy when you first stop eating sugar, remember: “this too shall pass.” Treat yourself kindly, rest, eat and hydrate well, and look forward to your new energy and improved health that most certainly will come.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.