Image credit: Shandi-Lee Cox
“Ecstasy is a glassful of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth.” Alexander Pushkin
“If you are bitter at heart, sugar in the mouth will not help you.” – Yiddish proverb
“One who goes after the taste of the tongue does not get to know the taste of the heart.” – Amma
THE SUGAR RUSH
I am a firm believer that even when things get tough, there are blessings at play we may not be able to see. I have found this to be true countless times in my life so far. At its core, I believe that life is sweet.
To varying degrees, most of us have a soft spot for sweetness – be it in the kind ways we prefer people to act, the types of scents we like around us, or the foods we put in our mouths. Flowers adorn a room with freshness and delight. Desserts round off a perfect meal with a sense of satiation. Chocolates tell a special someone how dear they are to us.
Though I love the sweet things of life, I have rarely been attracted to sweet foods. When asked in surprise how come, I would simply reply that life is sweet enough already.
Since childhood, I have been blessed with an innate inner compass that naturally draws me towards wellness. Though I have my own fair share of vices, I have instinctively known when a food or an action would lead me down the spiralling path towards cravings. When offered my first cigarette, for example, I inhaled one long puff and gave it back, saying “No thanks. I will get addicted.”
In my book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie“, I share how addiction is rampant in our world in both covert and overt ways. We are familiar with common addictions such as those to alcohol, drugs or gambling. As I explore in “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”, we also become addicted to taking on false personas to make us feel good about ourselves. Beyond these addictions, one of the many ways we enable addictions inadvertently in our lives is through the sugar that we rampantly consume in our foods.
Do not our cultural tendencies and societal behaviours illustrate how we are, for the most part, a group fueled by sugar rushes? Whether we are looking for the next big thing, seeking the latest high, living in some way by a desire to be other than who we are or where we are, sugar and its empty sweetness drive many illusions by which we live. Like the gambler who keeps going back to hopefully hit the big win, we can spend our lives seeking fulfilment from hollow promises.
Our desire to meet the speed of growing technologies plays its part in keeping us running. We can’t wait for the moment to upgrade our operating system or buy the newest smartphone., We nervously check to see if someone liked our latest social media post. Our need for faster and better could be said to reflect the sugar highs and lows that pump through our veins. Often out of sync with the sweetness of this moment and the juiciness of life, we mistake the fleeting thrill of cotton candy, or the chewy comfort of a toasted bagel, for true soul-satiating nutritional substance.
Though sugar naturally occurs in many foods, including fruits, vegetables and dairy, only some forms of sugar actually sustain the sweetness of life. Others have scientifically tested to be as toxic at many levels as cocaine. From the first moment we try sweets as infants, we are hooked.
Sugar, a carbohydrate needed for brain function, balanced biochemistry and energy levels, is often used to administer medicines, added to baby formulas, and combined in most of our store bought foods for extra appeal. Sugar cravings are habit-forming. This, the food industry has known for years. Since this industry makes it a goal to engineer products to be as irresistible as possible, various forms of sugar sneak into many products on the supermarket shelf.
NOT SO SWEET FACTS
The New York Times recently published sobering results of many studies on sugar, health, addiction and behaviour:
“In animal models, sugar produces at least three symptoms consistent with substance abuse and dependence: cravings, tolerance and withdrawal. Other druglike properties of sugar include (but are not limited to) cross-sensitization, cross-tolerance, cross-dependence, reward, opioid effects and other neurochemical changes in the brain. In animal studies, animals experience sugar like a drug and can become sugar-addicted. One study has shown that if given the choice, rats will choose sugar over cocaine in lab settings because the reward is greater; the “high” is more pleasurable. In humans, the situation may not be very different. Sugar stimulates brain pathways just as an opioid would, and sugar has been found to be habit-forming in people. Cravings induced by sugar are comparable to those induced by addictive drugs like cocaine and nicotine.”
James DiNicolantonio, Cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, published a similarly supportive review. Refined sugar, he says, is similar to cocaine and can be even more addictive than the street drug. “When you look at animal studies comparing sugar to cocaine, even when you get the rats hooked on IV cocaine, once you introduce sugar, almost all of them switch to the sugar.”
The reaction to sugar for humans is similar. If you have ever experienced a sugar crash, you know that sudden highs and lows in blood sugar levels can cause symptoms of irritability, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue. Why does that happen?
Research shows that sugar stimulates brain pathways as an opioid would. When scanning people eating sweets, scientists have found that similar regions of their brain light up as those actively using addictive substances. The reward chemical dopamine spikes and reinforces the desire for more. Yet sugar also fuels the calming hormone serotonin, which in turn creates even deeper attachment to the substance.
David Ludwig, author of Ending the Food Fight, and his colleagues at Harvard confirm this. In a sophisticated study, he showed that foods with a high glycemic index, such as sugars and refined carbohydrates, triggers the same part of the brain as known addictions, such as gambling, alcoholism or drug abuse.
Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, Ph.D., author of a UCLA sugar study, goes on to say that sugar consumption leaves free radicals in the brain membrane affecting our ability to communicate, remember instructions, process ideas and handle moods.
When we repeatedly trigger the experience of a chemical reward, we feel it less and less. It then takes more of it to give us the high we now feel we need. Soon, we find ourselves hooked on those sweets – whether it is soda pop or a cake or even less obvious sugars like bread or white rice – to feel good. Science shows that constant use of sugar to feel calmer or happier depletes our limited reserves of the feel-good chemical serotonin, which leads to depression and anxiety.
HOW TO BREAK THE CYCLE
You have the power to stop the addictive sugar cycle you may not realize you are on, and start living the real sweetness of your life. Here are some practical things that you can do immediately to improve the quality of your life:
- READ FOOD LABELS: Read the labels on everything you eat. Sugars are often hidden. Some of the major contributors are in foods we may use every day:
- Breakfast cereal: Most cereals contain large amounts of sugar. Avoid sugary cereals and high starchy foods for breakfast, even if they are promoted as health food. Even that organic granola can be a real sugar fest! Instead of a carbohydrate rich breakfast, look for protein foods that are a great grounding way to start your day.
- Yogurt: Eat only all natural, sugar free, probiotic yogurt. Most yogurts have fancy flavours to help with sales and have a lot of added sugar.
- Sauces: You would be amazed how much sugar is in all kinds of prepared sauces, from Chinese to Italian! Sugar is even in the most unassuming items like salad dressings and ketchup. Fresh herbs and spices, freshly squeezed lemons and limes, Braggs and first pressed, unrefined, organic oils such as olive, pumpkin, sesame and avocado are great ways to add delight to any meal.
- Drinks: From sports drinks, juices to soda pop, most bottled drink are loaded with sugar. What happened to delicious water and a squeeze of fresh lemon? It is the most thirst quenching drink I know. I also love licorice root tea, if I am feeling a need for something sweet.
- FOOD JOURNAL: Keep track of your intake as well as your moods after you eat certain foods. Notice if there is a correlation between the times you eat a food with greater carbohydrate content, and times that you feel stressed, sleepy, agitated or spun out. I bet the results will be notable!
- SUGAR ALTERNATIVES: Look for healthy alternatives to sugar. I love stevia, an herb from South America whose leaves are the source of a natural, noncaloric sweetener. I have also noticed that if I have a sweet craving, I am actually thirsty. I reach for some lemon water. That does the trick every time.
- FOOD AND EMOTIONS: Look deeper. Why do you crave sugar? What are you trying to fill with the sugar? There is always an emotional component when you reach for something sweet to fill you unnecessarily. Are you feeling low about something? Incapable? Not good enough? Afraid? Angry? Whatever may be going on, give room for those emotions, rather than medicating them with sugar.
- YOU ARE SWEET ENOUGH: Most importantly, remind yourself that you and your life are sweet enough already! You don’t need any extra sugar to make you or your circumstances any sweeter. Not only because it won’t work, but mostly because it will actually do the opposite. Like the high of any drug, sugar may seem to make you feel great at first. But it will end up leveling you, and leaving you feeling worse than before. It quite simply is not worth it. You and your valuable life are worth more than that.
For additional reading, you may want to check out these information sources:
Until next time,
Love our world.
We are ONE Earth family.