Neuroscientists describe food as a “natural reward.” That’s because it’s a basic biological imperative for us to take pleasure in eating.
Since pleasurable sensations reinforce behaviors, it’s no surprise that we’re primed to repeat them.
But when we eat sugar laden and highly processed foods, they are manufactured to deliver an outsized “reward.” Which then quickly reinforces our desire to seek out those foods without regard for their effects on our overall health and well-being.
Dependence, even addiction, to sugar and highly processed foods, can all too easily result from our biological imperative to seek pleasure.
Sugar wreaks havoc on our brains and bodies.
Earlier this year, I did a deep dive into the bittersweet skinny on sugar right here. Read that post to learn more about the damage that sugar and highly processed foods does to your body.
Today, I want to talk about what happens to your brain on sugar. How your brain behaves when faced with overcoming cravings for sugary and highly processed foods.
Yes, it’s true that when weaning yourself from added sugars and highly processed foods your brain and body may rebel. Varying symptoms of withdrawal are all too real.
But, with informed, proactive planning, you can design a weaning strategy to minimize any mental or physical discomforts that might arise.
You know the old adage: Failing to plan is planning to fail. That couldn’t be more true than here.
Experiments in both animals and humans show how sugar activates reward pathways.
Intense sweetness surpasses even cocaine in terms of the internal reward it triggers.
Studies in mice have shown that sugar is able to activate these reward pathways in the brain whether it’s tasted in the mouth or injected into the bloodstream. This means its effects are independent of the sweet taste.
In rats, there’s evidence that suggests that eating sugar can actually change the structures in the brain that dopamine activates.
And, it can alter emotional processing and modify behavior in both animals and humans.
This spells trouble for us once we are deep into decades of dopamine doling out whopping rewards for eating sugar and highly processed foods.
Sugar and highly processed foods hijack the brain, big-time.
When we experience something pleasurable, a bundle of neurons activate the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine signals the nucleus accumbens part of the brain.
The nucleus accumbens then signals our prefrontal cortex, that more highly evolved decision making part of our brain that dictates how we respond.
If a question pops up in your mind that goes something like this: “Hmmm, should I eat that rich, gooey, chocolatey brownie?” It’s the prefrontal cortex that decides your fate.
The prefrontal cortex also activates hormones that tell your brain: “Hey, this brownie is fantastic! Amazing! Better remember this delight for the future!”
Then, each time you see a gooey, chocolatey brownie, you don’t have to waste energy debating whether to eat it or not.
Your brain remembers and just takes it for granted that it’s REALLY good for you — so have at it. And before you know it, those first bites are sending hormonal cascades which further reinforce that gooey goodness. And the reinforcement continues….
Once your brain is hijacked like this, resetting habitual thinking and behavior responses is essential to escape this torturous cycle.
Withdrawal symptoms can occur when the brain’s chemical balance changes.
When we remove or reduce sugar from our diet, the rapid reduction in dopamine’s effects upsets the brain. In addition, it most likely interferes with the normal function of many different brain pathways.
Sugar’s powerful hold on us predicts mental and physical rebellion when we try to give it up.
How the body reacts to giving up sugar is different for everyone.
Withdrawal symptoms — and their severity — will depend on how much sugar you’ve been used to eating.
Some people find that their symptoms last from a few days to a couple of weeks. Some people don’t experience much discomfort at all.
As your body adapts to a no/low added sugar diet and your added sugar intake becomes less frequent, the less intense your symptoms and cravings for sugar.
However, if you’re having symptoms, you may find that they’re worse at certain times of the day, such as between meals.
It’s no surprise that stress may make you feel worse because it can trigger sugar cravings.
Cutting added sugar may lead to a number of emotional and mental withdrawal symptoms.
These could include:
- Depressed mood. Some people may feel down when they cut added sugar from their diet. This is partly due to a decrease in dopamine release.
- Anxiety. Feelings of anxiousness may be accompanied by nervousness, restlessness, and irritability. You may feel like you have less patience than usual and are on edge.
- Changes in sleep patterns. Some people experience changes in their sleep when detoxing from sugar. You might find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.
- Cognitive issues. You may find it difficult to concentrate when you quit sugar. This can cause you to forget things and make it hard to focus on tasks, such as work or school.
- Cravings. Along with craving sugar, you may find yourself craving other foods, such as carbs like bread, pasta, and potato chips.
Cutting out sugar may cause you to feel physically run down.
Some people get headaches. These can include depression, anxiety, brain fog and cravings, alongside headaches, fatigue and dizziness.
Other possible physical withdrawal symptoms include:
- Light-headedness or dizziness
Fear of physical an/or mental withdrawal symptoms can make it hard to get started.
But I can help!
Make it easier to kick the sugar habit with coaching support.
If you want to reduce sugar from your diet long term, being able to get through any difficulties during the first days or weeks is crucial.
Managing the fear and the discomforts while learning new habits requires a thoughtful plan. Advance planning is the key.
Let me help you ease your way into this new pattern of eating. It doesn’t necessarily need to be an all or nothing proposition to ultimately achieve success.
Make informed decisions rooted in science.
Take me up on my offer for a FREE Strategy Call. Let’s discuss how you can create a new scaffolding of thoughts and habits that make kicking sugar to the curb a change you can live with.
Ditching sugar has been one of the foundational steps I took to find the peace and freedom I enjoy today in my relationship with food, my body and my weight.
Schedule your FREE Strategy Call right here.
I’m looking forward to meeting you soon.
It’s Never too Late to make your weight loss journey easier. A year from now, you will thank yourself.
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