Interview: Professor Selena Bartlett, Ph.D., explains sugar addiction
The “In Your Right Mind” episode “Sugar: The New Addiction,” which aired on Feb 26 at 5 p.m., discussed the addictive properties of sugar. One of the show’s guests, Selena Bartlett, Ph.D., gave her insight into why sugar may not be so sweet after all.
Question: Some people are described, or describe themselves as having a “sweet tooth,” while others find it easy to reject sugary foods. Is there some physiological reason for this?
Answer: Yes, for some people it is sugar, for others it is high-fat food, alcohol or cigarettes. Everyone has taught their brain to relieve the continual stress in their life; this causes the release of stress chemical in the brain. The brain counters stress chemicals by using something better, feel-good chemicals like dopamine. Where does dopamine come from? Sugar, high-fat food and alcohol.
There is always a genetic component; some families have more sugar than others sitting around and in the food served to children. This affects the way the brain becomes wired for sugar from childhood. Of course, epigenetics, how the genes are expressed over time, that is if there is a lot of sugary foods around, the brain is learning to use sugar to feel good.
Q: To nip sugar addiction in the bud, are there some strategies that parents can use when their children are very young?
A: The first thing is to limit the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). These are sodas, juices, energy drinks in the home and car, or sports drinks after team sports that are laden with sugar. SSBs are a big factor that leads to obesity in children. Studies have shown that reducing the intake of SSBs leads to weight loss in kids.
Q: Lab tests using rats have shown that sugar elicits the same response as addictive drugs. Is that true and, if so, why?
A: In my lab, we were shocked to see that sugar changes the brain in exactly the same way that alcohol and nicotine do. Specifically, sugar is changing receptors in the brain that nicotine binds to; this is one of the most addictive drugs in the world. This explains why sugar is as addictive as alcohol and nicotine. This was an incredibly surprising finding.
Q: It’s said that it’s a bad idea to put babies to bed and leave them with a bottle because the sugar in the formula harms their teeth. What is your opinion about that?
A: Absolutely, also, in addition to their teeth, it is teaching their brain that sugar is something to use to relieve themselves of pain and stress and rejection/abandonment, for example. This leads to lifelong use of sugar to relieve stress. In the book I wrote, “MiGGi Matters,” I have a personal story in here about a child given chocolate in their milk bottle as a child and how this led to a lifelong struggle with obesity.
Q: What are the immediate effects in the brain when sugar is ingested?
A: Dopamine surge, that pleasure hormone, not unlike from cocaine and nicotine and alcohol. Another example is the high you feel from running; sugar does the same thing for most people. The second thing, you want to have more sugar, like all addictive substances, that makes you want to eat more. Think of how hard it is to resist the second chocolate in the box. Sugar also activates the brain in a way that never makes you feel full; this means you end up wanting to eat more and more food. The first thing people notice is that when they reduce intake of sugar, they start to feel full again after eating a meal. This is because the brain is getting the signals to tell it is full. Those are not present if we eat a lot of sugar.
Q: Are sugar substitutes a good idea or can they be harmful?
A: We showed that even sugar substitutes have exactly the same effect on the brain.
Q: What is the difference between glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, etc.?
A: This is critical. Sucrose is actually broken down into fructose and glucose in the body. It is the fructose not glucose that is doing most of the damage. It is activating the brain in an opposite way to glucose. Fructose tells the part of your brain, “Keep eating, I am not full yet.” The energy from fructose is stored in the visceral fat cells, the fat cells that are so hard to get rid of, in the muffin tops for example. This is why limiting sucrose intake, and especially high fructose corn syrup, is so important to losing weight and maintaining a healthy body.
Q: A lot of sugar is “hidden” in food and drinks. How can people learn to avoid that?
A: The key is to first understand how much sugar you are in fact consuming. Ask yourself, in one day, how much sugar was in the food you consumed. Without understanding how much sugar is in the food, it is difficult to make changes. We think of ourselves as having a sweet tooth or not and are completely oblivious to hidden things like high fructose corn syrup. For example, most bread contains a lot of sugar. The second thing is to understand what is making you stressed. Stress drives food and sugar consumption. Without working this out, it is impossible to reduce sugar and alcohol intake.
Q: Many people allow their toddlers to drink soda. Is this where getting hooked on sugar can begin?
A: Yes. This is absolutely the beginning of the trouble, especially the increase in the sizes and volumes of sodas, iced teas, energy drinks, juices and the use of sports drinks for children doing team sports. We are surrounded by sugar, and it is very hard to resist. Because it is available everywhere, we tend to think that it is OK to consume. However, obesity is an epidemic and causes many of the health problems we currently face. It is critical to start becoming aware of the amount of sugar in our foods
One chocolate bar is about 230 calories and one avocado is the same. To burn off the calories from the chocolate bar takes 10 times more effort than the energy from the avocado because of the way the fructose from this food becomes stored in the fat cells.
Sugar is a highly addictive substance. The more we eat, the more we want, and it becomes very difficult to remove from your life the longer we eat it. Sugar activates the brain to relieve stress and makes us never feel full. This leads to us wanting to eat more food and struggle to lose weight in the long term. I wrote “MiGGi Matters: How to train your brain to manage stress and trim your body” to raise awareness about the brain’s role in addiction to sugar and why we continually struggle to lose weight. There is more information at my website, and the book is available from Amazon.
About Professor Bartlett
Selena Bartlett, Ph.D., is an award-winning neuroscientist and a group leader in neuroscience and obesity at the Translational Research Institute at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, and a research capacity building professor in the School of Clinical Sciences, Faculty of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the Queensland University of Techonolgy. Previously she was the director of the Preclinical Development Group at the University of California at San Francisco, where she focused on the translation of basic research discoveries into improved treatments for addiction, pain, stress, anxiety and depression.
In 2014 she presented a TEDx talk about brain fitness and the neuroplasticity revolution and won the Women in Technology (WiT) Biotech Outstanding Achievement Award. She has authored over 80 scientific papers and presents public lectures on the brain on stress and what to do about it, to large organizations, governments, universities and high schools. She just released a book for a general audience about the effects of stress and sugar on the brain and what to do about it, “MiGGi Matters: How to train your brain to manage stress and trim your body.” Selena’s approach takes advantage of the plasticity of the brain and applies practical neuroscience tools that help people look after their brain and lead better lives.