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Why Sugar Addiction Should Be Treated Like Drug Abuse

A new study coming out of the Queensland University of Technology in Australia suggests the use of drugs that treat tobacco addiction could be used to wean people off of sugar.

by Alex Swerdloff
Apr 10 2016, 7:00pm

At what point can your horrifically paralyzing need for sugar be considered a bona fide addiction? Is it considered an addiction when you forcibly coerce the child sitting next to you into handing over their half-eaten Ring Pop? How about when you've jury-rigged your CamelBak to pour a steady steam of Irn-Bru into your mouth as you sleep?

Probably. That being said, it's never been a better time to recognize your ungodly addiction and do something about it.

A new study coming out of the Queensland University of Technology in Australia suggests the use of drugs that treat tobacco addiction could be used to wean people off of sugar.

Neuroscientist Professor Selena Bartlett led the study, which was just published in the research journal PLOS ONE. She says the problem of sugar addiction is an important one, given that, according to the World Health Organization, 1.9 billion people are overweight, with 600 million considered obese.

READ MORE: This Is Why Sugar Is So Damn Addictive

People are clearly consuming way too much sugar. But sugar consumption feels so good—and there's a reason for that. The researchers point out that studies have shown that eating sugar elevates dopamine levels in our brains' reward-and-pleasure centers. These are the same centers that go bonkers over tobacco, cocaine, and morphine.

Perhaps the most effed up—and drug-like—thing about sugar is that long-term consumption leads to a reduction of dopamine, meaning you need to eat more sugar to get the same high. Sound familiar? Even worse, Bartlett says, is that "animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation."

Think you can just move to artificial sweeteners and nip the problem in the bud? Think again: researcher Masroor Shariff, who also worked on the study, says, "Interestingly, our study also found that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin could produce effects similar to those we obtained with table sugar, highlighting the importance of re-evaluating our relationship with sweetened food per se."

READ MORE: Sugar Has the Same Effect on Kids' Brains as Abuse and Trauma

The solution may lie in drugs like vernicline, sold under the name Champix in the US. The researchers say this drug is approved by the FDA to treat nicotine addiction, but their study showed it can also be helpful when it comes to dealing with sugar cravings. What this and other similar drugs like mecamylamine and cytisine do is to modulate your neural nicotinic receptors, making it easier to lay off sweeteners.

Professor Bartlett says using good old willpower on sugar is tough: "Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going cold turkey," she said. But the class of drugs used to get people off smokes—known as nAChR drugs—may "represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic."

It's never been a better time to be the sugar-snorting analog to Pookie from New Jack City.

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