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The not-so-sweet side of sugar and its role in addiction

In her weekly column, Bradford West Gwillimbury licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long shares some insight into the link between sugar and addictions
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Dear Nutritionist,

I read that you specialize in mental health and addictions and I wanted to ask if you feel that any diet is better for someone struggling with addictions. I read your column every week. Great content!

Thank you!


Dear Karen,

Thank you for your thought-provoking question! Yes, I have a special interest in addictions and mental health. My area of expertise is the role of nutrition in both. So you’ve come to the right place!

Addictions are super tricky to generalize, but there are some commonalities. Biochemically they involve consciously or, more often, unconsciously or compulsively looking for ways to alter the neurochemistry of the brain. In holistic circles, we would call this self-medicating. And there are many drivers of that behaviour that can all be part of rehabilitation:

  • Lack of meaningful connection and support network
  • Biochemical/ neurochemical abnormalities
  • Metabolic abnormalities like deficiencies or imbalances (influenced by genetic predisposition and/ or dietary habits)
  • And stressors or trauma that cause a person to desire to escape

For example, it’s far less likely that a person who has a very happy life and fabulous support network will habitually use drugs as an escape. However, if they are biochemically imbalanced or genetically inclined to addiction one hit of the right substance can be enough to set addiction behaviour into motion. And this isn’t even getting into the super addictive benzos and oxycodone and the can of worms that opens up. One need not be chronically unhappy or imbalanced at all to fall prey to these addictions, which I believe are now worse than the opium crisis. These drugs are almost certainly created to hook people and be next to impossible to quit. But that isn’t what we’re going to look at today.

Most people do not realize the role sugars play in addiction. Table sugar, fructose, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, honey, maple syrup, and more. As a rule, when asked, people think raw sugar or honey or agave or organic sugar are healthier choices because they are more ‘whole’ foods. Many nutrition gurus teach that whole foods are superior in terms of their nutrient profile - and so they are. However, the reasons sugar is bad for us are complex. It’s NOT just because it lacks nutrients or because it amounts to empty calories. It’s not just because it’s processed. The reason sugar is so detrimental to our health and is linked so closely to addiction is complex. Let’s look at it more closely.

Sugar damages us metabolically:

Even those sugars listed above - and drives insulin resistance. Any sugar that spikes blood sugar levels signals insulin and insulin is like a trigger happy gunman loose in the bloodstream. We are only now starting to discover the wide range of woes it is responsible for. Peruse the more than 2,500 scholarly articles that come up under a Google Scholar search for insulin related disease processes.

Sugar damages our brains:

In this Fifth Estate documentary on sugar, researchers expose how a diet high in sugar for just a few weeks causes brain damage in healthy rats and diabetes markers in healthy humans.

Sugar lowers our pain threshold:

“Abnormal insulin signaling and blood sugar dys-regulation (even in the absence of detectable diabetes) may even explain a portion of people suffering with chronic pain. Studies have shown that increased blood sugar leads to a reduced threshold for experiencing pain. This means that body tissues can become hyper sensitized. But, such sensitization can even occur with transient elevations of blood sugar and a fasting level that is still normal. Elevated insulin, by itself, even in the absence of abnormalities on any other testing, has also been shown to reduce pain thresholds.” (Full article and references) Lowered pain threshold means that people may need prescription painkillers more. Enter oxycodone dependence.

Sugar drives inflammation:

Inflammatory processes in the body have to do with a healthy gut biome. The gut biome is not healthy in the presence of an abundance of sugars and starches (body turns them into sugars). When the gut biome is not balanced we crave sugars and starches to feed the ‘bad’ gut bacteria (a yeast called candida). When this happens it becomes very difficult to function and make rational decisions about sugars/ carbs. The result is a body full of inflammation and pains, fatigue, depression, mental health issues and anxiety. These often become chronic and then prescriptions are written for you guessed it: anti anxiety or pain pills. Benzo and oxy.

Sugar is more addictive than cocaine:

“An astonishing 94 percent of rats who were allowed to choose mutually-exclusively between sugar water and cocaine, chose sugar. Even rats who were addicted to cocaine quickly switched their preference to sugar, once it was offered as a choice. The rats were also more willing to work for sugar than for cocaine.” Dr. Mercola

Sugar consumption is linked to addiction behaviours:

“Therefore, the abnormally high stimulation of these (sweet) receptors (on the tongue) by our sugar-rich diets generates excessive reward signals in the brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, and thus lead to addiction.

Additionally, their research found that there’s also a cross-tolerance and a cross-dependence between sugars and addictive drugs. As an example, animals with a long history of sugar consumption actually became tolerant (desensitized) to the analgesic effects of morphine.” Dr. Mercola

For a short video on the brain’s addictive reaction to sugar, go here.

Sugar causes deficiencies and deficiencies are linked to addictions:

“The research also reports that children whose mothers have such addictions can also develop nutrient deficiencies because of the mother’s lack of nutrients.” Some of the deficiencies that have been noted among researchers are:

  • Omega 3
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Choline
  • Iron
  • B vitamins
  • Selenium
  • Vitamins A, C, D, K
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Magnesium

And sugar consumption keeps the brain wired for immediate highs from food, instead of long term satisfaction like what we get from proteins and healthy fats. This is a large part of the reason I recommend a low carb, Paleo or Ancestral diet with ketogenic resets from time to time. Nothing is more powerful than a whole food ketogenic diet to reset metabolism and addiction behaviour in my experience. And my experience involves setting up the orthomolecular nutrition program of Canada’s first in-patient, truly holistic addiction treatment centre for men.

With the number of safe and delicious alternatives to sugar and starches, it’s actually pretty easy to kick sugar for good and in doing so, increase your tolerance to all addictive behaviours. This is just one of the benefits of my 8-week keto reset nutrition education program.

Thank you, Karen, for writing in.

Tune in next week when I will address a holistic approach to recovering from food poisoning!

As always, if you have your own health/ nutrition questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email at [email protected]. Readers can find out more about my work and sign up for my newsletter at


Nonie Nutritionista