Sugary Foods and Opiate Addiction – Is There a Link?

Sugary Foods and Opiate Addiction – Is There a Link?
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Author: Tulip Hill Recovery
Published: October 15, 2021

In 2019, some 50,000 people in the United States died of opioid-related overdoses. In the last 30 years, opiate usage has been on the rise, but so has another potentially harmful substance - sugar. This article discusses the strange link between sugary foods and opiate addiction and the importance of a healthy diet in recovery.

Sugar and the Scientists’ Puzzle

Sugar has been around for centuries. Since it hit the market as a bulk commodity in the 16th century, its use has extended to an abundance of food products. It is pretty much everywhere, lurking where you least expect it - especially in processed foods. It is no surprise, then, that the increased use of sugar in food production has led to more Americans consuming a high sugar diet.

Studies have shown that there is a positive link between sugary food consumption and opioid abuse. This doesn’t mean that one explicitly causes the other, but that there are some similarities in what they both do to our brain.

Put into the context of the opioid crisis -  it is growing more important to understand the relationship between a high sugar diet and opioid use. In the long run, studying the mechanics of any misused substance contributes to the treatment of addiction.

Sugar Addiction and the Brain

In the quest to understand addiction, scientists have taken to studying the processes of the brain. The brain is at the center of addiction, as drugs and alcohol trigger adaptations to our neurotransmitters - the little runners that carry information from our central nervous system to our brain.

Developing a dependency on sugary foods is much like any other addiction. It interferes in our neurotransmission, changing how we feel. Sugar sends floods of dopamine - a type of neurotransmitter - to the brain, increasing our pleasure levels for a short amount of time.

As with opioids, sugar is a super stimuli. This means that it is impossible for our bodies to replicate the high pleasure levels sugar gives us on its own, leading to cravings and possible addiction. This study shows that sugar withdrawal can produce the same symptoms of opioid withdrawal, and much like opioid addiction, it can be difficult to kick a sugar habit.

What Are Some of the Risks of Sugar?

Because of the similarities of the chemical process that sugar and opioids kickstart in our brains, high tolerance to one may impact tolerance levels to the other. This means that as we get used to receiving pleasure stimuli from sugar, it may dampen the reward response of opioids in our brains. This may encourage the use of more and more opioids to reach the same pleasure levels.

The impact sugar has on tolerance levels is not the only problem. People in early recovery from opioids tend to experience intense sugar cravings. While eating a sugary snack might feel like an easy fix to cravings, the health consequences outweigh the benefits.

It is important to be aware of the health risks associated with sugar, which has been linked to the onset of a number of chronic illnesses such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
  • Cognitive Decline
  • Some Cancers

Nutrition and Recovery - A Healthy Link

Proper nutrition, as with almost everything in life, is vital on the road to recovery. Eating a healthy diet can give us the vitamins and energy we need to manage some of the symptoms that come with withdrawal.

If we are clever about what we eat, we may be able to replicate some of those feel-good responses in our brains. Certain foods help us produce a substance called tryptophan, an amino acid that plays a key role as a precursor for serotonin production - making us feel happier. Food with high tryptophan content include:

  • Tuna
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Tofu
  • Milk and Dairy
  • Oats

It is always worth talking to a medical professional or a nutritionist before setting up strict dietary rules. Crash dieting barely ever leads to long-term success, especially when facing the double challenge of dealing with sugar cravings in early recovery.

From childhood, we are taught about some of the risks of having a sweet tooth. Most people will remember the warning: too much sugar makes your teeth fall out. While your teeth will almost definitely not fall out after one or two candies, it is important to remember the problems associated with high sugar diets.

Having a sugary snack might seem like an easy option when trying to soften opioid withdrawal symptoms, but there are always healthier food alternatives to turn to.

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