Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Why addicts crave sugar and starch.
James Langton of Clearhead.org.uk recently sent me a fascinating article about food and addiction. The technical bulletin from Sure Screen Diagnostics, Ltd., the U.K.'s leading provider of medical and drug testing services, focuses on the age-old and endlessly fascinating connection between addiction and sugar foods (See my post, “Drug Foods and Addiction”).
Entitled "Mood food and Addiction," the technical bulletin asserts that "drug users, alcoholics and those with addictive tendencies routinely resort to certain psychoactive foods between fixes to regulate their mood." Moreover, "certain foods might reduce withdrawal symptoms... the pantry is a veritable 'psychodelicatessen.'"
While some of the conclusions are highly speculative, most of the article is on more solid ground in its discussion of the "psychopharmacology of everyday foods."
Sweet foods and fruits can mitigate or eliminate cravings, the author says, and examples of this are abundant in the addict and treatment communities. Abstinent cigarette smokers sometimes find that "a piece of fruit or something sweet" can banish cravings by temporarily and partially restoring dopamine and serotonin levels.
In an unconscious effort to raise brain levels of serotonin and dopamine, drug users often discover that doughnuts, cakes, ice cream, soft drinks, and other sugar foods can lessen withdrawal symptoms. As evidence, we are far more likely "to see a user with a bar of chocolate in his hand than a sausage roll."
Complex carbohydrates, the bulletin asserts, do not have the same effect. Whole grain breads and starchy vegetables, unlike table sugar and white bread, do not have the same reinforcing impact on neurotransmitters along the reward pathway. "For that reason, they do not tend to be craved as much as sweets, even though they still satisfy [serotonin] 5-HT needs." Because simple sugars eaten in large quantities can cause blood sugar levels to drop below baseline, the result can be the abrupt return of drug withdrawal symptoms.
How does this work out in practice? The bulletin speculates, for instance, that “a amphetamine user who has exhausted his dopamine and noradrenaline levels, and feels depressed and unable to think straight, may be drawn to high-protein, tyramine-rich foods, such as a steak, pizza or a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. An MDMA or "ecstasy" user experiencing fatigue... would probably crave something like fish and chips rich in carbohydrates, and a sugar-rich drink to temporarily bring the depleted 5-HT levels back up to normal." As for opiate users, foods such as whole milk, ice cream, and milk chocolate are appealing because they contain "biologically active opioid peptides.... It no doubt explains why a pint of full fat milk and a Snicker's bar is a perennial snacking favourite of opiate users."
As for chocolate (you didn’t think I’d forget chocolate, did you?), “the most widely preferred chocolate among the general population is not unsweetened dark chocolate with its higher drug cocktail, but sweetened milk chocolate suggesting that the majority of us may in fact be craving its addictive psychoactive sugars, fats and narcotic casomorphins more than anything else.”
In the end, the specific food preferences of addicts force us “to reconsider how fragile the food-drug distinction actually is.”
Graphic Credit: Anselm