Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Is sugar the gateway drug to cocaine?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2010-02-19

Those wanting action on adolescent obesity have got a good tabloid headline in their kit-bag, thanks to a new paper (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009296 in PLoS that links adolescent (but not) sugar overconsumption with a liking for cocaine in later life, not through correlative statistics, but by messing with the dopamine-related reward pathways in the brain.

It’s more than likely gambling and other addictive behaviours could have sugar as a gateway drug as well.

"Sugar Overconsumption during Adolescence Selectively Alters Motivation and Reward Function in Adult Rats" (2010-02-19) includes the following in the conclusions/significance section:

Sugar overconsumption induces a developmental stage-specific chronic depression in reward processing that may contribute to an increase in the vulnerability to reward-related psychiatric disorders.

Reward-related psychiatric disorders is a scientific phrase meaning addiction… gambling, drugs, you name it.

Rats allowed to pig out on sugar or water during adolescence were tested for their liking for sweet (saccharin), maltodextrin (a sugar, full of energy, but not sweet) and cocaine, once they were adults.  The sugar-fixed rats, once grown up, were actually less motivated for sacchain and maltodextrin, but still kept their cocaine motivation.

In the words of the paper…

Sugar overconsumption during adolescence, but not during adulthood, reduced the subsequent motivation for saccharin and maltodextrin, but not cocaine. This selective decrease in motivation is more likely due to changes in brain reward processing than changes in gustatory perception.

Taking out all the citations for ease of reading, the discussion early in the paper is even less technical, and more suggestive that action needs to be taken so that teenagers don’t get their sugar-highs that they crave (my bolding):

A sweet taste produces a sensation of intense reward that, in certain circumstances, exceeds those associated with drugs of abuse.  Studies in humans and experimental animals suggest that sugar overconsumption may produce neurobiological and behavioral alterations resembling drug addiction.  More specifically, the intake of sugar or sweetened foods may elicit food-seeking behaviors, bingeing, escalation of intake, sensitization, cross-sensitization to psychostimulants and opioids, and even withdrawal symptoms.  Given that exposure to drugs of abuse, particularly during critical periods of brain development (e.g., adolescence), produces enduring changes in the brain reward system and behavior, one could wonder whether, and to what extent, overconsumption of sweetened drinks earlier in life might produce similar persistent neurobehavioral alterations in adulthood.

Makes sense.

Elsewhere in the paper, the authors talk about the reward system and "food-seeking behaviour", with sugar hits (apart from a huge find of fresh fruit) rare.  There are some similarities between food and drug-seeking behaviour, and with motivation for sweetness and energy as adults suppressed by adolescent overconsumption of sugar, the food-seeking behaviour can be twisted into more pathological reward-seeking behaviour… such as drugs.

So, with the preventative medicine taskforce trying to decrease obesity among other things, and with a focus on children, it’s time to stop the pussy-footing with the food giants, stop turning it into an episode of "The Hollowmen" where the industry got away with educational programs and a self-regulated code of conduct.  (As in that episode, the PM is probably planning on walking down the passages in parliament house dressed as a fruit anytime now).

While this is an almost perfect excuse for a tabloid paper and TV beat-up, I wonder if it is actually so threatening to advertising budgets that it’ll get a run.

And I wonder what healthy-eating lobbies will do with this.  I hope they go for it.

There should be some more studies investigating the role of the fat-fix in other convenience foods – whether adolescent overconsumption and bingeing can also alter the rewards pathways in the brain.

If you are like me, a socialist who dislikes transnational food companies peddling sugar and fat, and studied pharmacology and nutrition among other things at uni, this is a great paper.

Perhaps chocolate bars will be moved next to the cigarettes, behind a "if you look under 25, we won’t sell if you don’t have proof you are over 18" sign.

Perhaps the narcs should stop running around after pot plantations and raiding the sweets shops.

Anyone care to try for a better tabloid headline?

2 Responses to “Is sugar the gateway drug to cocaine?”

  1. 99 said

    You should specify that DARK chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, is good for you. It’s the sugar in chocolate bars that is bad for you. I find this fact thrilling since I love dark chocolate and want it only to have enough sugar to take off the unpleasant bitterness, which is very little. Takes away any feeling of deprivation, even when on the most austere regimen. I was unimpressed with cocaine when it was the fad. I never gamble. I rarely so much as take a toke of pot, and, at that, it has to be sativa. I have to remind myself to have a drink once or twice a week so as not to get so smashed when I do have a drink with friends. I almost never have more cigarettes than seven in a day, but would probably resort to criminal behavior if I couldn’t smoke them. Anyway, I might be the not-that-big-on-sugar person who helps prove this theory.

    I’m thinking of all the health nazis I have known who bragged that their ONLY vice was chocolate… meaning milk chocolate, cake, ice cream, truffles, cookies, etc. Having the impulse to track down email addresses for them so I can give them this link.

    I remember also runners who bragged about their addiction to running, and how pissed off they were when I mentioned to them that they were, in fact, addicted to the identical thing as smokers; to wit: endorphins. :o)

  2. Is sugar the gateway drug to cocaine?

    […]It’s also the single largest supply of sugar calories in our food plan.[…]

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