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How Sugar Affects the Brain: Video Highlights Similar Effects Between Drugs & Sugar

Food is one of our primary sources of pleasure, and critical to our survival. In a healthy reward pathway of the brain, food is a natural stimulus that produces feelings of pleasure from the release of dopamine. This gratifying feeling makes this activity worthy of repeating, as we want to experience it again.  However, not all foods have the same effect on the brains’ reward system. So why do certain foods activate the brains’ reward system more than others? Sugar, salt and fat are three substances that ‘hijack’ the brains’ reward system, by releasing a burst of dopamine, similar to the effects of drugs and alcohol. As more research emerges, we gain knowledge about how a diet of large portions of refined and processed foods affect the way our brain responds to food. Some individuals develop a dependence on these foods to feel happy and satisfied, and eventually develop a tolerance by needing more of these ‘addictive’ foods to experience feelings of pleasure. Dependence and tolerance are fused with the fundamentals of addiction, reinforcing the link between food and addiction. This video from the TED Talks series highlights how foods high in sugar can have a similar effect on the brain as drugs, alcohol and other addictive behaviours.

Would You Choose Chaos over Serenity? The Controversy Behind Addiction as a "Disease" Vs. a "Choice"

The recent deaths of actors Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith have stirred up public discussion about why such successful celebrities would seemingly “throw it all away” by “choosing” to take drugs, and ultimately overdose on heroin. Some discussions even went so far as to debate whether the entertainment industry should honour the memory of these actors at all. The underlying tone of such sentiments suggests that individuals such as Hoffman and Monteith (and countless others) chose their addiction over their success, their families and ultimately their lives.

What is Addiction?

While the debate about the causes of addiction is not new, a recent definition put forth by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has begun to challenge the notion that addiction is a behaviour problem based on an individual’s poor choices in life. According to ASAM (2011) addiction is more than a behavioural issue or disorder. It is described as a primary neurological disease affecting brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. As a chronic brain disease, it requires treatment, management and monitoring over a lifetime. As such, addiction is comparable to other chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

What factors contribute to developing an addiction?

Just as certain risk factors can lead an individual to develop diabetes (e.g. genetics, poor diet) so too can risk factors increase the likelihood that an individual will have problems with substance use. These factors can include:

However, what is important is the notion that addiction is not a behaviour problem, but a brain problem. What initially may have begun as a maladaptive coping strategy has ultimately changed the brain’s chemistry to produce powerful and enduring effects on the individual’s cognitions, processing and memory, emotions, and in turn – their behaviour. In addition, like other diseases, addiction is progressive and if left untreated, can lead to premature death.

Addiction is not choice, but recovery is…

Historically, addiction and substance misuse has been viewed as a “moral deficit,” “flaw” or “weakness” of the individual. It has taken some time and an extensive amount of research in order to challenge these views. While the research no doubt helps, working with addicts also reveals that no individual sets out to become addicted to anything. No person would choose a life of ill health, broken relationships, financial ruin and ultimately death. While a poor choice may have led an individual to initially pick up a substance, it is illogical for an individual to continue to choose a life of chaos – we’re just not built that way. We’ve evolved to be self-preserving. So if addiction is not a choice, then stopping the use is not easy. However, addicts can make an important choice in helping themselves to recover. They can realize that it is difficult to deal with this problem on their own, and they can choose to reach out for help.

The Power of Protein in Addiction Recovery – Part 2

The foods we eat play a powerful role in the way we think, act, and feel. For example, foods high in refined sugar can cause a burst of energy followed by a crash. Or a large meal high in carbohydrates can make you feel tired and relaxed. Fasting or abstaining from food for long periods can create changes in your mood and energy levels, causing irritability and even depressive symptoms. These choices influence one key area that not only controls our feelings but also our entire body – the brain.

Protein and Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that send information to the rest of our body. Different neurotransmitters produce different effects. Some make us feel happy and energized, while others make us feel calm and optimistic.

When we ingest proteins, they are broken down into amino acids during the process of digestion. These amino acids help the neurons in our brain manufacture neurotransmitters that make us feel the way we do. Tyrosine and tryptophan are two of the main amino acids, which respectively support the production of dopamine and serotonin.

Tyrosine and Dopamine in Addiction
Dopamine is often called the ‘pleasure molecule’, and is associated with the reward center of the brain. Many natural activities such as eating and sex trigger the release of dopamine, creating that ‘pleasurable’ feeling. Our brain registers that activity as a reward, and something we want to do again as it was enjoyable – a reward motivated behaviour.

Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling and even food work in this same reward system, however to a greater effect. They over stimulate the production of dopamine, flooding the brain with its release, and causing a high. This feeling of euphoria is one that cannot be obtained with natural dopamine releasing activities. Once the addictive substance is no longer present, studies show that during withdrawal these levels of dopamine diminish. This often creates a yearning to go back to the behaviour that produced the high, and is in part what fuels drug seeking behaviour.

Tyrosine is an amino acid found in many high protein foods, such as: chicken, turkey, soy products, cheese, milk, nuts and seeds. Tyrosine is a precursor to the production of dopamine. In recovery, dopamine levels are diminished, and off balanced due to the ‘habit’ of obtaining large amounts of dopamine from the addictive substance. Low levels of dopamine could contribute to low mood, fatigue, and cravings for the drug of choice. Dopamine also plays a role in helping with concentration and alertness – both of which are beneficial for all. Restoring the natural balance and production of dopamine is an important step in addiction recovery.

Incorporating foods that are high in protein throughout the day helps to slowly stabilize the production of dopamine in recovering addicts. However, not all dietary tyrosine consumed is used by the brain to produce neurotransmitters. There are many other functions for this amino acid in our body, and therefore having sufficient amounts to supply all functions is important. Due to the compromised diet of those with addiction, it is beneficial in early recovery to incorporate protein at all three meals and three snacks to maximize the potential effects. Eating high protein meals supports stable energy levels and helps reduce cravings for the addictive substance, by increasing the presence of dopamine in the body through natural means.

Power-of-Protein-DiagramTryptophan and Serotonin in Addiction
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is often associated with feelings of happiness, optimism and overall well being. It also is a key player in regulating mood, sleep and appetite. These three areas are often compromised due to the addiction, and could be linked to low levels of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with mood disorders and depression. Some research suggests that a well balanced diet including carbohydrates and protein can lessen depressive symptoms in those with depression.

Tryptophan is a precursor in the production of serotonin. Tryptophan is found in high protein foods such as meat, eggs, fish, cheese and legumes. Similar to dopamine, the use of addictive substances can reduce the production and release of serotonin. Research shows lower levels of serotonin in alcoholics. In withdrawal, serotonin levels may be low, contributing to low mood, trouble sleeping, low appetite and cravings for sweets. These symptoms are hardly conducive for a successful recovery.

While dietary tryptophan can increase the levels of serotonin within the brain, it does not work as an antidepressant. Some evidence shows a diet high in tryptophan can reduce depressive symptoms in those with mild to moderate depression. In healthy individuals, it can improve mood, sleep and appetite.

Tryptophan is one of the least abundant amino acids. Since it uses the same mode of transport as other amino acids, it must compete to cross the blood-brain barrier. However, adding a carbohydrate in addition to a tryptophan rich protein may help to beat the competition. When carbohydrates are present, insulin is released and redirects the other nutrients to muscle stores. This increases the ratio of tryptophan, allowing it to cross the blood brain barrier, and in turn convert to serotonin.
Getting enough protein throughout the day helps to support the production of serotonin. In early recovery, this is beneficial as it helps to decrease depressive symptoms. A balanced meal or snack, consisting of protein and carbohydrate may maximize the outcome of serotonin production. These meals will make you feel relaxed, calm, and promote a feeling of well-being.

Addiction Recovery and Protein
Drug and alcohol abuse creates a magnitude of effects creating social, mental and physical health consequences. These addictive substances hijack the neurotransmitters responsible for our every thought and feeling. In recovery, restoring the normal production and balance of the many neurotransmitters present can help to lessen symptoms experienced, including cravings for the drug of choice.

While there are many factors which impacts how we feel, act and think – nutrition undeniably plays an integral role. A well balanced diet, including protein, carbohydrates and fat works to alleviate these symptoms, and promotes a healthy recovery. In recovery from addiction, balance and moderation is key and this philosophy applies to nutrition as well.