Sugar and Opiods- Are You All Dopamined up?



Lump Sugar, Sugar, Cubes, White, Sweet, Candy

Palatable foods stimulate the brain to release addictive substances like opioids and dopamine in the limbic system (the emotional center in your brain).

In addition, opioid and dopamine synapses in the limbic system may play important roles in the reinforcement of behavior by natural rewards, i.e. food

Just like drug abuse can create dependency via this system, palatable foods might also create dependency, specifically, bingeing on sugar.

The first stage of this dependency is expressed when animals escalate their intake of a substance and show underlying neurochemical changes indicative of sensitization or tolerance. This leads to binging.

The second stage of dependency is the emergence of withdrawal symptoms. In some cases these are characterized by autonomic nervous system abnormalities and physical signs such as changes in body temperature, tremors, and shakes. There can also be behavioral manifestations, such as distress and anxiety.


Colantuoni, C., Rada, P., McCarthy, J., Patten, C., Avena, N. M., Chadeayne, A., & Hoebel, B. G. (2002). Evidence that intermittent, excessive sugar intake causes endogenous opioid dependence. Obesity research, 10(6), 478-488.


Is Your Sweet tooth raging out of control? Here are some tips to tame those sugar cravings:


    • Give in a little– Enjoying a little of what you love can help you steer clear of feeling deprived
    • Combine foods– Combine the craving food with a healthful one, e.g. Dark chocolate chips (70% +) with raw almonds
    • Go cold turkey– Cut out all simple sugars (SEE TIPS BELOW)
    • Chew some gum– Xylitol sweetened gum can help satisfy the need for something sweet and is good for dental hygiene
    • Reach for fruit- Fruit is naturally sweet and has nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals
    • Exercise- A brisk walk, intense workout or exercise class, can increase natural opiates which will reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms
    • Choose quality over quantity– keep it small, e.g.  a dark chocolate truffle vs a candy bar
    • Eat regularly– Eating every three to four hours can help keep blood sugar levels stable and sugar cravings low. Choose protein and fiber-rich foods at each meal
    • Skip artificial sweetenersArtificial sweeteners don’t lessen cravings for sugar and may have a negative effect on energy consumption
    • Don’t use food as a reward- Choose nurturing activities e.g. massage or a spa day  
    • Plan Your Day/Meals- Review your day the night before to make sure you can eat at regular intervals. Pack healthy food if you need to eat on the go
    • Get emotional support- Talk with friends, family or a professional to avoid using food as a chemical feel good crutch
    • Stick it in your ear- Auricular (ear) and body acupuncture can help with cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It is commonly used for addictions




About the Author

Dr. Geoff LecovinNaturopathic Physician/Chiropractor/Acupuncturist/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist/Performance Enhancement Specialist/Certified Sports Nutritionist/View all posts by Dr. Geoff Lecovin