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Sugar dependence mirrors drug habit

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As obesity rates rise and beverages are saturated with more sugar, recent studies prove that sugar addiction is as dangerous as drug addiction. Scientists believe, however, that sugar addiction can be treated with the same drugs used to treat drug addiction.

One of the recent studies, titled Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors Modulators Reduce Sugar Intake, was published in PLOS ONE on March 30. Researchers claim that nicotinic acetylcholine receptor drugs—later referred to as nAChR drugs—which are used to combat nicotine addiction, can also be prescribed to combat sugar addiction.

“Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain. It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse,” said Selena Bartlett, Ph.D., one of the researchers involved with the study.

“After long-term consumption, this leads to the opposite, a reduction in dopamine levels. This leads to higher consumption of sugar to get the same level of reward.”

The study was conducted on rats that had an unlimited supply of food and optimal living conditions. On certain days, the rats would get two bottles—one with water and one with a 5 percent sucrose bottle—while on others they would have an unlimited access to water. The contents of the sucrose bottles and the weight of each rat would later be measured to calculate the amount of sucrose intake per kilogram of the rat’s weight.

The rats were divided into two groups. The first group would receive the combination of a water bottle and a sucrose bottle for four weeks, which defined a short-term exposure. The second group was fed from the bottles for 12 weeks, which defined a long-term exposure.

“The present study shows that systemic administration of varenicline [an nAChR drug] produced a dose-dependent reduction of sucrose consumption using the intermittent-access two-bottle choice paradigm, especially after long-term sucrose consumption,” the study stated.

In other words, nAChR drugs were found to be more effective in fighting long-term sucrose addiction.

Negative effects of long-term sucrose consumption do not end here. Another study, published in the scientific journal Frontiers, supports that there is “a striking similarity in the behavioral and neural correlates” when the researchers compared long-term sucrose consumption to drug use.

Furthermore, the researchers of this study claim that sugar cravings can induce a reaction that is as powerful as the craving for alcohol or nicotine.

While the study does provide interesting insight on the effects of sucrose on brain and behavior, it would have benefitted from testing whether a similar reaction could be caused by calorie-free sweeteners.

The significance of these findings stem from the harmful effects of sugar, which, according to 2014 World Health Organization statistics, contributed to over 1.9 billion cases of overweight adults, of which 600 million were obese.

Though the recommended dose of added sugars set by the American Health Association is 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women, 2008 statistics show that U.S. citizens consumed an average of 76.7 grams of added sugar per day. As a point of reference, a 16-ounce can of Pepsi has 55 grams of sugar.

The aforementioned study shows promise for the use of nAChR drugs in sucrose addiction. Nonetheless, researchers point out that more studies are needed before such drugs can be used to help combat sucrose addiction in humans, or before using the drug to decrease the high levels of obesity.

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