A spiral into years or a life of drug abuse can be mentally and physically destructive, but what if sugar addiction reaped the same consequences? Amid the United States obesity epidemic — as well as increasing rates of diabetes and heart disease — researchers are beginning to see sugar addiction in a new light: as something nearly as damaging to health as drug dependence.

In a new study out of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia, researchers suggest that in the future, sugar addiction may be treated the same way as drug addiction. Their research showed that rats addicted to sugar could be treated with nicotine addiction drugs. Like alcohol and drug addiction, consuming high levels of sugar increases dopamine levels and activates the same reward pathways in the brain.

“Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain,” Professor Selena Bartlett of QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, an author of the study, said in the press release. “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 including tobacco, cocaine and morphine.”

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After people eat significant amounts of sugar every day for a long period of time, they experience a reduction in dopamine levels — which spurs them to eat even more sugar to get the same high. It’s a cycle of addiction that leaves a person constantly unsatisfied and reaching for more. Quitting sugar, meanwhile, can cause withdrawal: “Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them,” Bartlett said in the press release.

In the study, the researchers examined the effects of varenicline, an FDA-approved drug used to aid in smoking cessation, on rats that were addicted to sugar. Varenicline is typically used alongside counseling in helping people kick smoking to the curb; it’s taken in pill form every day and is known as a neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator. The researchers found that the drug was effective in curbing chronic sugar addiction, and concluded that it might be a pathway for obesity treatment if further research supports it.

The study may be the first to find that FDA-approved nicotine drugs may be effective against sugar addiction, but it’s not the first to find that sugar, sodium, and fat can act like hard drugs to our brains and bodies, physically rewiring our brains. As a result, it’s important to investigate potential treatment options for sugar addiction, as its health consequences can be as negative as those of drug addiction. In fact, sugar can impact nearly every part of your body — including your heart, brain, kidneys, and sexual health.

“We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation,” Bartlett said in the press release. The researchers note, however, that more research will be done before doctors can begin prescribing nicotine drugs to treat sugar addiction or obesity.

Source: Shariff M, Quik M, Holgate J, Morgan M, Patkar O, Tam V. Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Modulators Reduce Sugar Intake. PLOS One, 2016.

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