In the previous post in this series, I explained how sugar addiction impairs dopamine, serotonin and opioid signaling in the brain, and how the modern instant gratification lifestyles make sugar addiction worse. This is why the bootcamp “dieting” mentality using pure self-control is a recipe for disaster. For my clients and students, the key to long-term success is a more compassionate approach and working with their physiology rather than against it.
Reversing sugar addictions is simple but not easy. You may experience mood swings, sugar cravings, and anxiety as your brain adapts to the new sugar-free normal state. Fortunately, if you do it right, your symptoms will be minimized and your brain will quickly rebalance itself. In my Sweet Spot solution program, I don’t only focus on the food but also lifestyle factors and supplements that help support your neurotransmitter balance. The following are the lifestyle factors that I coach in my program.
1) Manage stress
The more stressed you are, the more your body wants you to eat sweets, so that you can store the energy for times of famine or to run away from tigers. Therefore, if you have a sugar addiction or tend to use sugar to soothe yourself during stress, it is critical to address the stressors in your life productively.
When you are stressed, your brain releases more dopamine but experiences less rewarding pleasure1. It makes you more likely to use substances, including sugar, to cope and become addicted to them2. Stress also changes serotonin and opioid signaling in the brain, giving you the urge to reach for sweet and high-carbohydrate foods in order to improve your mood. Last but not the least, stress reduces self-control, making you more likely to eat out of impulse and boredom rather than staying on a healthy eating plan3.
It is also important to have a stress management practice that works for you. My favorite way to do this is the HeartMathTM system along with a gratitude practice, which I am certified to teach. My HeartMathTM program, the Transforming Stress System, is available as part of the Sweet Spot Solution.
Short bursts of activity also work wonders to calm down stress because your body can discharge the stress in a healthy way. I have a simple, efficient method to get strategic bursts of exercise into your day in my Move Smarter Guide.
2) Optimize your sleep and circadian rhythm
Poor sleep and circadian rhythm will not only cause insulin resistance but also increase your food cravings and hunger4,5. Sleep deprivation and stress produce a similar response in the brain, by increasing dopamine but reducing dopamine receptors in the reward area of the brain6,7. Lack of sleep also worsens your mood and reduces your self-control, making you more likely to crave sweets and carbohydrates.
Most importantly, sleep is important for neuroplasticity (your brain’s adaptability to new situations) which is important for the brain to heal from imbalances caused by sugar8. Optimal sleep and circadian rhythm allow the brain to restore healthy levels of neurotransmitters and their receptors.
3) Getting enough sun daily
Sun exposure boosts mood because it promotes healthy neurotransmitter functions. It increases the density of dopamine receptors in the reward region of the brain9. In addition, many people with seasonal affective disorder, who develop low mood in the cold seasons from lack of sun, often have increased appetite and carbohydrate craving. This suggests that the lack of sun and bright light may reduce serotonin function10. Bright light therapy and tanning devices also produce similar mood-boosting effects, suggesting that these effects are accomplished through light exposure rather than vitamin D.
Unfortunately, many of us spend most of our time indoors and exposed to dim artificial lights. It is important to get some sun or bright full-spectrum light every day when you wake up to support your circadian rhythm and neurotransmitter functions, especially if your goal is to wean off sugar.
4) Brain-supporting nutrients
Craving crusher nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and good fats are critical for optimal brain function and neuroplasticity, especially when it comes to beating sugar addiction. Also, sugar addiction and insulin resistance deplete many nutrients. Many people who eat Standard American Diets are so nutrient-deficient that they feel some improvement right away when they add these supplements and increase plants in their diet. Some of the most important ones include magnesium, omega-3 fats, and B vitamins.
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals that our bodies need, which is important for both sugar regulations and brain function. About 80% of the population take in less magnesium than the recommended daily intake, which is the bare minimum for survival. Our food chain is very depleted in magnesium. In addition, stress, caffeine, and dairy, among other issues, deplete magnesium11. Magnesium can help normalize dopamine and serotonin function12, especially in people who are deficient, so much that many people find that it helps with sugar cravings.
Omega-3 fats, especially DHA, are very important for brain health. Many people are now consuming too much omega-6 fats and too little omega-3. Lack of omega-3 in the brain can impair dopamine function13. Omega-3, along with vitamin D, are also important for healthy serotonin function14. Therefore, it is important to consume enough omega-3 to support the brain as it normalizes from sugar consumption.
B vitamins, especially folate, are important for dopamine and serotonin functions15,16. A great source of bioavailable folate is raw green vegetables, and most people are not consuming enough. In my program, I encourage a mostly plant-based diet and also provide many recipes for high-folate smoothies.
Everyone is different, so in my program, I coach my students to find the optimized intakes of key micronutrients and also the right balance between proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
5) Movement and exercise
Exercise has so many brain-balancing and neuroplasticity-supporting effects that it has been touted as an effective treatment for addiction17,18. It can help normalize dopamine and serotonin function, and increase natural endorphins, which helps you feel happy and relaxed. And you don’t even need to do a lot — even 15 minutes of brisk walking can combat sugar cravings and reduce the urge to snack19,20. If it can help with cocaine addiction, it can definitely help with sugar addiction.
I am a big advocate of very short and intense burst training (30 – 60 seconds) because it provides all the benefits of exercise within a few minutes without increasing your stress hormones21.
You can download my free guide to exercise smarter with burst training here.
Have fun – Fun is also important for beating sugar addictions. You don’t necessarily need to go to the gym, Instead, add as much movement in your life as possible, and make it playful and fun.
Sugar addiction is not your fault. The food industry wants you to be sugar-addicted, sugar is everywhere, and your nervous system can be easily hooked on sugar. This is why I created the Sweet Spot Solution, a holistic program to help you balance your blood sugar and also break free from sugar addiction.
1. Ironside, M., Kumar, P., Kang, M. S. & Pizzagalli, D. A. Brain mechanisms mediating effects of stress on reward sensitivity. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences vol. 22 106–113 (2018).
2. Stanwood, G. D. Dopamine and Stress. in Stress: Physiology, Biochemistry, and Pathology 105–114 (Elsevier, 2019). doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-813146-6.00009-6.
3. Verdejo-Garcia, A., Martin-Perez, C. & Kakoschke, N. Stress, Reward, and Cognition in the Obese Brain. in Stress: Physiology, Biochemistry, and Pathology 187–195 (Elsevier, 2019). doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-813146-6.00016-3.
4. Mesarwi, O., Polak, J., Jun, J. & Polotsky, V. Y. Sleep Disorders and the Development of Insulin Resistance and Obesity. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America vol. 42 617–634 (2013).
5. Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N. & Walker, M. P. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat. Commun. 4, (2013).
6. Volkow, N. D. et al. Evidence that sleep deprivation down regulates dopamine D2R in ventral striatum in the human brain. J. Neurosci. 32, 6711–6717 (2012).
7. Volkow, N. D. et al. Sleep deprivation decreases binding of [ 11 C]raclopride to dopamine D 2 /D 3 receptors in the human brain. J. Neurosci. 28, 8454–8461 (2008).
8. Gorgoni, M. et al. Is sleep essential for neural plasticity in humans, and how does it affect motor and cognitive recovery? Neural Plasticity vol. 2013 (2013).
9. Tsai, H. Y. et al. Sunshine-exposure variation of human striatal dopamine D2/D3 receptor availability in healthy volunteers. Prog. Neuro-Psychopharmacology Biol. Psychiatry 35, 107–110 (2011).
10. Neumeister, A. et al. Monoaminergic function in the pathogenesis of seasonal affective disorder. Int. J. Neuropsychopharmacol. 4, (2001).
11. DiNicolantonio, J. J., O’Keefe, J. H. & Wilson, W. Subclinical magnesium deficiency: A principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis. Open Heart vol. 5 (2018).
12. Cardoso, C. C. et al. Evidence for the involvement of the monoaminergic system in the antidepressant-like effect of magnesium. Prog. Neuro-Psychopharmacology Biol. Psychiatry 33, 235–242 (2009).
13. Healy-Stoffel, M. & Levant, B. N-3 (Omega-3) Fatty Acids: Effects on Brain Dopamine Systems and Potential Role in the Etiology and Treatment of Neuropsychiatric Disorders. CNS Neurol. Disord. – Drug Targets 17, 216–232 (2018).
14. Patrick, R. P. & Ames, B. N. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: Relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. FASEB Journal vol. 29 2207–2222 (2015).
15. Demelash, S. The Role of Micronutrient for Depressed Patients. Neuropsychopharmacol Mental Health (2017).
16. Young, S. N. Folate and depression – A neglected problem. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience vol. 32 80–82 (2007).
17. Lynch, W. J., Peterson, A. B., Sanchez, V., Abel, J. & Smith, M. A. Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: A neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews vol. 37 1622–1644 (2013).
18. Robison, L. S., Swenson, S., Hamilton, J. & Thanos, P. K. Exercise reduces dopamine D1R and increases D2R in rats: Implications for addiction. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 50, 1596–1602 (2018).
19. Oh, H. & Taylor, A. H. Brisk walking reduces ad libitum snacking in regular chocolate eaters during a workplace simulation. Appetite 58, 387–392 (2012).
20. Taylor, A. H. & Oliver, A. J. Acute effects of brisk walking on urges to eat chocolate, affect, and responses to a stressor and chocolate cue. An experimental study. Appetite 52, 155–160 (2009).
21. Kong, Z., Sun, S., Liu, M. & Shi, Q. Short-Term High-Intensity Interval Training on Body Composition and Blood Glucose in Overweight and Obese Young Women. J. Diabetes Res. 2016, (2016).
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Medical Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo, drritamarie.com, and the experts who have contributed. We encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
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