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How Does the Body Handle a Sugar Binge?

By Lisa Mercer

Stressful situations leave a bitter taste. Some people try to diminish this bitterness by eating sweet, sugary foods. While the occasional slice of chocolate cake will not significantly affect your overall health, sugar binges may cause chronic sugar addiction as well as other serious physical and mental health concerns. Controlling the temptation to sugar binge requires mental and physical willpower.

The Endorphin Effect

Sugar binges are an understandable, albeit unhealthy response to stress and depression. Donald T. Fullerton of the Departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School explains that sugar consumption releases a brain chemical called beta-endorphin. Your brain usually secretes this "feel-good" chemical during an exhilarating workout, after satisfying sex or under any condition that makes you feel joyful. Beta-endorphins improve your mood and act as opiates, which diminish your mental and physical pain. Fullerton and his research team studied rodents and reported that rats under stress show a preference for sugary foods. "Brain Research Bulletin" published the study in June 1985.


The preference for sugary foods may eventually lead to sugar addiction, explains neuroscientist Bart Hoebel, lead author of a 2006 Princeton University study on the subject. Hoebel believes that it's not the sugar itself that causes the addiction. Instead, the brain becomes addicted to the natural opiates caused by the sugar binge, just as it would get addicted to opium or heroin. Hoebel and his team induced stress in rats by depriving them of food for 12 hours and then feeding them balanced food plus a sugar-water solution. When the researchers removed the sugar portion and administered a special opiate-blocking drug, the rats displayed shaking and teeth chattering, which are common signs of addiction withdrawal.

Insulin Production

Excess sugar consumption prompts your pancreas to kick into overdrive. The pancreas then sends out a "clean-up in the bloodstream aisle" announcement. Then, the clean-up crew arrives and sends a flood of insulin into your bloodstream in an often-futile attempt to sop up the excess glucose. Some of the glucose goes into your muscles, where it acts as energy fuel. The rest goes into your fat cells, where it is stored as excess fat. An overzealous pancreas may send out an aggressive cleaning crew, which distributes too much insulin. Excess insulin lowers your blood sugar, causing you to crave -- you guessed it -- more sugar.

Sugar Binge Triggers

Stress is just one of the causes of sugar bingeing. Sheri Barke, a registered dietitian at the College of the Canyons, explains that inadequate caloric intake throughout the day may lower your energy level and cause a sugar binge. Intense workouts without the proper nutritional support have the same effect on your body. Insufficient protein consumption is another potential culprit. Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrate and thus does a better job at creating a feeling of satiety. In contrast, high-carbohydrate meals raise the level of brain chemicals associated with food cravings.

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