The unsweet side of sugar
Sugar paranoia is still the health issue on everyone’s lips (or rather not on everyone’s lips). Every influencer has recipes sweetened with dates and cacao, you can hire a hypnotist to cure you of your addiction and you’ll be ostracised for eating a French Fancy in the office.
So, what happens when you cut it out?
I tried giving up the white stuff myself some years before it became fashionable.
Inflammation in my feet, even after an operation to correct some wayward bones, led my chiropractor to demand I give up sugar for a month. I was desperate enough to believe it might help, though who had heard of a sugar detox in 2008?
I went cold-turkey, alone. I hunted it down in everything I ate and drank, and emptied the cupboard of previously innocuous food. Ready meals were replaced by poring over every label.
I oscillated between being grumpy and wanting-to-kill-people for a week. I yoga-ed myself to palatable states of humanity, pounded a treadmill at the gym to exorcise the aggression caused by not getting my hit, and meditated.
I have few vices. I drink alcohol occasionally but it’s not really my thing. I am on-off with caffeine. But sugar, it quickly transpired, fitted into a very different category to either of these things. A vice, a lifeline, an antidepressant, an anxiety drug. In fact, ‘drug’, with the highs and subsequent lows, is a far more accurate categorisation for sugar. It was, I realised, more than just what made my chocolate brownies taste sweet, it sweetened my whole life. I used it to medicate my mood.
Sugar gave me a high, and then without realising, it dropped me down low.
After (only just) surviving the first few weeks, I noticed that I had more energy throughout the day. The swelling in my feet went down, and I realised that my belly wasn’t bloated for the first time in years. I had started paying attention to what I put in my mouth, planning my food, rather than grabbing it on the go. It took time, but once I got the hang of it and was into a routine, I saw how little time I’d previously spent on really nourishing myself and how nearly everything I ate contained some form of sugar. I was lucky, in a way: I felt a strong drive to give it up, as a way to reduce my pain after surgery, so I kept with it.
But the physical, health-related reasons for why we should cut out sugar are often not enough. If we’re paying attention to the news, we will see the results of studies that show how sugar can damage the liver and cause insulin resistance that leads to diabetes. As insulin levels regulate cell growth, some studies link to how sugar breaks our hormonal regulators, increases the risk of cancer and sets in motion the key factors associated with heart disease.
So if it is so pernicious and damaging, why do we stay in an unhealthy relationship with our sweetie? I often think of the Scottish Proverb: ‘They always speak of my drinking, and never my thirst.’ In other words, we can talk about brownies, but we also have to talk about my impulse to eat them. So maybe it’s time to look at why we are slaves to the sugar cube, and not simply physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.
What’s happening in your brain?
A quick trip to YouTube and a Ted Talk later (thanks, Nicole Avena) illustrates how receptors on the tongue trip off the brain to ping its reward system. A hit of the brain chemical dopamine signals, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ A warm fuzzy feeling ensues. And we want to do the thing that stimulated that feeling again. Addictive drugs such as cocaine, nicotine, alcohol and heroin also stimulate this ‘feels-good-do-it-again’ pathway. Our brains light up when we think about a treat or a ‘hit’. The wanting or craving sets it in motion, too. We may not realise it but we are in a relationship with the thing that makes us feel good, even if it damages us.
Research by a team of neuroscientists at Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that, over time, too much sugar actually causes a drop in dopamine levels, meaning that we need more to get the same hit, and even just to simply avoid feeling depressed.
When our brain chemistry is out of whack, some self medicate with alcohol, painkillers, street drugs, or the most socially-acceptable and readily available of all: sugar. Author of Anti-Anxiety Food Solution, Trudy Scott says: ‘We must understand why sugar affects our brain chemistry like addictive drugs. We may use sugar to concentrate better, feel calmer or get happy when we’re low.’ But, Trudy says, ‘If we get the right nutritional balance or take specific amino acid supplements, we can boost the needed neurotransmitters, so that cravings go away without requiring massive willpower or without feeling deprived.’ Her recipe? Supplements. ‘Tyrosine boosts dopamine for concentration, GABA makes you feel calmer, and tryptophan boosts serotonin for happiness.’ So, a trip to a qualified nutritionist might help us to stop drugging with sugar.
Beyond the brain chemistry, there’s another factor: nervous exhaustion. Many of us have stressful, busy lives so when we are tired, we tend to resist our cues to rest and instead keep pushing through exhaustion by over activating the body’s fight or flight stress responses. Alternatively, we turn to caffeine and sugar to create a fast-hitting artificial high when the body is craving a rest.
This sets up our need for the blood sugar spike and keeps us in a tiring cycle, addicted to our own stress hormones.
So de-activating our stress responses with yoga, breath work or meditation are a vital part of releasing the sugar stranglehold.
What’s the alternative route to satisfaction?
Underneath it all, we need sweetness, sensuality, and deliciousness. The spiritual traditions that incorporate the body talk about chakras, which are energetic centres within the body that relate to our soul and spirit. The chakra in the lower belly/sexual organs area is the ‘sweetness’ centre – the Sanskrit name, svadisthana, means ‘one’s sweet place’.
Our worlds are flooded with sexual images and references that make us long for fulfilment through everything from food to cars. Desire is often piqued but not really fulfilled. When we’re rushed or pushed, we scarcely take time to ask what real sweetness there is in life. The result? We become imbalanced and seek sweetness in the wrong places.
Ask yourself this: what can you do to satisfy the spiritual void that you seek to fill with sugar? Consider the activities that make you feel content, balanced and whole. Try stimulating your senses with pleasurable moments: take time to absorb a beautiful skyline, listen to music, take in something that smells delicious or make contact with people. A physical embrace spikes brain chemistry that leads to feeling fulfilled.
Perhaps you haven’t truly danced in years, sung in ages, or not consumed art in the way you would like to. When you’re seeking sweetness, find it where it truly lies.
MAKE YOUR LIFE SWEETER
We all have an Achilles heel; whether it’s fat, carbs, sugar or something else. If we’re not careful, this can amount to a societal eating disorder, with us needing to rescue ourselves heroically from food villains. Keeping preoccupied with food gives us the illusion of control: that if we eat the right things we are ‘good’ and will be safe. Psychologists call this ‘projecting our shadow’: projecting our sense of the harmful or destructive on to external objects and demonising them. If we deal with our actual demons – such as fear, anger, loneliness and inadequacy – then we see that the devil is not just in our diets, it’s part of our human nature, and we look to meet our needs for sweetness and manage our discomfort in other ways.
The sugar detox solutions really all add up to a need to kick the unconscious habit and replace it with a sense of what we need, what we want and what makes us feel like life is sweet enough already.
FACT: Excessive sugar consumption has been proven to spike dopamine levels that control the brain’s pleasure centres, mood and motivation – in a similar (but less extreme) way that drugs such as cocaine do. That’s why the sweet stuff is addictive and gives us that ‘buzz’ when we consume it.
FACT: New guidelines by Public Health England have been set, with the aim to reduce 20% of sugar found in products such as cereals by 2020.
FACT: Your pituitary gland can help to create blissful thoughts. Inhale oils such as rose, geranium or orange. Or buy a roller from yogandha.com
Lisa Sanfilippo is a body-mind yoga therapist, teacher, and counsellor based in London, with public classes at Triyoga and the Life Centre teaching Depth Yoga.
Dos and don’ts of a sugar detox
Find alternative dopamine fixes
Find new ways to get your release without reaching for chocolate. Reward yourself with a good stretch, a walk around the block or by calling a friend for a quick chat.
Switch up your sweets
Tea blends including vanilla or cinnamon have a sweet taste.
On a Sunday, make a shopping list for your week of meals and prepare sugar-free snacks to avoid grabbing on the run.
No negative thought patterns
Avoid spiralling into a guilt-shame cycle around food, so nothing feels good. You’re only cutting out sugar.
This is not just about stopping sugar, but starting good things. Keep that in mind so that you’re not tempted to return to old habits.
Sleep, not stimulants
Get your energy from rest rather than stimulants such as sugar and coffee. Take a 10-minute rest and close your eyes or lay on the floor, lift your legs and bend them to rest on the seat of a chair.