Sugar! The devil that prayer is not saving you from

Early warning

Sugar addiction has been correlated with the increase in per capita consumption of sugar and other high-glycemic-index compounds such as corn syrup and selected starches. The USA per capita soft-drink consumption has increased by 500% over the last 50 years. This is bad news for everyone, except shareholders of this lucrative industry.

Addictive substances are generally speaking, either illegal, or regulated. We are not allowed to use morphine for run-of-the-mill headaches, we are not allowed to smoke until we are 18 (or 21), and we are not allowed to consume alcohol before roughly the same age yet, we expose our children to what has been labelled “the most dangerous drug of our time” by a Dutch health official in an official health communication. It goes by thy name Sugar. But more generally, glycemic carbohydrates.

The threat of massively increased morbidity due to the ever-increasing health challenges associated with obesity is thoroughly publicized in international media, and I believe warrants an assumption that requires little validation. (Read into that my laziness in providing an exaggerated list of supporting scientific literature on the topic, but I assure you that it does exist)

Sugar has, on numerous occasions, and not just recently, been associated with increased incidences of obesity, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, stroke and these components have been correlated with one another in various elaborate combinations, very extensively and thoroughly. Little doubt remains that glycemic sugar is one of the major, if not the major, causes of health complications in modern society.

Add to that, the fact that the underlying mechanism of sugar addiction mimics that of opioid addiction. That is right. Being addicted to sugar is like being addicted to heroin light, but the worst thing really, is that most of us remain unaware of this fact, and attribute the problem to ill discipline.

Binge eating and sugar addiction

In a well cited study by Avena, Rada and Hoebel on the topic of sugar addiction, the authors succeeded in producing a relevant animal model of binge eating and sugar dependence.

They would subject rats to food deprivation for 12 hours, followed by 4 hour normal circadian driven activity and then 12 hour access to ordinary rat food and a sugar solution. Both were made available simultaneously.

After one month, it was found that the behaviour of these animals mimicked that of drug seeking behaviour. These animals would exhibit the following behaviours:

  • Increasingly over consuming the sugary solution – Bingeing
  • Opiate like withdrawal
  • Craving
  • Locomotor and consumatory cross sensitization of sugar and drug abuse. (Simulates drug dependence at a neurological level)

After one month, the rats were addicted to sugar, and they were bingeing on every occasion that they gained access to sugar.

The neurological mechanism of sugar addiction

A well known characteristic of drug use is the cause of repeated, intermittent increases in extracellular dopamine in a brain region responsible for behaviour reinforcement, called the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc). This characteristic is shared by large, intermittent doses of sugar (and other equally palatable treats), albeit to a lesser magnitude than exhibited by drugs of abuse.

The increased intermittent release of dopamine over time, causes changes in dopamine receptor expression/availability in the NAc, which relates to the development of tolerance similar to drug addiction, and withdrawal in the event of abstinence. Decreased dopamine release in the NAc and increased acetylcholine release from neurons in the NAc in the event of abstinence, is the cause of the majority of withdrawal symptoms, and very closely mimics the mechanism whereby which opiates cause withdrawal symptoms.

The theory proposed from the paper of the authors above states that intermittent, excessive intake of sugar, can have dopaminergic and cholinergic effects that is similar in mechanism, but smaller in magnitude, than opiate addiction. Simply stated, sugar is addictive in the same way heroine is addictive, just not as potent.

The physiological consequence of sugar addiction

Different sugars have different effects on blood glucose levels, blood insulin response, satiety response (feeling of not being hungry), and ultimately, energy and weight homeostasis.

The capacity of carbohydrate to reduce hunger is directly correlated with the rate at which your blood glucose level rises. The higher the glycemic index (GI) of the carbohydrate you are consuming, the higher the satiety peak will be, but the shorter the effect will last, and vice versa for low GI carbohydrates. This is why a sugary treat provides greater satisfaction for hunger and/or cravings than does meat or raw oatmeal. This is the reason why children have to forced to eat their vegetables before they are allowed to have pudding.

The best example of the addictive properties of sugar can be seen when compared to the habits of a smoker. After a meal, a smoker is very rarely too “full” to enjoy a cigarette. It is because the nicotine in that cigarette provides an addictive stimulus that is not replaced by his dinner. In a similar manner, people always seem the have a little extra space for desert after dinner, and it is simply because, more meat, more vegetables will not supply the addictive stimulus that sugar can. You are no longer hungry, yet you crave a very particular high calorie nutrient. Isn’t that strange?

The solution?

There are many short term solutions to losing weight, but odds are small that you have been one of the lucky minority who have succeeded in losing weight and keeping it off. I say lucky, because those who have succeeded where others have failed, were the ones, who in all likelihood gave up their sugary binge habits for good but failed to realize the significant impact of the absence or restriction of sugar in their diet.

In a key-note address by Professor Timothy Noakes in this very topic, he made mention of a number individuals who have given up carbohydrates in their diet. A resounding agreement by a number of subjects who had written to Prof Noakes, expressing gratitude, exclaimed that they have lost weight, but most importantly, eating significantly smaller volumes of food, but being less hungry. How can that be?

Eating less, but being less hungry, means that you are no longer consuming high calorie nutrients for that craving that you aim to satisfy, but you have allowed yourself to recalibrate, in order to realise the difference between hunger, and cravings. It is made immensely difficult by the fact that sugar craving sensations, present almost identically to the sensation of hunger, and the indulgence in sugary sins, provides a feeling of satiety in the same way as many other food nutrients do. Or not quite, but hopefully you get the idea.

The cause of the problem is hiding in plain sight, but the significant realization that is yet to dawn upon the larger global health community, is that the problem to the addictive pandemic is hiding in the staple diet of modern society.

One last thought

The significance of the addiction is frequently underplayed to a large extent. The level to which one could rationalize against giving up an addictive substance has power beyond your imagination. If you get a cold feeling when you imagine never ever again consuming chocolate, or sweets of any kind, bread from your favourite bakery, cake, pizza, pasta, fruit juice, McDonald’s, ice cream, sugar in your tea… If you find yourself rationalizing that you will not go through life without enjoying any of a number of those, you have only just begun to experience the power of addiction. You need none of those to enjoy life from nutritional perspective. In fact, the less of those you enjoy, the more life you will end up enjoying.

Selected references:

[1] Nicole M Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G Hoebel. Evidence for sugar
addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, exces-
sive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1):20–39,
[2] Wendy Foulds Mathes, Kimberly A Brownley, Xiaofei Mo, and Cyn-
thia M Bulik. The biology of binge eating. Appetite, 52(3):545–553,
[3] David Benton. The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity
and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition, 29(3):288–303, 2010.
[4] David IG Wilson and Eric M Bowman. Nucleus accumbens neurons in
the rat exhibit differential activity to conditioned reinforcers and primary
reinforcers within a second-order schedule of saccharin reinforcement.
European Journal of Neuroscience, 20(10):2777–2788, 2004.
[5] G Terence Wilson. Eating disorders and addiction. Drugs & Society,
15(1-2):87–101, 2000.
[6] G Harvey Anderson and Dianne Woodend. Effect of glycemic car-
bohydrates on short-term satiety and food intake. Nutrition reviews,
61(s5):S17–S26, 2003.
[7] MP St-Onge, F Rubiano, WF DeNino, A Jones Jr, D Greenfield,
PW Ferguson, S Akrabawi, and SB Heymsfield. Added thermogenic
and satiety effects of a mixed nutrient vs a sugar-only beverage. Inter-
national journal of obesity, 28(2):248–253, 2004.

How the second law of thermodymics pervades all of biology

How biology is failing biology

I have spent a vast selection of my personal and professional time wondering about the one-dimensional representation of biological information and processes. I have also concluded that the representation of biological processes lacks very far behind other disciplines, such as engineering and computer science.

The notion is by no means novel, but after having read this article “Can a biologist fix a radio?—Or, what I learned while studying apoptosis“, it seemed as though the author had shared thoughts I had long harboured myself, albeit more articulately than I could likely have mustered.

The author of the above article uses the notion of fixing a broken radio to compare the diverging solutions that the disciplines of biology and engineering would likely employ. What fascinated me most, was the humour, but more importantly, clarity, with which he showcased the inefficiencies in the biologist’s evaluation of biological phenomena. I might add at this point, that being a biologist myself, I think it is okay for me to make this statement.

Biology is taught in one, or at most, two dimensions. Those of you who have been fortunate enough to pick up a biochemistry textbook in the last few decades, have been greeted by this, or similar, idyllic representation of a biological process:

Cleavage at carboxyl end of hydrophobic amino acid, phenylalanine.

Cleavage at carboxyl end of hydrophobic amino acid, phenylalanine, by the enzyme chymotrypsin.

Though in principle, for teaching purposes, this is not wrong, nor is it wrong in any general sense. What I find particularly disconcerting is the implication of certainty that this action takes place at molecular level. Well it does. But not for all 100% percent of molecules present in any solution.

Agreeably, you might be thinking, enough with the ambiguity! Get to the point already!

Law of mass action and chemistry

Equilibrium chemistry is the study of the ratio at which products and reactants exist in a particular chemical solution, when that solution has reached equilibrium.

Law of mass action in equilibrium chemistry.

Law of mass action in equilibrium chemistry.

The law of mass action is the mathematical model concerned with understanding the likelihood that products would form, given an initial concentration of reactants. In the figure above, the ratio at which these components exist in solution after sufficient time has been allowed, is termed the equilibrium constant.

The effect therefore, of any compound, be it medicinal, nutritional, or hormonal, has a very strange road by which it affects the physiological equilibrium that is central to all of life. It is in fact the capacity to regulate this equilibrium, with enzymes and the separation of reactants from one another by subcellular compartmentation, that allows life to exist at all.

The biochemical reactions similar to the first figure is what you are used to seeing, and it is as one dimensional as saying that the presence of glucose in ones blood, increased the concentration of insulin, and therefore increases the absorption of glucose into the muscle/adipose tissue. Strictly speaking of course, this is not wrong, as this is just the 2nd grader summary of what really occurs.

In reality of course, the process still abides by the law of mass action and more fundamentally, the second law of thermodynamics. The nature of equilibrium chemistry above makes the reality of the simple blood glucose statement above, seem a very complicated process indeed. Indeed it is the proverbial equivalent of herding water.

The process above is more closely simulated by the diagram below.

The control of reactants allows the exploitating of the second law of thermodynamics to sustain differential cellular equilibrium.

The control of reactants allows the exploiting of the second law of thermodynamics to sustain differential cellular equilibrium.

The second law of thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics states that all isolated systems are evolving towards a state of equilibrium (state of maximum entropy, or disorganized energy). It also states that the entropy of an isolated systems will spontaneously evolve towards a stable thermodynamic equilibrium.

Essentially, this means that if a cell, or subcellular compartment is irreversibly separated from its external environment, it will cease to live. It will reach thermodynamic equilibrium, and the only energy fluxes that occur will be the loss of heat energy. It is the continuous, and gradual shift in chemical equilibrium from extraneous sources that allows for the rate of energy flux to be larger than 0 (dE/dt > 0).

The impact

Ever wondered why there seem to be and infinite number diverging apparent solutions to common ailments? Antioxidants for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, low fat diet to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, increase exercise to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. It is not a topic of discussion whether E=mc², is most appropriate law to use when the goal is building a nuclear reactor. Yet, in order to lose weight for example, there must be almost as many diets than there are individuals who are, at this very moment, trying to loose weight.

Why? It is because biology is poorly understood. The workings of biology is represented with visual flow diagrams, but because biology is dynamic in nature, the effects of the changes induced by the actions that modelled are not taken into account. The predictions that serve as foundations of biology, and therefore nutritional sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, and modern medicine, are based on assumed mechanisms and are therefore fundamentally flawed.

A solution to this problem?

The language of biology is not equipped to deal with this issue, but mathematics is. Calculus presents us with the ideas, philosophy and tools with which to analyse changes in equilibrium chemistry, with which to ultimately understand the magnitude of the impact that any one component can have on human physiology.

Should the flow diagrams in biology be replaced by systems of differential equations, perhaps we could envision a biological research platform, where different results can be integrated with one another and mechanisms are not assumed for the sake of supporting correlation, and the inference of causality not committing the cardinal sin of statistically unwarranted extrapolation.