Sugar is a drug

The other day I had another of those discussions that crop up periodically about drugs. In my experience people usually pool into two groups. The first, containing those who’ve done drugs, escalate into a series of anecdotes about their experiences. The second, filled with those who’ve never done drugs, descends into a lecture about how bad drugs are and the harm they cause. The exponents of this view always extol the party line. They’d never do drugs and invariably view those who have as if they’re sub-mental.

At some point in the conversation I always drop in the line. If they discovered sugar now, it would be banned, categorised as a Class A drug like Ecstasy. Most of the time I do it to agitate the argument, make people think differently about what a drug is. It’s fun to watch them try and dismiss the assertion as frivolous, but in the end it’s hard to refute the argument that sugar is a drug.

Last time I Google’d “sugar is a drug” I got about 139,000,000 results. High up on the search results was an interesting post by Robb Wolf. In “Sugar is a drug” Wolf outlines some interesting facts about the addictive nature of sugar. Basically “excessive amounts of sugar can lead to the release of increased amounts of dopamine“. For those who don’t know dopamine is the substance released when you take heroine.

The pathology goes something like this. When you take heroine the body releases dopamine and something called gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA to counteract it. The heroine stops the GABA from doing it’s job. The brain is flooded with an unchecked surge of dopamine. This is what leads to the feelings of euphoria. The crux of Wolf’s argument is that a high sugar foods are addictive.

Most people dismiss the impact of sugar on their system. You get the odd joke about experiencing a “sugar rush” but for the most part the narcotic effects of sugar are perceived as something relatively mild.

Now imagine experiencing sugar for the first time. Most people have been using sugar since they were children. Repeated use of any drug build a tolerance to that substance. I recently started drinking coffee again after a long period of abstinence. I now feel the effects of every cup on my system.

Viewing sugar as drug creates a seismic shift in the way we understand drugs. It throws up a whole bunch of questions about the role of drugs in society, or more specifically the role of prohibition. If sugar produces the same effect on the individual as heroine, why is one controlled and the other not?

The more I think about it the more arbitrary, and politically motivated, prohibition seems. I think the next time I have one of those discussions I’ll pose the question. If society can accept the routine use of sugar, why can’t they accept the routine use of Ecstasy?

Wonder what the answer will be?


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