Stress Reduction

Holistic Wellness

Pour Some Sugar on Me

Jason Gootman

Founder of Puvema

It’s midafternoon. You’re not hungry, but the brownies in the break room are calling you. “Nah,” you say to yourself. “I’m not even hungry. I just had lunch two hours ago.”

But they keep calling you and calling you and calling you.

You have a few. Maybe more than a few.

You feel bad afterward. Sluggish, disappointed, cranky.

“Why did I do that again? What’s wrong with me?” you ask yourself in a condemning tone.

You’re a disciplined person. You get to work on time. You change the oil in your car. You have a good credit score. You have your life mostly under control. But when it comes to brownies, cake, cookies, donuts, and the like—you just can’t stop yourself.

“That’s it! No sugar!” you boldly declare.

There, you’ve sworn off sugar—again. It sticks—for a few days. Then, you’re back at it, kind of like a junkie. You just can’t stop. You really do feel like a junkie.

You see a report on the news that sugar is as addictive as heroin. “Aha!” you proclaim. You knew it all along, and now you have proof.

Well, depending on your perspective, I’m either about to burst your bubble or give you very good news:

You’re not a sugar addict, and sugar isn’t addictive.

I can prove both of these facts.

My proof: soldiers and rats.

Let’s start with the soldiers. During the Vietnam War, United States soldiers become addicted to heroin in droves. When they left the war and returned home, very few of them continued using heroin at all, let alone addictively. If heroin was addictive and they were heroin addicts, there would be no way they could just stop, but that’s exactly what they did. They quit heroin without intensive rehabilitation—or any rehabilitation at all. All they did to quit was leave the war and go home. (1,2)

War is as stressful as life gets. You think your to-do list is daunting; imagine one like this:

  1. Make your bed.
  2. Clean your rifle.
  3. Kill Vietnamese people.
  4. Hold your friend while he dies in your arms.
  5. Breathe in napalm.


“Stressful” doesn’t come close to doing it justice.

It’s horrific.

You experience stress whenever you fail to meet your needs. Being at war is about as far as a person can get from meeting their needs. Very few human needs are being met for anyone at war.

Something very important happens when you meet your needs. Your levels of reward chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins, and others) increase. That feels good. Very good.

On the other hand, when you don’t meet your needs, your levels of reward chemicals decrease. That feels bad. Very bad.

Reward chemicals are powerful. They’ve driven human behavior for 2.5 million years and helped ensure the survival of our species. In other words, it’s an inherent part of your nature to do that which boosts your levels of reward chemicals.

What do you think taking heroin does? It rapidly and powerfully boosts a person’s levels of reward chemicals.

Here’s what happened with those soldiers:

  1. They were living in an extremely stressful environment that failed to meet their needs.
  2. Their levels of reward chemicals precipitously dropped. They felt bad.
  3. They were offered a substance that, when ingested, would boost their levels of reward chemicals.
  4. They tried the substance, it boosted their levels of reward chemicals, and they felt a little better for a period of time.
  5. The war continued to be stressful and failed to meet their needs. Their levels of reward chemicals kept dropping. They kept feeling bad.
  6. They took the substance again, and they felt a little better for a period of time.
  7. This cycle repeated itself. (They were addicted to the substance.)
  8. They left the war and returned home. Their new environment was much less stressful and mostly met their needs. Their levels of reward chemicals were consistently relatively high.
  9. Their cravings for heroin went away.
  10. They stopped taking heroin.

Were these soldiers heroin addicts? Perhaps they were situational addicts. They certainly weren’t always addicts or they wouldn’t have been able to stop taking heroin so easily when they returned home.

Is heroin addictive? Perhaps it’s situationally addictive. It’s certainly not always addictive, or the soldiers wouldn’t have been able to stop taking it so easily when they returned home.

Now let’s talk about rats.

For many years in the early 1900s, researchers conducted scientific studies in which they’d bring lab rats heroin and observe what happened. In short, rats given heroin would universally become addicted. Once rats were given heroin, they’d keep taking it until they killed themselves. If it was taken away before they killed themselves, they’d exhibit signs of withdrawal. Numerous scientific studies showed similar results. Researchers had all the evidence they needed: Heroin is very addictive.

Enter pioneering researcher Bruce Alexander in the 1970s who made an important observation: All of the rats in these heroin studies were living, as lab rats tend to do, in cages. This meant their day-to-day lives included very little contact with other rats, and the only people they saw were the people who brought them food, water, and, um, heroin, a few times a day for a few minutes of total time. Alexander hypothesized that this might be impacting the results of heroin studies.

Rats are used in scientific studies because their physiological and psychological characteristics are similar to those of humans. Like us humans, rats are highly social animals.

We all know what happens when a person goes into solitary confinement; they basically lose their s*** and go crazy. Solitary confinement is extremely difficult for a person. The rats being used in heroin studies were effectively living in solitary confinement for their entire lives. Alexander thought this might be important.

He made what came to be known as Rat Park, an area for rats to live outside of cages in something more like their natural environment. They had space to move around, plenty of water and food, toys rats love to play with, and each other.

Then he basically ran the same experiments that had been run in heroin studies countless times.

What did he find?

Rats living in Rat Park tried heroin when it was brought to them but didn’t become addicted. Rats who became addicted to heroin while living in cages recovered when brought to Rat Park even though heroin was readily available there. In cages, almost all rats given heroin became addicted and overdosed. In Rat Park, not a single rat became addicted or overdosed. (3,4,5)

Just like the soldiers from the Vietnam War, when they were in a situation that met their needs, heroin wasn’t appealing to the rats. They were quite content. Sure, taking heroin felt good. But not any better than making out with other rats and playing with colorful toys.

Again, we can observe not addictive “people” (rats in this case) or an addictive substance, but an addictive situation. These examples show us that situations that fail to meet a person’s needs foster addiction. They also show us that situations that meet a person’s needs foster freedom from addiction.

The results of Alexander’s Rat Park studies were validated by a 2010 scientific study of a similar nature. Here’s what the researchers reported:

“Adult Wistar rats housed in short-term isolation (21 days) consumed significantly more morphine solution (0.5 mg/ml) than rats living in pairs, both in one-bottle and in two-bottle tests. No differences were found in their water consumption. This effect was observed in both males and females and the results were also replicated after reversal of housing conditions. We also found that as little as 60-min of daily social-physical interaction with another rat was sufficient to completely abolish the increase in morphine consumption in socially restricted animals.” (6)

For emphasis:

“We also found that as little as 60-min of daily social-physical interaction with another rat was sufficient to completely abolish the increase in morphine consumption in socially restricted animals.” (6)

Back to you and the brownies: Could the same phenomenon be at play?

I hope I have you at least considering the possibility of your long-sought freedom.

If rats can eliminate heroin cravings by hanging out with their rat friends for an hour a day, certainly there are ways you can free yourself from sugar cravings.

I witness it every week with my clients. I witness my clients getting free from “emotional eating”.

How do they do it? They meet their needs.

“Meet your needs.” I know, it sounds like the tagline for a pampering retreat in the Berkshires. It sounds fluffy and intangible. But meeting your needs changes you in tangible, “physical” ways. It changes the chemistry within your body. It gives you abundant levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins, and other reward chemicals. Just like it did for the soldiers when they left the war and came home. Just like it did for the rats when they were released from their cages and put up in Rat Park.

The most common unmet needs that lead to “emotional eating” are sleep, rest, fulfilling work, fulfilling relationships, and time with nature. Modern life is a petri dish of these unmet needs for many people. Imagine a person who got six hours of sleep, commuted for an hour by themself on the beautiful (sarcasm alert) highways outside a major city, then put their earbuds in and got to work coding and occasionally messaging with their “team” in Pakistan. Shit, if that was me, I’d have a cupcake in the afternoon too.

Sugar cravings and binges, however, can be attenuated by simply making some improvements to the petri dish you swim in. Cultivating a life with consistent good sleep and rest is huge. Adding regular doses of nature will help a lot too. Doing work that really matters to you goes a long way. And connection and bonding, that’s where the magic happens. Connection and bonding boost levels of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins, and other reward chemicals like nothing else.

I’m in the business of applying the evidence from scientific studies not designing and implementing them, but If I were going to run one, here’s what I’d do. I’d recruit 1,000 subjects who really struggle with “emotional eating” and put them in two groups: an experimental group and a control group. The subjects in the experimental group would get eight to nine hours of sleep a night. They’d also get two hours of rest a day on workdays and six hours of rest a day on weekends. They’d eat their meals together in groups of five. They’d exercise four days a week doing workouts of their choice they really enjoy. They’d have the option of exercising with others if they wanted to. They’d have access to nature all the time. The male subjects would participate in a men’s group that met once a week. The female subjects would participate in a women’s group that met once per week. All subjects would take a course in tantric sexuality and be encouraged to practice with their lovers. The subjects in the control group would continue living their lives as they were. Standard modern life: bored, lonely, stressed, tired. Measures of “emotional eating” frequency and intensity would be taken from the subjects at baseline, three months (midexperiment), and six months (postexperiment). Measures of dopamine level, serotonin level, oxytocin level, vasopressin level, endorphin levels, and levels of other reward chemicals would be taken from the subjects daily.

My hypothesis is the subjects in the experimental group would have much lower levels of “emotional eating” and much higher levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins, and other reward chemicals. (They probably wouldn’t want to go home either.)

In any case, you could try this experiment in your own life. Perhaps you can’t live in my study paradise with me, but you could replicate it as best as you can.

The beautiful thing is enjoying more sleep and rest, rocking your work life and relationships, and enjoying more time with nature won’t only curb your “emotional eating”, it’ll make literally everything in your life better.

How does that sound?

Author’s note: The phenomenon of situational addiction relates not only to substance addictions like being addicted to heroin or sugar but also to behavior addictions like being addicted to gambling or exercise. These behaviors also boost a person’s levels of reward chemicals. For people who aren’t meeting enough of their needs enough of the time, these behaviors can become situationally addictive, and these people can become situational addicts.

Author’s note: Throughout this article, I’ve referred to “sugar” instead of “added processed sugar” because it makes for smoother reading. However, added processed sugar is what I’m technically talking about. No one I know is complaining of cravings for bananas, kiwis, and raspberries—which are loaded with sugar. Sugar is a nutrient that naturally occurs in many real foods that are very nutritious.

Author’s note: I put “emotional eating” in quotes because it doesn’t accurately describe the phenomenon. First, it implies irrationality, and the phenomenon actually makes perfect sense. Second, it disregards the reality of body-heart-mind unity. Yes, “emotional eating” is “emotional” since it involves emotions. It’s also “mental” since it involves thoughts and “physical” since it involves hormones, reward chemicals, and other overtly “physical” substances and processes.

Author’s note: Pour Some Sugar on Me is a song by Def Leppard.

(1) Narcotic Use in Southeast Asia and Afterward. An Interview Study of 898 Vietnam Returnees. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1975, 10.1001/archpsyc.1975.01760260019001.
(2) How Permanent Was Vietnam Drug Addiction? American Journal of Public Health, 1974, 10.2105/AJPH.64.12_Suppl.38.
(3) Effect of Early and Later Colony Housing on Oral Ingestion of Morphine in Rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 1981, 10.1016/0091-3057(81)90211-2.
(4) The Effect of Housing and Gender on Preference for Morphine-Sucrose Solutions in Rats. Psychopharmacology, 1979, 10.1007/BF00431995.
(5) The Effect of Housing and Gender on Morphine Self-Administration in Rats. Psychopharmacology, 1978, 10.1007/BF00426903.
(6) Social Isolation Increases Morphine Intake: Behavioral and Psychopharmacological Aspects. Behavioural Psychology, 2010, 10.1097/FBP.0b013e32833470bd.

About Jason Gootman
Jason Gootman is a Mayo Clinic Certified Wellness Coach and National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach as well as a certified nutritionist and certified exercise physiologist. Jason helps people reverse and prevent type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments with evidence-based approaches to nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, holistic wellness, and, most importantly, lasting behavior improvement and positive habit formation. As part of this work, Jason often helps people lose weight and keep it off, in part by helping them overcome the common challenges of yo-yo dieting and emotional eating. Jason helps people go from knowing what to do and having good intentions to consistently taking great care of themselves in ways that help them add years to their lives and life to their years.