What We Can Learn from “Memoirs of an Addicted Brain” by Marc Lewis, PhD

“Don’t ask a lover, an addict, or a two-year old with his eye on the cookie jar to tell you the difference between need and desire, ‘have to’ and ‘want to.’ The thing they desire appropriates their thoughts and magnifies their perceptions, leading to the pursuit, the chase, the anticipation of acquisition, the dopamine rush of thrusting forward in space and time toward, toward, toward…whatever it is. They can’t stop thinking, focusing, trying, wanting, and eventually, with any luck, getting the reward that is etched in the crosshairs of their attention.” Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, by Marc Lewis, p. 65

Does this description of a person, an addict, in the throes of addiction sound familiar to you? Do you find yourself consumed with thoughts of food, of sugary things, thinking about it, trying not to think about it, taking a few steps toward the pantry, then a few steps back? Do you find yourself saying “No, I won’t eat it!” only to want it again 5 minutes later and having to say “No” all over again…and again, and again, and again? Until finally, worn out from the hours or days of effortful self-control, you are worn down with no defenses left, and you succumb. You eat the object of your desire. You eat the sugar food (or fatty food, or whatever your food drug of choice is). And you feel better. You feel a rush of peace, calm, and happiness…something close to euphoria, if you are lucky. The nagging, insatiable desire that picks and picks at you has gone away and is replaced by peace and calm, as dopamine fills your brain and you finally feel right.

If you can relate to this, you are probably a food addict or a sugar addict. Research has clearly shown that sugar is just as addictive as cocaine and heroin, with rats in experiments becoming addicted to sugar, showing withdrawal symptoms and tolerance. Rats will often choose sugar over cocaine because it makes them feel that good. Sugar is an addictive substance, and its power is enhanced by the fact that it is a chemical that is not only sanctioned by the world at large, it is encouraged by the world at large. Been to a birthday party or other big event lately? Had anyone lovingly encourage you to ease up and have a piece of cake? Unbenownst to them, they were encouraging you to partake of your drug of choice. They would never encourage an alcoholic to have just one drink, but they will encourage you to have just one bit of cake. They mean no harm; they just don’t realize the power of sugar addiction.

If you are a sugar addict (or are addicted to another type of food), I have a suggestion for you, a way to possibly help you on what will surely be a lifelong battle against sugar addiction. You’re not going to be able to cure your sugar addiction…EVER. But you can, with effort, manage it and make it better.

I just read a fascinating book by Marc Lewis, PhD, titled “Memoirs of an Addicted Brain.” As a teen, Marc was sent to a New England boarding school where he began to use cough medicine, alcholo, and marijuana as a means of escaping what was becoming an isolating reality of being bullied and ostracized by his schoolmates. After graduation, he entered the hippie world of 1970s UC Berkeley, where he immersed himself in a world of LSD and heroin. His sordid tale of infatuation with drugs, which began as an attempt to escape in high school, led him to steal methamphetamines from Asian hospitals, smoke opium in Calcutta opium dens, and stealing all manner of opiates from houses, hospitals, and doctor’s offices while in grad school. At the age of 30, after some 15 years of addiction, Lewis cleaned himself up, turned his back on addiction, and became a professor of both developmental psychology and neuroscience. His book is a fascinating juxtaposition of his personal tale of descent into addiction and a very readable explanation of how drugs affect the brain and how the cycle of addiction occurs. He uses cutting-edge science to detail how “the relief provided by drugs begins to backfire over time and an intensely focused need  overtakes the nervous system, again and again, sculpting a synaptic network dedicated to the pursuit of a singular goal – more – at the expense of everything else.” (quote from the book jacket)

Let’s take a look at three facets of addiction that Lewis discusses in his book to see if we can make sense of our sugar addiction and how to beat it:

The Roles of Opioids and Dopamine

Opioids are chemicals known as neuropeptides, which are called “molecules of emotion.” They are a large part of your emotional world, making you feel angry, excited, euphoric, in love. We have natural opioids in our brains that we manufacture. One natural opioid is endorphins, which we know as the neurochemical that makes us feel fantastic after a workout. Opioids also provide relief from pain or stress, make us feel pleasure and well-being, and help energize us to pursue goals. Breastmilk contains natural opioids that help facilitate the bond between mother and child and make breastfeeding a very rewarding experience for babies. Do you ever feel warm, safe, and euphoric when your spouse holds you close, or you cuddle your child close to you, or you engage in play with those you love? That is because the closeness to a person you love releases natural opioids in your brain. You are on an opiod “high.”

Okay, so we have natural opioids in our brains that make us feel wonderful. Guess what also contains opioids? Heroin, opium, and morphine of course….drugs of addiction that are known for their powerful effects. I’m guessing that most of my readers are not addicted to these kinds of opiates. But sugar is also an opiate…or at least it has opiate-like effects. Sugar produces opioids in our brains that bind to our opioid receptors and make us feel…drum roll, please….warm, safe, and euphoric. Heroin is many times stronger than morphine, and morphine is many times stronger than the opioids produced by sugar or in response to cuddling. The effect is smaller, but it is VERY strong, nonetheless. Very strong.

Opioids also increase the flow of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is another “feel-good” neurotransmitter that makes you feel excited. So, when you ingest sugar, you get a surge of opioids that make you feel warm, safe, and intensely happy, as well as a surge of dopamine that makes you feel excited. Pair those emotions together and you get a sensation that is HIGHLY rewarding. After repeated exposures, the brain learns that sugar produces a very rewarding sensation (“I feel wonderful! I feel safe, warm, happy, excited!”) and thus becomes motivated to seek out that sensation again (“I want more cupcakes”) and again (“I already had a cupcake, but I want one more”) and again “Oh, heck, let’s just make a bowl of frosting and eat that”). This cycle is exacerbated by two facts. First, the neurochemical rewards fade, leaving us feeling just the opposite of how we feel on a sugar high: anxious, unhappy, lethargic, blah). And second, just as with illegal drugs, we develop a tolerance to sugar and need more and more of it in order to reap the neurochemical rewards.

The Role of Ego Depletion

Addicts are commonly thought to possess very poor self-control. “Why do you keep eating candy when you know it will make you sick and make you gain weight?” “Why do you keep shooting drugs when you keep landing in jail and your wife is about to divorce you?” Why can’t addicts just exercise a little self-control and STOP already???

The truth is, addicts are exercising enormous amounts of self-control. A non-addicted person is faced with saying “yes” or “no” to sweets perhaps once a day…maybe at the office as they pass by the doughnuts, or perhaps at a birthday party they attend. An addicted person has to say “no” to sweets dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times in a day. Their intrusive, unwanted, unbidden thoughts of sweet foods come to them throughout the day, often every few minutes. Many people who are addicted to sweets know they have a “window” when the addiction will rear its ugly head and they will crave sugar. Over the course of several hours during their craving window, an addicted person may have to choose to say “no” to sweets every few minutes. In a three hour window, that might mean saying “no” as many as 60 times. And remember, the addicted person’s entire neurological structure is screaming for the sugar with intense wanting and excitement. The person’s natural opioid level has gotten low, and she is feeling anxious, nervous, somehow wrong inside. She feels blah, unmotivated, like the color is gone from her world. She knows the sugar will bring relief, make her feels safe, warm, and happy. All will be right again. Her dopamine is surging with excitement at the thought of the sugar, focusing her energies toward planning how to get the sugar. This is the neurochemical tide she must fight against every three minutes as she repeatedly says “no” to sugar.

After minutes or hours of saying “no,” she is very likely to succumb, say “what the heck” and eat the sugar. She is worn out from having to say “no.” She has no more energy to fight the craving. Psychologists call this “ego depletion.” Marc Lewis explains it like this, as he discusses how he had to keep saying “no” to the morphine that called to him from the fridge in the lab where he worked:

“It’s a choice I have to keep making again and again, every time I pass the fridge, every time its raucous hum cuts into my reverie, every time the image of Sharon’s anger ignites my anxieties. Again and again and again. But so what? Once you make a decision, why would it be so hard to make the same decision again? Any addict will tell you: it just is. But psychologists have a name for the problem: ego depletion or ego fatigue. In doing routine chores, the brain uses up a fantastic amount of energy – more than the rest of the body combined….When the (brain) has to keep working to control an impulse, one that keeps recurring, or just won’t go away, it uses up its supply of energy. It can’t replenish its store of neurotransmitters. It gets tired. Very much like a muscle. Try holding your arm out at your side for half an hour. It’s pretty easy for the first five minutes, but it gets harder and harder after that. Just a simple physical action, maintained too long, soon exhausts the resources that made it possible.”

The Role of Shame, Blame and Self-Hate

“Contemptible. That’s what I was. Unbelievably stupid, unbelievably irresponsible: selfish, selfish, selfish! But that wasn’t quite it. What described me, what this inner voice accused me of, wasn’t exactly selfish, not exactly weak, but some meridian of self-blame that included both, and also dirty, disgusting….maybe just bad.”

That was Marc Lewis describing how he felt after getting busted smoking pot. But can you relate to how he felt? Have you berated yourself up and down, calling yourself nasty names, concluding that you are just plain bad when you have indulged, yet again, in a sugar binge? The hundredth or the thousandth time that you gorged on sugar, even though you told yourself you would never do it again, and even though you knew full well how bad you would feel afterwards…did you finally conclude that you were bad?

Addicts often start off on their addiction trying to ease psychological pressures through their drug of choice. You feel bad about yourself because you were the last one picked for teams in gym class, and you make yourself feel better later with Mom’s cookies…a lot of them. You get dumped in high school, or you get bullied, and you make yourself feel better with a binge on an entire box of Ho-Hos. You feel shame that you just ate all that. You promise not to do it again. You felt bad before because he didn’t like you, and now you know why he didn’t like you: because you are contemptible. Who eats an entire box of ho-Hos? Only a bad person would do that. I must be bad. And later, the only way to feel better seems to be to do it all over again….

Lewis’ Healing from Addiction

Mark Lewis has written a compelling book that details how he went from an ordinary kid to an insolated kid seeking relief with cough syrup to an adult breaking and entering doctors’ offices daily to feed his opiate addiction. We’ve heard sordid tales of addiction before, but he weaves into his narrative a neurochemical explanation for his behavior as only a psychologist and neuroscientist can. We see how the very structures that God created to facilitate learning can go awry when abused, creating an aberration of learning that culminates in addiction.

Lewis devotes 289 pages to his addiction, and a mere 16 to his recovery and healing. At age 30, after  yet another woman dumped him due to his addiction, totally alone, his body suffering, stuck in a cycle of stealing drugs, taking them, withdrawal, craving, and more stealing, something finally shifted for him. As he contemplated death as an escape, something in him fought back and said, “You can’t do this to me! I deserve a chance to live! I won’t let you. I won’t…”

What happened? He began to see himself in a slightly different way. He  began to talk to himself in a different way. He told himself over and over and over that it was possible to say “no” every hour of every day. In his words:

“I get up and walk around my kitchen in circles, and I imagine it. I just keep imagining stopping – not for a week or a month, but forever. And I see that it is possible to say no every hour of every day. Well, If it’s possible, that means I can do it. I repeat this over and over, and the simple logic begins to cohere. Then comes the next step: if I can do it, that means I can say I will do it. I repeat that over and over as well. Then I shorten it to just four words: I will do it. And somewhere in that thought is another breath of warmth, an unfamiliar thaw, a wisp of self-love.”

He has talked himself into believing that not only is it possible to say no, but that he can say no, and that he will say no. He continues:

“My heart is beating slowly, steadily, with a sense of possibility. I dare not think about anything except the goal: to say no all day, every day, every moment it’s needed. No is my friend. No can be my centre.”

His willpower had to take over for a period of time. But as time went on, he began to experience the lifting of the heavy veil that drug withdrawal brings you: the anxiety, the lethargy, the apathy, the feeling that things aren’t quite right. Light began to peek through. The cravings became less and less. Moments of happiness without the aid of drugs started to sprout up. It got easier to say no as he exercised his willpower and gave it workouts. It got easier to be happy and motivated without drugs. Light began to dawn.

That was thirty years ago. Today Lewis is an accomplished psychologist and neuroscientist with more than 50 publications under his belt. He is watchful of temptation, careful with prescription drugs. But he has been drug-free that whole time. Not that he doesn’t occasionally experience desire for the old ways, but he is able to fight it off, with the help of counseling and social support.

What Can We Learn from Lewis About Healing from Sugar Addiction?

As brief as his section on recovery is, I think we have a lot we can learn from Lewis about healing from sugar addiction.

First, we can understand that sugar is a chemical just like any other drug that acts on our brains and changes them in predictable ways. It causes our brains to be flooded with opioids and dopamine, which make us feel safe, warm, happy, and excited. We feel unusually good when we consume sugar…better than we are supposed to. God designed our brains to release natural opioids in response to human touch, and we do well when we let his system work and avoid substances that flood our brains with too many opioids.

Second, we can understand that when we consume sugar for the purpose of feeling better, we can expect to need more and more of that sugar to experience their effects. That is called tolerance. When we abuse sugar, we will need more and more of it to make ourselves feel good with it.

Third, we can understand that when we abuse sugar, we will become physically addicted to it so that as its effects leave our bodies, we will then feel anxious, irritable, and apathetic. Not liking to feel that way, we will seek out more sugar to alleviate the psychological distress. It will become a cycle. Feel bad, crave sugar, eat sugar, feel great, feel bad, crave sugar, eat sugar, feel great, feel bad….

Fourth, we can understand that we are not weak creatures who totally lack self-control. In fact, when we are sugar addicts, we are using far more self-control on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis than our non-addicted friends. We are exercising so much self-control, be saying no every few minutes, that we become ego-depleted, our willpower muscle wears out from overuse, and we cave to the addiction. We are not despicably weak creatures. We are simply worn out from exerting so much strength.

Fifth, we can understand that shame plays a big role in addiction. We often start off feeling bad about ourselves in some minor way, and then find that sugar makes us feel better. As the years wear on, the feelings of badness escalate into shame, blame, and self-hate, and the addiction grows stronger as more sugar is needed to assuage such negative feelings. Therapy with a good counselor who can help us identify patterns of self-hate in our thinking can be very helpful. Establishing meaningful work and meaningful relationships from which you can derive self-worth can also be very helpful. Self-hate is an inwardly focused endeavor. It is critical to get out of your own head and into the world in order to conquer self-hate. It is critical to take action to create, work, serve, and live in connection with others to conquer self-hate.

Sixth, we can understand that self-image, or “who we think we are,” is a very important factor in healing and recovery. Psychology tells us that our self-concepts are formed through what are called “reflected appraisals.” Reflected appraisals are the evaluations and feedback that we receive from others. Think of others as mirrors….they see you a certain way and reflect that image back to you and you incorporate that image into your sense of self. You ace a test and your teacher tells you that you are smart; “smart” becomes a facet of your self-concept. You post on Facebook and lots of people comment enthusiastically; “well-liked” or “interesting” become part of your self-concept. You get bullied and ostracized at school; “not worthy of love and acceptance” becomes part of your self-concept.

If you want to change your addiction to sugar, one way to help yourself along is to change your self-concept. Start with your own self-talk to give yourself reflected appraisals from yourself. Then find others who can give you their reflected appraisals. In the morning, talk to your spouse or write in your journal. Speak about what kind of person you are: strong, determined, unwavering, tenacious, able to do anything you put your mind to, healthy, vigorous, free, energetic. Speak about what kind of person you are NOT: weak, shameful, addicted, depraved, out of control. You are NOT like a drug addict. You are NOT a person who gives into every whim. You are NOT a person who shoves candy in her mouth. You ARE a free person, a light person, a strong person, a person who can do ANYTHING! You are a person who goes about life free and happy, doing wonderful things. You don’t WANT to eat that poison! You really, really, really don’t!! You want to be free…to experience the  strong healthy life that God intended for you! You want to make God proud!

Talk to your spouse, your friend, your mom, or your journal. Whoever you have, practice this self-talk every day. It will strengthen the neural connections in your mind so that the node that houses your self-concept is strongly connected to the nodes for strong, powerful, free and the connections to weak, addicted, depraved start to grow weaker and weaker.

Get together with a buddy or a group of people who can reinforce these reflected appraisals. When you get together with your weight loss group or your accountability partner, don’t talk about the temptations and the times you messed up. Talk about how strong you are, how free you are, how you are NOT an addict, you are NOT at the mercy of your cravings. Tell yourself this and tell your partners this. Reinforce the positive self-image at every chance you get.

Spend some time in meditation or prayer, imagining yourself as God sees you, as God designed you to be: Imagine yourself strong, vital, vigorous, healthy, free from addiction, light as a feather, happy, energetic. Imagine the old you…weak, addicted, craving, lethargic, unhappy, anxious, shoving sugar in your mouth…and imagine tossing that old self off. Imagine physically throwing that old self away and putting on the new self that God created for you. Imagine yourself vital, light, and free.

Folks, this is no magic remedy. If you are a sugar addict, you will probably always be a sugar addict. You will always have to guard against the old addiction rearing its ugly head. But you CAN make it better. You want to know the beauty of sugar addiction? It fades, and fairly quickly too. If you can muscle through four to six days without sugar, going on sheer willpower and self-talk, you will start to feel the withdrawal symptoms lifting. The anxiety and irritability will fade and happiness and peace will peek through. The cravings will lessen until they are just a minor blip that you are able to resist. The lethargy and apathy will fade and it their place will come motivation and energy and excitement for what God has in store for you. After several months without sugar, sugar will start to taste overly sweet, and you will be blessed by the true delicate sweetness of a fresh berry.

It gets easier, and it does so quickly. But it never, ever goes away. If you are a sugar addict, it will probably always be with you and you will always need to be on guard for it. But you can make progress, and you can make it better. Never give up! Always keep on trying!! God wants more for you than sugar addiction. Take hold of it!

Be healthy, be strong, be free!


P.S. There are a few food tricks that can help with sugar addiction. Eating enough fat is one. Try to get your fat up to about 60-70% of your daily calories. If that doesn’t work, try lowering your fat and eating 1 cup of white rice and 1 cup of potato every day. That can help quite a bit too. Walk or exercise right before you know a craving will come on so that you have natural opioids in your brain. Cuddle or imagine cuddling someone you love before cravings hit to release your natural dopamine.



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