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  • Heather Hagaman

Holiday Sugar and the Mesolimbic Dopamine Rewards System.. Shifting from Dukkha to True Sukha....



This morning I texted a dear friend these words: I keep thinking how sugar was my little inner child's strategy for the regulation of childhood PTSD and alcohol replaced it when I became a teen. By young adulthood 20's, I was a full blown PTSD binge drinking alcoholic and when I got close to age 40, I quit drinking and in many ways I returned back to sugar. Yoga helped me with self regulation and the sugar helped with self soothing. And this I believe is the story of most alcoholics.

When an individual eats sugar, the brain produces huge surges of dopamine. This is similar to the way the brain reacts to the ingestion of substances like heroin and cocaine. Heroin and cocaine can lead to homelessness, jail, and fatal overdose- no one ever hears a case of someone pawning family heirlooms in order to buy a one pound bag of Hershey kisses. However, there is a link between sugar and dopamine, the same chemical that releases in the body during illicit drug use. What this means is that sugar and drug addiction are similar in a lot of surprising ways. And for newly sober addicts and alcoholics, the chemical process of addictive substance use in the brain can cause intense sugar cravings during early recovery.

I didn't worry much about my sugar cravings in early recovery. But, it has been 20 years since I have had my last drink and the holiday season has brought back lots of memories. As I write this blog tonight, I have a chocolate tootsie pop in my mouth. I have had a couple peppermint patties and I am swearing I won't do this tomorrow. This is only the beginning of December and I am shaming myself for the candy monster that is back in town. Now that I am a student of yoga, I have come to consider loving ways to help shift me to a more healthier way of coping. Sugar is about sweetness. What if I could find another way to bring more sweetness into my life? Yoga speaks to sukha, sweetness and dukkha which is suffering, alienation and dissatisfaction. Yoga offers so many ways to cultivate sukha especially through awe and wonder? Is this the answer?

How do I increase the mesolimbic dopamine in my brain naturally? I contacted Dr. Google and this is what I learned: a balanced diet that contains adequate protein, vitamins and minerals, probiotics and a moderate amount of saturated fat can help you body produce the dopamine it needs. Is also important to get enough sleep, exercise and listen to sweet music, meditation and spending time in the sun can all boost dopamine levels. How about watching a funny holiday movie or gazing at a purple and pink winter sunset? How about starting the day in child's pose with palms facing the sky and praying to release the dukkha of sugar consumption? How about petting the nose of great Dane and kissing the cheek of my precious grandson? I have found a German artist in the 1920s who paints precious pictures of children and Christmas elves hanging on a mushroom house among snow laden trees. I love gazing at these colorful holiday pictures.


There are so many other awe and wonder ways to bring sweetness into our lives that doesn't entail sugar. No more dukkha....let's nourish sukha! I am going to start generating a list and please if you get inspired too send me some ideas! Happy Healthy Sweet Holidays!





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