The Back-to-School Drug of Choice: Sugar

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As children get ready to head back to school, their parents should be worrying about what's already in their lunch boxes or school cafeterias: too much sugar. Family therapist Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil says sugar has a detrimental affect on people of all ages, but kids can have a particularly adverse reaction.

Family therapist Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil urges parents to examine what's in their child's lunches as kids go back to school. "Sugar is poison and it affects kids and adults alike," she explains. Earlier this year, the journal Nature revealed that sugar can be as bad as hard-core drugs like cocaine in terms of what it does to the body ( and Dr. Bonnie says that she's never seen an addict who wasn't also addicted to sugar.

"It's a toxic substance that should be regulated like drugs and alcohol," she says, "and we're beginning to see some of that with initiatives by Michelle Obama, Disney, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg." But she adds that parents should be especially sensitive to it as kids go back to school. Sugar can affect behavior, brain chemicals, decisions, and how people feel about their loved ones. According to the Nature study, too much sugar not only makes people fat, but it also wreaks havoc on the liver and metabolism, impedes brain function, and may leave people susceptible to heart disease or even cancer.

Dr. Bonnie points out that kids are under enough pressure in school as it is - which can be both the cause for sugar cravings, as well as what kids turn to when they're stressed. "Their parents may turn to things like workaholism, drugs, or sex when sugar isn't enough and kids are prone to similar behavior. They may even learn to stress-eat, which just continues the sugar-craving cycle," she explains. Instead of taking a break from homework, for example, and going on a walk or playing outside, it's far easier to turn to candy and sweets especially if students have seen this behavior modeled by adults in their lives. This causes a euphoric high, and then a crash - researchers have found that the brains of people with this sugar addiction light up in the same regions as the brain of a drug addict.

"Dopamine - the reward chemical - spikes and reinforces the desire to have more. Sugar also induces calming hormone seritonin, so it's easy for the cycle to perpetuate itself," says Dr. Bonnie. And it has detrimental repercussions for how people handle moods and emotions. Dr. Bonnie observes: "People in my practice who have blood sugar issues and eat too much sugar - not only are they prone to more addiction from the stress, loss, and separation that's making them eat more sugar, they're also not able to empathize. But when they 'detox' from sugar they have the ability to empathize with people."

Dr. Bonnie calls this stress, loss, and separation the Biochemical Craving for Connection, discussed in her book Make Up Don't Break Up - it causes people to self-medicate whether that be with work, sex, drugs, or even sugar. She treats this self-medication in adults in her practice but it's showing up in people who are younger and younger. "Not only are kids learning from the examples of the adults around them, but sugar is an easy 'drug' to access and it's hardly regulated at all." For this reason Dr. Bonnie calls for more restrictions to be put on sugary treats and drinks and instructs parents to think twice about what's in their child's lunch bag.

To see Dr. Bonnie discussing how someone's mood can affect their health and cravings, click here:

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