The Hacking of the American Mind Report #6—The Purification of Addiction

The Hacking of the American Mind by Dr. Robert Lustig

Chapter 6

What does Lustig mean by titling Chapter 6, The Purification of Addiction?  Substances of addiction used to be scarce. Prior the 1700s addictive substances were expensive, and you had to go out of your way to get them. However, advances in technology dropped the cost of these substances making them much easier to obtain.

Addictive substances have been around for thousands of years, but addiction didn’t really become a societal problem until we started purifying these substances. Opium addiction in China goes back to 1000 A.D. Beer and wine production since the Romans could only get the alcohol content up to about 5%, and those products would still spoil. The alcohol content wasn’t high enough to cause addiction. Distilling alcohol was a game changer as the concentration of alcohol could be raised substantially beyond 5%. Alcoholism in Europe become a major problem in the 1700s once it became available and cheap.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Lustig suggests that is was not an accident that Prohibition was repealed in 1933, which was at the height of the depression. The federal government needed the tax revenues to help finance Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

Lustig quotes some current statistics from the National institute for Drug Abuse: 9.5% of men and 3.3% of women are alcoholics. Add to that the binge drinkers. Total alcoholic beverage sales generate $212 billion in annual revenue for the alcohol industry.

He says that it’s not just binge drinking among our youth; it’s the other drug abuses.

Kids aren’t just bingeing on alcohol, they’re also popping uppers, downers, and everything in between. In adolescents over the last thirty-five years, the binge drinking rates, as well as use of virtually every other illicit substance, has continued to increase.

My comments: Why is this happening? Prior to the 1960s, major drug abuse among our youth was not a problem. Oh sure, there was drinking, but Lustig is referring to the degree of change that he has seen in his practice. What has changed? Why were our youth in prior generations not afflicted as so many are today? Lustig does a very good job at raising the issues, and that is the focus of his book. However, he does not get into the deeper causes of why these problems are occurring and how we can overcome them, at least not yet.

Continuing: Lustig says that alcohol is but one example of something that is refined and purified to suit the whims of societal addiction. Marijuana has been bred to be more potent. He also points that new pharmaceutical drugs have been used “off label,” ones that also become abused.

The Other White Powder

Lustig comments about the profit margins of the pharmaceutical industry, something like 20% or better for five large pharmaceutical companies. He continues by saying that that’s nothing compared to the processed food industry. That industry grosses $1.46 trillion annually, of which $657 billion is profits. The gross profit margin is a whopping 45%!

Lustig explains that in the traditional Jewish method of circumcision, the practitioner dipped the pacifier in wine. When the modern obstetrician performs the procedure in the hospital, he dips the pacifier in Sweet-Ease, a 24% super concentrated sugar solution. Doing so activates both dopamine and opioids in the brain, helping the infant to deal the pain.

My comments: Not too long ago I was in a client’s home writing business. The gentleman was also babysitting his whiny three-year old grandson. At one point he gave his grandson a snack of punch and Trix, a high sugar concoction called “cereal.” The little boy settled down and dutifully consumed his sugar-laced snack. It worked well, until the sugar effect eventually wore off.

Years ago, when my son was in the cub scouts, the horribly overweight den mother announced, “We’re having CAKE after the meeting.” It was like Pavlov’s dogs; just the sound of the word CAKE settled the kids down and got them salivating to their soon coming treat.

Lustig referenced the huge profits the processed food industry rakes in. The boxes of confections, erroneously called “breakfast cereal,” couldn’t be a better example. Those boxes that you pay $3, $4, or even $5 are a huge rip-off, especially the ones loaded with sugar. Oh, you will switch to “healthy” granolas? Better check the label. They, too, are loaded with sugar.

The key point Lustig makes in his circumcision example is that sugar is in effect, used as a drug. The grandparent above, also used sugar (likely unwittingly) as a calming agent for his fussy grandson.

Continuing: Lustig makes the point that virtually everyone loves sugar.

The world loves sugar. There’s not a race, ethnic group, or tribe on the planet that doesn’t understand the meaning of “sweet.”

He also explains that if a foodstuff was sweet, it was considered to be safe. He cites the Jamaican ackee fruit. When it’s immature and not sweet it contains a toxic compound that can cause vomiting and even death. When it’s mature, it’s sweet and safe.

Lustig reminds us that prior the World War II, sugar was mostly used as a condiment, drop a sugar cube in your coffee of tea. After the war is when the processed food industry ratcheted up the use of sugar. High fructose corn syrup, the even sweeter sugar, was in use by 1975.

My comments: How ironic it was that sugar was rationed during WW II so it could be packed off to our troops. Interestingly, diabetic rates dropped during WW I and WW II when sugar was less available for the civilian population.

Continuing: Adding to the increased use of sugar by the food industry was the anti-fat hysteria that also hit in the 1970s. If you reduce fat in a product such as ice cream, what do you put in its place? More sugar, of course!

Lustig cites research done with rats. You feed them sugar, and they want more and more. Those little rodents are sugar lovers.

He explains that white sugar, which is composed of glucose and fructose, is not necessary to have in our diet at all. Our liver, through the process of gluconeogenesis, will produce all the glucose, the energy of life, we need. He points out the when fructose is chronically consumed, it can be toxic, and many people become addicted to it. Lusting concludes this section be quoting studies that suggest that sugar is uniquely capable of driving the reward pathway and altering emotional responses.

Denying the Obvious

Lustig concedes that not everyone is on board with the “sugar is addictive” belief. However, he poses a rhetorical question: How can a food—like sugar that is necessary for survival also be addicting? His answer is that certain “foods” are not necessary for survival. He lists what is absolutely necessary for our survival. The four classes of essential nutrients are as follows;

  1. Essential amino acids
  2. Essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and linolenic acid
  3. Vitamins
  4. Other macro-nutrients such as minerals.

His key point is that none of the foods that contain these essential nutrients are even remotely addictive. He also explains that of the substances that contain calories, only alcohol and sugar have been shown to be addictive. Lustig also references caffeine, also addictive, that has been added to some “food” products.

Lustig lists some of the dangers from alcohol consumption and says that “alcohol is dangerous because it’s alcohol.” Those characteristics are remarkably similar to that of sugar, and it’s no wonder, as alcohol is a product of the fermentation of sugar.

He comments about sugar.

Sugar causes diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and tooth decay. Sugar’s not dangerous because of its calories or because it makes you fat. Sugar is dangerous because it’s sugar. It’s not nutrition. When consumed in excess, it’s toxic. And it’s addictive. Fructose directly increases consumption independent of energy need.

Lustig comments about the naysayers that say sugar is “natural” and has been with us for a thousand years. They maintain that sugar is FOOD, and since it’s food, how can it be toxic, and how can it be addictive? He says that their contention begs the question: What is food? He quotes Webster’s dictionary definition of food.

Food: A material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to maintain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy.

Lustig quips that since sugar furnishes energy, it’s a food, at least according to some of the naysayers. He than discusses a European group called NeuroFAST. In essence, they claim that sugar is not addictive. For a complete discussion, please refer to pages 91-92.

Sugar is addictive for the same reasons and via the same mechanism as alcohol. Lustig explains that sugar is not a food; it’s a food additive. He continues to say that children are getting the same diseases as seen with those that consume excessive alcohol, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease.

When “Want” Becomes “Need”

Lustig asks the reader the following question: Can you honestly look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you have no addictions? He answers his rhetorical questions as follows: Ben & Jerry’s, eBay, Facebook, porn, video games, coffee?

He then asks: How long did the rush from the new iPhone or new car last? He says that as a society we’ve become tolerant by obtaining new stuff at a moment’s notice.

You might call dopamine the dark underbelly of our consumer culture. It’s the driver of desire, the purveyor of pleasure, the neurotransmitter of novelty, the lever that business pushes to keep our economy going, but at a clear, perceptible and increasing cost. We’ve purified our substances to concentrate their effects, and we are perpetually in need of the next new shiny object.

My Comments: Lustig points out that acquiring material things can also drive our dopamine receptors. I couldn’t agree with him more. I recently ordered and received my new Milwaukee M12 cordless impact driver and drill driver. It was like Christmas time when my shipment arrived and I opened the package and dug out my new” toys.” I loved the feeling. It was fun!

I asked myself if there was another M12 product that I “needed.” I went through the entire line of Milwaukee M12 products but couldn’t find one. Even though there was nothing I needed, I realized that it’s not too difficult to become hooked on buying another new “toy.”

For the guys, the dopamine inspired buying spree could be tools, guns, cars, and adult toys. For the gals it could be clothes, purses, shoes, or collectible items.

Is all pleasure bad? In an earlier chapter, Lustig explained that some stimulation or tickling of our dopamine receptors is actually healthy. We need to have some pleasure in life. We can enjoy the pleasurable rush of the new iPhone, car, or whatever. We can enjoy the occasional sweet treat. We can enjoy any of these things as long as we don’t become addicted to the substance or behavior or allow want to turn into need.

It’s important to keep in mind Lustig’s central them of his book: Too much pleasure leads to addiction, and not enough contentment or happiness leads to depression.  End