It’s no secret that sugar is addicting. Sugar today is scientifically constructed to make our brains love the taste of it. Unfortunately, with our brains wired to crave sugar, breaking out of unhealthy sugar-eating habits can be incredibly difficult. But science suggests that mindfulness training is the kryptonite to cravings we can’t ignore, even more so than traditional addiction treatment programs. So, in this chapter we’re going to explore the science behind mindfulness and why it works to curb bad habits, from sugar to smoking.
What is mindfulness?
In order to understand how mindfulness can successfully tackle an addiction to sugar, it’s important to be familiar with the concept behind mindfulness. Many might shrug off mindfulness as a quack science based on Buddhist meditation. While it was derived from centuries of Buddhist practices, mindfulness has been adapted by the Western world in countless ways to treat stress, anxiety, addictions, and to assist in several forms of therapy.
Mindfulness can be described as observing and understanding what is going on in our bodies from moment to moment. In a Ted Talk titled, “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit,” Dr. Judson Brewer describes mindfulness as “seeing clearly what we get when we get caught up in our behaviors, becoming disenchanted on a visceral level and from this disenchanted stance, naturally letting go.”
To put it another way, a Yale study on the effect of mindfulness on the relationship between craving and smoking defined mindfulness as “an awareness of moment-by-moment experience arising from attention that is characterized by curiosity toward and acceptance of these present-moment experiences.”
But as Dr. Judson reminds us, this kind of change doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, mindfulness allows us to start to see the results of our actions more clearly over time, eventually making it easier to consciously let go of bad habits.
The science behind addiction
The problem with bad habits is that they are the opposite of mindful — they’re mindless. Thanks to the way our brains work, when habits are formed they are taken over by the basal ganglia, a deep area of the brain that operates on automatic, or out-of-awareness. The mindlessness of bad habits is compounded by the natural, reward-based learning process of positive and negative reinforcement. In other words, when our brain decides we like something — because of the way it tastes or the way it makes us feel — we’re more likely to do it again.
As Dr. Brewer explains, this natural, reward-based learning process is the reason that in the case of sugar addiction, eating junk food makes us feel better when we feel sad and angry. As a result of this, both hunger and emotional triggers make us crave something sweet, making the addiction stronger. The same habit-forming process applies for cigarettes and other forms of addiction.
Unfortunately, these kinds of bad habits are only exacerbated by stress because experiencing stress makes it harder to use cognitive control to ignore a craving or say no. The part of the brain that we use for cognitive control is called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the intellectual part of the brain that helps us understand why our habits are bad. This is a problem when it comes to addiction because the prefrontal cortex is the first part of the brain to go offline when we experience stress.
As a result, we’re more likely to play into addictions or do things we regret when we’re stressed out, such as eating and smoking. That’s why reactive force-quitting just doesn’t work to effectively address a bad habit. It’s hard to say “no!” to something your brain wants, and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
The absence of “no!” in mindfulness
Whether you’re trying to quit smoking, start exercising, eat healthier, or stop drinking, changing a bad habit is incredibly difficult. For those of us who have struggled with an addiction, we know that saying “no” to that which we are addicted is the hardest part. When the brain is wired to crave something, the average person struggles to actively ignore that craving.
Mindfulness takes out the dreaded concept of “no” in the fight to address an addiction. Instead, mindfulness replaces the difficult and forced “no!” with attention, willingness, and curiosity, which Dr. Brewer explains is naturally rewarding in itself. Mindfulness requires us to embrace our cravings, rather than trying to ignore them. Simply paying attention in this way makes habits that we typically crave mindlessly become less automatic. Being mindful allows us to acknowledge the dysfunctional habit and the emotion patterns that play out in a craving, and then intentionally craft a more skillful response.
The role of curiosity in mindfulness
A big piece of what makes mindfulness successful is that it encourages curiosity when we embrace our bad habits or addictions. It forces us to examine our own stress-induced habitual reactions and replace them with a new, curious response.
As Dr. Brewer says in his aforementioned Ted Talk, “What if instead of fighting our brains, or trying to force ourselves to pay attention, we instead just tapped into this natural, reward-based learning process… but added a twist? What if instead we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience?”
When it comes to breaking bad habits, curiosity works simply because it’s easy and fun. That is, observing a craving is easier and more fun than trying to ignore it. As Dr. Brewer puts it, when we’re curious, “we become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting that next data point.”
Think about it! Would you rather eat a cookie and think deeply about it and how it makes you feel, or suppress your craving to leave it on the plate where you’ll think about how badly you want it every time you walk by. It’s way easier and more fun to eat the cookie, right? In general, it tends to be easier to be curious about what is happening in your body than to try to make unpleasant cravings disappear.
Taking it a step further, using mindful curiosity when cravings hit can even work to ride out those cravings altogether. This requires us to focus on observing cravings rather than immediately reacting to them by, for example, eating the cookie. In this way, being mindful about how a craving makes us feel can be more constructive than removing stimuli that trigger addiction. Instead of removing the cookie, we observe the cravings that make us want to eat it.
Focusing on learning about cravings helps to dismantle the addiction that would otherwise cause us to immediately react in a way that satisfies them. As Hani M. Elwafi explains in the aforementioned Yale Study, using mindfulness in this way disrupts the associative learning process. In other words, it starts to interrupt the old, automatic routing of our brain that instead starts to create a more effective response.
So, what does using mindfulness to address an addiction look like? In general, experts refer to the practice as mindfulness training. Mindfulness training takes all shapes and sizes, depending on what kind of therapy it is being used for. It can include meditation, mindful walking, and mindful eating. But in the case of bad habits or addictions, mindfulness training is a form of meditative curiosity applied to addictive triggers, emotions, and withdrawal symptoms.
In an interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Brewer explains that the mindfulness training incorporated into his studies follows the acronym RAIN to manage, in this particular case, a nicotine craving. Quoted from the interview, the acronym RAIN stands for:
Recognize the craving that is arising, and relax into it.
Accept this moment. Don’t ignore it, distract yourself, or try to do something about it.
Investigate the experience as it builds. Ask yourself, “What is happening in my body right now?”
Note what is happening. As you note pressure, dullness, tightness, or whatever, it becomes clear that these are nothing more than body sensations. You don’t have to act on them. You can simply ride out the sensations until they subside.
The components of RAIN are how Dr. Brewer executes mindfulness training, but other experts in the field, such as the late Dr. Alan Marlatt, Director of the University of Washington’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center, just call this “urge surfing.” Dr. Marlatt coined the term under the premise that “urges are like waves in that they rise in intensity, peak and eventually crash.”
Urge surfing shares the same basic concepts of mindfulness training in that both practices encourage addicts to ride out a craving by observing it. Both terms recognize that when it comes to our context-dependent memories that crave bad habits, mindfulness helps us learn to become curiously aware when a craving hits, eventually allowing us to step out of endless bad habit loops once and for all.
The failure of standard treatments
A quick look at the treatments that have traditionally been applied to addiction allows us to fully appreciate the remarkable effectiveness of mindfulness to break bad habits. Some of the most common treatments include using substitutions and avoiding triggers, but as with many other facets of American medicine, industry standards aren’t always the most effective means of treatment.
Using a chosen substitute to react to a craving is one of the oldest “tricks” in the book. If an addiction is life threatening, it makes sense that you might try to satiate a craving with something less detrimental. The problem with this is that many people will substitute one addiction for another, meaning that receiving treatment for one bad habit only gives way to another detrimental behavior. In the case of cigarette smokers, the substitution is often food. As a result, recovering smokers just pick up bad eating habits to compensate for their emotional and psychological cravings.
The most standard addiction treatment programs typically herald avoiding triggers as the key to overcoming addiction. The problem with banking on avoiding triggers to cure an addiction is that stress is one of the most common triggers for any bad habit. As we learned earlier, stress renders helpless the part of our brain that helps us use cognitive control to say no to a craving, and unfortunately, stress is often unavoidable.
What it comes down to it, treatments such as avoiding triggers and using substitutions are really only temporary Band-Aid solutions to addiction itself. Dr. Brewer addresses this in an interview with Psychology Today as he lays out an analogy of a screaming child in a grocery store. In the analogy, he points out that giving a screaming child a lollipop will only keep him from screaming until the lollipop is finished. At which point, the original cause for screaming is still not addressed. The same goes for, for example, standard quit-smoking programs that focus on avoiding triggers and using substitutions to deal with a craving.
To really drive the point home using analogies, in the same interview, Dr. Brewer uses a gardening analogy to compare standard treatments for addiction, such as avoiding triggers or using substitutes, to “just pull[ing] the heads of the weeds, so they grow back.” If you have weeds in your garden, they need to be fully uprooted in order to go away. Dr. Brewer explains that standard treatments don’t take care of the actual craving, whereas mindfulness “really gets in there and pulls up the roots.”
For this reason, avoiding the temporary solutions, accepting the craving, and investigating it to ride it out is much more effective. Unlike the Band-Aid nature of industry standard addiction treatments, using mindfulness means that the next time that craving hits, it won’t be as strong.
Case study: Using mindfulness to quit smoking
Smoking addictions are a fitting case study for the effectiveness of mindfulness training. Nicotine is incredibly addictive, and cravings are without a doubt the most difficult obstacle to overcome for smokers trying to quit. In the year that Psychology Today published its article on using mindfulness to quit smoking, half of smokers in the United States had given up cigarettes for more than a day only to relapse. Thankfully, a growing number of studies show that mindfulness-based therapies can help diminish the negative affective states that fuel addictions like smoking.
One such study, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2011, worked with 88 adults who smoked a half a pack each day and were assigned to participate in either 8 sessions of a standard quit-smoking program, in which participants were asked to avoid smoking triggers and make other lifestyle changes, or 8 sessions of mindfulness training.
Those who underwent mindfulness training in this study had a higher rate of reduction in cigarette use during training with 31 percent of them still smoke-free 4 months after the 8-session program ended, whereas only 6 percent of the standard quit-smoking group was still smoke-free at that time. The conclusion of the study found that mindfulness training benefits those trying to quit smoking more than standard treatments for smoking cessation.
Similarly, the previously mentioned Yale study by Hani. M Elwafi examined the effects of mindfulness training on the relationship between cigarette craving and smoking, and found mindfulness useful in dismantling this relationship. Of the 33 adults that received mindfulness training, many were smoking less regardless of their level of craving. They were riding the cravings out.
Elwafi’s study was especially helpful to understanding how effective mindfulness is, even though some forms of mindfulness actually encourage addicts to accept and react to a craving as long as they are actively observing, in this case, the act of smoking. Mindful smoking made the smokers participating in the experiment increasingly notice how gross they actually thought smoking was. Being curiously aware while smoking helped several of these smokers discover that smoking tasted bad to them. Because of this, Elwafi’s study found that increased practice of mindfulness at home was correlated with decreased cigarette use.
Another study that used a randomized trial on mindfulness for smokers had similar results, even when targeted to a disadvantaged population. In the study, authors Davis et al. found that for smokers with a low socioeconomic status who wanted to quit smoking, mindfulness training led to a higher success rate than the control group’s standard smoker treatment of nicotine patches and access to a telephonic tobacco quit line. After 6 months of treatment, 22.7 percent of those undergoing mindfulness training were still abstinent from cigarettes, compared to 14.5 percent of the control group.
There is certainly room for more research on the topic, but available studies overwhelmingly find that mindfulness training is an incredibly effective solution to the cravings that smokers experience in the process of quitting. It goes without saying that this kind of mindfulness training can also be applied to cravings that arise in other forms of addiction.
Applying mindfulness to sugar addiction
When we think of addicts, we typically think of the widespread drug and alcohol addiction that plagues society today. But addiction is a compulsive condition that encompasses all kind of bad habits ranging from smoking, eating, and engaging in other detrimental behaviors such as gambling. We often think of addictions as life-altering obsessions that are easily noticeable to ourselves and others, and many times this is right.
But even small, seemingly innocent bad habits that we mindlessly appease every day are arguably a level of addiction. Which is why mindfulness could be incredibly beneficial to cut out bad habits, even just temporarily. For example, using mindfulness during pregnancy and nursing to cut out sugar and prevent the unwanted impacts of secondhand sugar on a growing child.
Eating sugar is a great example of a bad habit that borderlines a concerning addiction, especially when you consider the negative health consequences of a life of mindlessly overconsuming sugar. So, when it comes to battling sugar cravings, mindfulness training is the best tool to have in the toolbox. The best part is that it can be practiced at home to deal with unhealthy sugar cravings, or as a part of a professional programs for drug and alcohol addicts. The advantages of mindlessness to help us let go of bad habits are unlimited.
With the sugar epidemic being as prevalent as it is in modern society, it’s important that individuals start to take meaningful steps toward living a longer, healthier life by cutting back on sugar intake. Sugar is an addictive substance, making consuming it a hard habit to break, but mindfulness is a proven and powerful practice, perfectly poised to revolutionize addiction treatment programs. The fact that mindfulness hasn’t already been adapted into standard treatment programs for addicts is just another example of how America’s reliance on traditional medicine is letting us all down.