Diet: How sugar stimulates the craving for sweets

Diet: How sugar stimulates the craving for sweets

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Gut-brain circulation drives cravings for sugar

After consuming sugar, our intestines send out a signal that increases the craving for sweets in the brain. An American research team has now demonstrated a special connection between the intestine and the brain that can explain why many people develop a real cravings as soon as they have consumed some sugar.

Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute discovered that sugar molecules activate certain sensors in the intestine, which then transmit a signal to the brain. These sensors only act on sugar and may explain how the seemingly insatiable appetite for sweets arises. The results of the study were recently presented in the renowned journal "Nature".

Sugar molecules trigger a signal between the gut and brain

A little sugar is enough to increase the craving for everything that is sweet for most people - whether cookies, chocolate, whipped cream or cake. A new study now shows that this desire is triggered by a signal connection between the intestine and the brain that only reacts to sugar molecules. This signal path does not start with artificial sweeteners.

An independent neurological pathway

In addition to the taste buds on the tongue, the connection between the intestine and the brain represents a completely separate neurological signaling pathway. In experiments on mice, the researchers documented how the first sugar molecules that arrive in the intestine trigger sensors that send signals to the brain, which then increase appetite. This gut-brain signaling pathway seems picky and only reacts to sugar.

Gut-brain signaling explains long-observed phenomenon

Scientists have long observed that sugar has a unique effect on the brain. So far, the causes of this phenomenon have not been sufficiently understood. Another study in 2008 showed that mice prefer sugar even when they lack the ability to taste sweet things. The signal path now discovered offers an explanation for this connection.

Sweet taste and sugar are two pairs of shoes

"We have to separate the terms sweet and sugar," emphasizes neuroscientist Charles Zuker. While sweet taste reflects a preference, sugar stands for a real desire. The study paper reveals the neural basis for sugar preference.

Refined sugar makes the appetite run amok

Sugar is a collective term for a whole range of fuels that are absorbed through food. According to the study, the subsequent signal from the intestine activates the brain's reward system and ensures that people feel good. In today's diet, which is characterized by refined sugar, the appetite runs amok.

Sugar consumption increased tenfold

This is also reflected in the American diet. While the average annual sugar consumption per head was around five kilograms at the beginning of the 19th century, it is now around 50 kilograms. This increase is associated with numerous health problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Sweetener cannot satisfy sugar cravings

The team led by research director Zuker also showed in previous studies that artificial sweeteners cannot satisfy the craving for sugar. The researchers gave mice to drink water that was mixed with the widely used sweetener acesulfame K and refined sugar. The mice could choose which water to drink.

While initially the same amount was drunk from both containers, the mice drank almost exclusively the sugar water after two days. "We concluded that this insatiable motivation that the animal has for eating sugar instead of sweet taste could have a neural basis," explains Zuker.

The sugar cycle between the gut and brain

In the current study, the researchers made the rodent's brain activity visible. It was shown that the brain only jumps on sugar, but not on artificial sweeteners. The signal from the intestine is sent directly to the brain stem and processed by a region that is independent of the processing of taste.

The signal is sent out by the intestinal mucosa and reaches the brain via the tenth cranial nerve (vagus nerve). This pathway is particularly strong for glucose and glucose-like molecules. Surprisingly, the signaling pathway does not seem to jump to some other types of sugar, such as fructose derived from fruit.

Why is the body so sensitive to glucose?

The researchers suspect that this signaling pathway should draw the organism's attention to glucose as a special source of energy for all living things. "The discovery of this cycle helps explain how sugar directly influences our brain to control consumption," Zuker sums up. The discovery also offers new approaches for strategies that could curb the appetite for sugar. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute: A Gut-to-Brain Circuit Drives Sugar Preference and May Explain Sugar Cravings (published: April 15, 2020),
  • Hwei-Ee Tan et al .: The Gut-Brain Axis Mediates Sugar Preference; in: Nature, 2020,

Video: Dairy: 6 Reasons You Should Avoid It at all Costs (May 2022).


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