Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok (Hebrew for "double sweet") has created a sugary product that uses 40 percent less actual sugar yet still tastes sweet.
- Consumers are fed a lot of nonsense about sugar and fad diets.
- Our bodies must consume sugar; the question is how much and in what form.
- Companies are trying to develop healthier sugars to combat our "sugar addiction."
Can we hack sugar to be healthy? www.youtube.com
Humans consume too much sugar. This is a refrain you've likely read for years, if not decades. As with any generality, that topline assessment misses nuance. While certainly true that we over-consume sugar in the Western diet — added sugar goes by at least 61 names and has been found in 74 percent of processed foods — sugar itself is a necessary carbohydrate. In fact, core metabolic processes, like glycolysis and the Krebs cycle, largely revolve around the processing of glucose.
This fact has caused some researchers to ask: can we create healthy sugar?
A primer on sugar and fad diets
Trying to make sense of the market for sugar substitutes is not necessarily helpful. Reading a nutrition label with terms like coconut sugar, xylitol, sucralose, Ace-k, or non-GMO dextrose leaves consumers scratching their heads. The aggressive agave nectar marketing campaign a few years ago caused many companies to market their products as having "real sugar." (As opposed to what? Fake sugar?)
The biochemical story of what happens to this carbohydrate inside of the human body is complex, however, and rarely will be answered by a company trying to sell its wares.
Monosaccharides, a.k.a. "simple sugars," are quite common. Galactose, glucose, and fructose fall in this category. Compound sugars, a.k.a. disaccharides, include sucrose (table sugar), maltose, and lactose. Then there are chemicals like sugar alcohols and glycerol, which are sweet but not actually sugar.
Most plants contain sugar. Fruit and honey also contain readily available simple sugars. Two common sources for processed food sugars are sugarcane and sugar beets. The cheapest to produce is corn syrup, which has been at the heart of the sugar debate for years. Due to farm subsidies, an overproduction of corn has led to this class of sugars being ubiquitous in the Western diet. Biochemically, believe it or not, high-fructose corn syrup isn't all that different from honey.
Historically, sugar was a rare and valuable commodity, often hard-won through gnawing on sugarcane. Fruits provide a quick and reliable burst of energy through their high sugar content, an especially useful trait for hunter-gatherers who relied on such fuel. As humans became addicted to sweetness, eschewing other flavor profiles to get right to the sugar rush, we figured out how to produce (and overproduce) it rapidly.
Thus, we got diet fads like "juice cleanses," which offer a rush of sugar without the fiber that slows its absorption into your bloodstream. Fiber is the most important part of the fruit. Detoxifying through such cleanses is a myth. Given the climate for sweet alternatives and nutritional shortcuts, however, we've grown susceptible to flashy marketing over solid nutritional science.
Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok (Hebrew for "double sweet") has created a sugary product that uses 40 percent less actual sugar yet still tastes like the sucrose that you would find in many products. The team noticed that our sweet receptors only detect about 20 percent of the sugar molecules that we consume, meaning the other 80 percent goes right into our bodies unnoticed by our mouths.
Health risks of sugar
Sugar science is constantly evolving. The WHO currently recommends a maximum of five to ten teaspoons (roughly 50 grams) of added sugar per day. To put that into perspective, Americans average 17 teaspoons (71 grams) per day — a whopping 57 pounds of sugar every year. One can of Coke contains nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar. Orange juice isn't much better.
This excess sugar leads to many potential health problems. A 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine states it bluntly: people who received between 17 and 21 percent of their daily calories from sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who consumed 8 percent of their calories from sugar. Harvard nutrition professor Dr. Frank Hu summarized his research with a simple assessment: "Basically, the higher the intake of added sugar, the higher the risk for heart disease."
The problems don't stop there. Sugar is metabolized similarly in the liver as alcohol — indeed, many alcoholic beverages contain high amounts of sugar — and the carbohydrates are turned into fat. As you gain weight, the health problems continue to escalate.
Issues with overconsumption of sugar include:
- High blood pressure. A 2014 study suggests that sugar might be worse for your blood pressure than salt. Along with an increase in insulin, sugar elevates heart rate and blood pressure by activating the sympathetic nervous system. Sugar was also found to reduce the sensitivity of blood pressure receptors and deplete cellular energy stores (ATP), both of which increase blood pressure.
- Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the primary problem with excess sugar intake, given that your body becomes resistant to insulin, causing sugar to build up in your blood. Sugar intake is not the only cause (genetics plays a role), though excess belly weight is clearly linked to the development of diabetes.
- Fatty liver disease. Excess fatty build-up in the liver leads to this disease. While common in alcoholics, some research suggests that sugar also negatively impacts the liver.
- Inflammation. While inflammation is essential for our body's self-repair process, excess sugar has been linked to chronic low-grade inflammation. In fact, just 40 grams per day has been demonstrated to have adverse inflammatory effects. While this is problematic in itself, inflammation can trigger many other health problems as well.
- Dementia. The science is less clear here, though some research has found that sugar impacts memory due to increased bodily inflammation.
- Tooth decay. For healthy teeth, it is ideal to keep your sugar intake to under 10 percent of total calories. The WHO found that excess sugar intake is the number one dietary factor for the development of cavities.
Photo: aboikos / Adobe Stock
Common sugar substitutes
Regardless of negative health effects, people love sweet foods. The desire for sweet-tasting foods is biologically programmed into us. The problem isn't eating sugar-rich foods per se; it's excessive consumption. Public health advice to cut down isn't working, and so a lot of companies are trying to offer alternatives.
High-intensity sweeteners are the most common substitute. These compounds are much sweeter than table sugar, meaning you need less of them in order to achieve the same level of sweetness. In America, there are six FDA-approved sweeteners in this category:
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
Other common sugar substitutes include Stevia, sugar alcohols, honey, and agave nectar.
Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K). Most commonly known under its trade names, Sunett and Sweet One, this potassium salt was first discovered in 1967. Two hundred times sweeter than common sugar, research has shown that Ace-K has no effect on body weight. Concerns over its possible carcinogenic effects were dismissed by the FDA, though as with all sugar substitutes, research is ongoing.
Advantame. This non-caloric sweetener is a whopping 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose and is commonly used in gum, drinks, and candy. It is approved in the U.S. as a flavor enhancer except in meat and poultry. It was recognized as safe by the European Food Safety Authority in 2013.
Agave syrup. This sweetener from the agave cactus was commonly used in health circles for years. It contains 56 percent fructose and dissolves quickly, making it ideal for cooking. Blue-agave syrup is between 1.4 and 1.6 times sweeter than sugar, though, and being over half fructose in composition, it also has many of the same detrimental effects as sugar.
Aspartame. As with Ace-K, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. First approved by the FDA in 1981, this peptide is one of the most widely tested food ingredients and has been found to be safe. That said, people who suffer from a rare inherited disease, phenylketonuria, cannot consume aspartame, which is why any foods sold in America must list this ingredient with a warning label.
Honey. Foods featuring honey are often marketed as containing "real honey," though in reality, its composition is similar to sucrose (it contains fructose and glucose), and it is roughly as sweet as sucrose. Anyone consuming honey should heed the same warnings as with common sugar.
Neotame. The aspartame analog, created by NutraSweet, is 8,000 times sweeter than sugar. First approved by the FDA in 2002, Neotame is common in colas, gums, yogurts, cakes, and drink powders. It's also used to cover the bitter taste of coffee.
Saccharin. This well-known sodium salt is roughly 400 times sweeter than common sugar. While used in numerous drinks, candies, and even medicine, it produces a metallic aftertaste. Considered safe for diabetics, saccharin has no nutritional value and is generally safe — though, anyone with an allergy to sulfonamide could experience symptoms after consuming saccharin.
Stevia. Derived from the South American Stevia rebaudiana plant, it's "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA. Up to 150 times sweeter than sucrose, stevia is a common additive in many health food products, though some consumers don't like its bitter aftertaste. The plant itself has been in use for at least 1,500 years as a tea sweetener and medicine.
Sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols have been all the rage in keto products over the last few years. Otherwise known as polyols, they are actually less sweet than sugar, marketed for not spiking blood glucose levels. Common sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, and lactitol. This family of sweeteners is considered safe.
Sucralose. Six hundred times sweeter than sugar, sucralose is the most common artificial sweetener in the world. Deemed safe by governing bodies in America, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Europe, it is appropriate for diabetics and does not cause tooth decay. The most common iteration of sucralose is Splenda, which is mixed with maltodextrin and dextrose and sold worldwide.
Can sugar be good for you?
The question of whether sugar can be good for you is common but based on an incorrect assumption: we must consume sugar. Our bodies rely on carbohydrates for energy, and carbs are all ultimately turned into sugars. If you were to only eat protein and fat, you would quickly encounter numerous other health problems. The question isn't whether sugar is good but how much and in what form it should be consumed.
For example, glucose and maltodextrin are high glycemic additives, whereas sucrose is moderate and agave syrup and fructose are low. High glycemic foods are known to give you a "sugar crash," which is a spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid fall in levels. High glycemic foods should generally be avoided.
But what about for people who exercise a lot? If you don't exercise often, sugar will be turned into fat, leading to a cascade of health problems. For endurance athletes, however, sugar is a necessary fuel for training.
Athletes and people who regularly exercise can benefit from high glycemic foods because our bodies recognize the intake as fuel for the activity. Whereas you would mostly want to consume low glycemic foods when not exercising, using a mix of maltodextrin and fructose during or after exercise is a smart choice. In fact, consuming low glycemic foods while exercising can cause stomach bloating.
Photo: veineleissa / Adobe Stock
What is the daily recommended sugar intake?
As mentioned above, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sugar caps at 10 teaspoons for adults. The latest edition of federal dietary guidelines offers a bit more detail, however.
- Americans older than two years should cap their added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of total calories. "Added sugar" is important because, as mentioned, all carbohydrates eventually turn into sugar in your body. Eating whole fruit doesn't count in this total; soft drinks and fruit juices do.
- Children under age two are advised to avoid foods with added sugars.
How is DouxMatok trying to create the healthiest sweetener on the market?
As mentioned earlier, our sweet receptors only recognize 20 percent of the common sugar we consume. Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok was founded by Professor Avraham Baniel, who in 2014, at the age of 96, applied his 75 years of industrial chemical research experience to create Incredo® Sugar. While the start-up aspires to create tastier and healthier variations of a variety of foods (including salt), sugar was the most pressing issue Baniel and his son, Eran, wanted to solve.
DouxMatok is not alone in this quest. For example, global food giant Nestle produced its own sugar reduction in a "healthier" candy bar called Milkybar Wowsomes. The experiment didn't end well as the company had to pull the item from shelves due to low consumer demand. Matching the flavor profile, density, and texture of sugar is harder than it sounds.
Nestle hasn't abandoned the quest for sugar alternatives, however. Companies realize their bottom line depends on offering healthier sugar without sacrificing taste and affordability — the same quest that meat alternative companies have been facing for years. While stevia and aspartame are widely used, for example, some consumers recognize the metallic taste and opt for what they know best. This will remain a real barrier until scientists can dial in an alternative that performs well in blind taste tests.
Incredo® Sugar is a sugar reduction created from cane or beet sugar. As the video at the top of the article shows, at least one anecdotal study in the Freethink office scored favorably for DouxMatok. The race is still on. DouxMatok's initial creation doesn't work well in liquids, at least not yet. Also, you can't cook with it on your own; the company is focused on using their sugar alternative in consumer food products first.As Dr. Robert Margolskee, Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says of the possible timeline, "I think within five years we'll be able to reduce 80 to 90 percent of the sugar in a food and still get pretty much the full sugar sensation. It's not an impossible dream."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
- Images can affect how people perceive the quality of a product.
- In a new study, researchers show using virtual reality that images of farms positively influence the subjects' experience of coffee.
- The results provide insights on the psychology and power of marketing.
Are coffee consumers influenced by the imagery and story around the production of the drink? Such was one of the central questions of a new study that explored the power of marketing on how "premium" aficionados consider coffee to be.
The researchers set out to explore whether the origins of the coffee can affect the perception of its quality in the minds of the drinkers. In particular, they focused on the concept of terroir, the special characteristics conferred upon the coffee by the specific terrain in which it was grown.
"Terroir is more than a mere geographical link between product and land," write the authors. "It relates to the idea that products are a unique expression of different environmental and sociocultural characteristics of a specific place." Thus, focusing a customer's attention on the environment in which the coffee was grown might make the product seem more authentic and of better quality.
Therefore, the researchers examined the effect of images on the coffee-drinking experience in three experiments. The study was carried out by the food scientist Francisco Barbosa Escobar from Aarhus University in Denmark and marketing experts Olivia Petit from the Kedge Business School in Marseille, France, and Carlos Velasco from the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway. Incidentally, Norwegians are among the world's top coffee consumers, with an average Norwegian adult consuming around 4 cups of coffee a day, reports Statistics Norway.
The first experiment involved 770 non-expert participants from the UK. They were shown online images and descriptions of four different specialty coffees, traded by a Norwegian coffee company. The researchers found that coffees with pictures of farms were rated higher in premiumness by the subjects than coffees with pictures of cities.
For the second and third experiments, the study used virtual reality environments of Times Square in New York City and a farm in Kenya as well as a control setting of a white room. The second experiment engaged 143 non-expert participants recruited via a behavioral studies platform at the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway. The participants were asked to smell a sample of quality ground coffee from Kenya while at the same time traversing a virtual reality atmosphere. The subjects were then asked to rate the coffee.
Image (A) shows the instruments used in Experiment 2: Oculus GO virtual reality (VR) headset and sample coffee bag. The other panels show the VR environments used in the study - (B) farm, (C) city, and (D) control.Credit: Escobar / Petit / Velasco, Frontiers in Psychology
Compared to the control (white room), subjects in the farm VR atmosphere rated the coffee as more acidic. Conversely, subjects rated coffee as sweeter when inside the control VR atmosphere compared to the city VR atmosphere. Furthermore, coffee was considered more premium when subjects were in the farm VR atmosphere compared to the control, but there was no difference in premiumness score between farm and city.
For the third experiment, the research team involved 34 people who were professionals in the coffee industry. They were asked to taste and score Kenyan coffee while being in the same city and farm VR environments used in the previous experiment. The results revealed a strong effect of atmosphere on how much the experts enjoyed their experience, with a much greater preference for the farm setting versus the control environment of a white room.
But the different VR atmospheres had little effect on how the experts rated the premiumness of the coffee. The researchers believe that "given their specialized knowledge, coffee professionals examined more objective attributes of the coffee and could discriminate intrinsic factors relevant for the assessment of the coffee from irrelevant extrinsic cues."
The researchers think their results can lead to developing more immersive marketing experiences in virtual reality, which could be groundbreaking in many industries. A premium experience can lead to customers paying premium prices.
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Swiss physician Paracelsus knew chemicals that heal in small doses can be toxic in large doses. The 16th-century "father of toxicology" spent his career investigating the effects of chemistry on human biology—and consciousness.
Psychedelics offer some of the most profound changes in consciousness known to humankind. As with the work of iatrochemists (chemists that provide chemical treatments for disease, a discipline vocally championed by Paracelsus), modern researchers recognize that understanding the dosage requirements of psychedelics is essential for determining efficacy. While overdosing can be psychologically damaging, psychedelics are generally not deadly, making them ideal for study.
Most people don't worry about overdoing LSD or psilocybin, however. The current trend is almost homeopathic in nature. Microdosing has become the productivity pastime of the Silicon Valley set, with knowledge workers swearing that minute quantities of LSD help them focus. Given the legal status of psychedelics, however, research has been scarce, though growing.
Imperial College London's Centre for Psychedelic Research has led the way in clinical trials. Director Robin Carhart-Harris has published over 100 papers on the effects of psychedelics on a variety of mental health issues. The center recently produced one of the first large-scale studies on microdosing, with a caveat—the psychedelics were self-supplied (to skirt legal issues) and the psychological results self-reported.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs
For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.
The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.
The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results.
The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia.
The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups.
Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect."
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock
Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A 2019 study found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.
"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."
The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.
"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."
As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company reaching a $2 billion valuation, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary.
This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities.
Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. Pharmacological dependence is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round.
When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Daydreaming can be a pleasant pastime, but people who suffer from maladaptive daydreaming are trapped by their fantasies.
James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" follows its mild-mannered protagonist through another mundane day of thankless chores. But Mitty is a daydreamer. He spices up his humdrum existence—and, thankfully, the story itself—through fantasies. Real-world events cause Mitty to imagine he's an ace hydroplane pilot, a brilliant surgeon, and an assassin on trial.
Thurber's character fits many readers like a driving glove because, as science has discovered, we all have a little Walter Mitty in us.
Research suggests that our minds wander close to 50 percent of the time, and we use these mental getaways to imagine our lives in all manner of fun and fanciful scenarios. We fantasize about the perfect meet-cute, or starting an exciting new career, or what we'd do with superpowers, or unbridled sexual encounters. Mostly it's sex.
And despite admonishments from our Victorian-styled teachers and supervisors, a mind in the clouds comes associated with a bevy of cognitive benefits. These include greater creativity, improved productivity, better problem-solving, and progress toward goals. Daydreaming is, in short, a virtue.
Except when it isn't, and here the darker undertones of Thurber's story come into play. It's hinted that Mitty may not be enjoying playful escapism but suffering from an uncontrollable urge to disassociate from his life, his responsibilities, and his relationships. Today, psychologists are researching whether such a Mittyesque existence may be the result of a new disorder known as maladaptive daydreaming.
One maladaptive dreamer spent hours a day dreaming he was a powerful man who could solve the world's problems.
Daydreaming is an indulgence of the mind and imagination, one provided courtesy of the default mode network, a network of interacting brain regions that is active even when the conscious mind is not. But like so many of life's indulgences—wine, steak dinners, video games, and even exercise—too much daydreaming can be harmful to our well-being. When daydreaming crosses that threshold, it can be considered maladaptive.
This disorder was first identified by Eli Somer, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Haifa, School of Social Work, in a 2002 paper. That paper looked to six patients in a trauma center whose daydreaming habits replaced human interactions or interfered with their standard life functions, such as going to school or holding down a job.
Since then, other case studies have looked at maladaptive daydreamers and compiled a list of potential symptoms. These include vivid, richly-detailed daydreams; abnormally long daydreaming sessions; daydreams triggered by real-life events; daydreaming sessions that interrupt sleep; and repetitive motions or whisperings while daydreaming. On average, one study reported, maladaptive daydreamers spend four hours a day housed in their imaginations.
"This is not like rehearsing a conversation that you might have with a boss," Somer told CNN. "This is fanciful, weaving of stories. It produces an intense sense of presence."
While such symptoms are common, though not comprehensive or guaranteed, how maladaptive daydreams manifest are naturally individual to the dreamers. In one case study, researchers analyzed the diary of a man codenamed "Peter." Peter described investing as many as 14 hours a day online. The news and images he happened upon would trigger related fantasies. For example, he may envision himself as a multimillionaire genius who could prevent bad news from occurring or self-insert himself into the power fantasies of superhero movies or police procedurals for hours at a time.
"When I felt this pain as a child, I started imagining how things could be different. I created stories which never happened. To suppress that pain I would hug my pillow or quilt, thinking I was being comforted by someone else," Peter wrote.
In an interview with CNN, Cordellia Rose described her maladaptive daydreaming like a drug and noted that her daydreams developed into intricate storylines that could last for years. These stories proved so distracted that she was unable to complete everyday tasks such as driving lessons.
"You get hooked on it, because it can be like an action movie in your head that's so gripping that you cannot turn off," Rose told CNN. "This [condition] needs to be public, because these are people suffering, and badly."
To be clear, maladaptive dreaming is not a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. Daydreamers such as Peter and Rose are aware that their fantasies are as unreal as they may be unrealistic. Because of this, many maladaptive dreamers understand the difficulties they face and the real-life losses they have endured for the sake of their fantasies.
More research needed
Researchers don't have a standard diagnosis or treatment for maladaptive daydreaming because they aren't yet sure it's a unique psychological condition. Maladaptive daydreaming has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—blessedly abbreviated as the DMS-5—the definitive book on mental disorders. To date, there isn't enough evidence to determine if maladaptive daydreaming is a separate condition or a manifestation of an already listed disorder.
Somer has developed a 14-point scale to help people determine whether they are experiencing maladaptive-daydreaming symptoms, but the results only indicate whether an individual should seek help. They provide no formal diagnosis.
Also, maladaptive daydreaming is often expressed alongside other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, attention deficit disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. And the researchers of Peter's case study noticed a striking similarity between his condition and those with behavioral addition response—including analogous responses with preoccupation, mood modification, tolerance, and withdrawal. It may be that maladaptive daydreaming is an expression of these, or other, disorders.
It's worth noting that similar empirical hurdles exist for other well-known, though not formalized, disorders. Orthorexia, sex addiction, misophonia, internet addiction, and parental alienation syndrome are all likewise absent from the DSM-5. For maladaptive daydreaming and these other conditions, it's simply a case of more evidence and research needed before a determination can be made.
A growing understanding of maladaptive daydreaming
The question of labeling is a tricky one—not only from a medical point-of-view but also a prosocial one. Some people find having a recognized condition validating; they feel it promotes social acceptance and makes seeking treatment easier. Others find such labels stigmatizing and restricting.
But the question of how to label something is an academic one. It isn't to say that the experience doesn't exist. It does, and whether maladaptive daydreaming ultimately enters the DSM-5 or not, awareness is growing. Online communities now exist to give support and spread awareness. And regardless of a condition's presence in the medical literature, if symptoms disrupt work, school, or social lives, help should be sought.
Thanks to the efforts of psychologists and the community, maladaptive daydreaming, unlike Thurber's literary creation, is no longer "inscrutable to the last." And those who suffer it are no longer relegated to a firing-squad of their own mind but can find they help the need.
A new study explores the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic drug ibogaine, which has been used in Africa for centuries.
- For decades, people have reported that the psychedelic drug ibogaine seems to rid addicts of their cravings for drugs.
- In a new study, researchers created a variant of ibogaine that's less toxic and doesn't cause hallucinations.
- The results showed that the variant seemed to significantly lower depression and drug relapse rates in tests on mice.
A new study suggests a modified version of the psychedelic drug ibogaine could help treat addiction and depression.
Although the ibogaine variant has yet to be tested on humans, rodents who were treated with it showed decreased symptoms of depression and significantly fewer drug relapses, especially for opioids.
What's also encouraging is that the variant is far less toxic and hallucinogenic than ibogaine, meaning it has the potential to become a more widespread treatment than its psychedelic relative.
First, what's ibogaine?
Ibogaine is a uniquely powerful psychedelic drug that produces hallucinations and other effects that can last 24 hours. It's the active compound in the iboga plant, which has been used for medicinal and religious purposes in West Africa for centuries. The drug is central to the Bwiti spiritual discipline, practiced by Bantu peoples in Gabon.
In the 19th century, French Christian missionaries sought to rid the Bantu of their religious practices, causing some of the Bantu tribespeople to flee deep into the jungle, where they encountered Pygmies. The Pygmies showed igoba to the Bantu, who later incorporated it into Bwiti initiation rites.
Despite its religious applications, ibogaine is neurotoxic and can cause irregular heartbeat. At high doses, the substance can be lethal.
But it's also thought to have a unique therapeutic effect: For decades, people have reported that ibogaine seems to significantly—and in some cases, completely—rid addicts of cravings for drugs.
How? One hypothesis is that psychedelics like ibogaine help the brain grow more dendritic spines, which promote communication between neurons. This strengthened communication may benefit addicts, who often show decreased synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex.
Tabernanthe iboga bark powder
Credit: Kgjerstad / Wikimedia Commons
To explore ibogaine's potential as an addiction treatment, the researchers behind the recent study, published in the journal Nature, aimed to create safer, less toxic analogues of the drug.
The team created an ibogaine variant that, like ibogaine, had an element called a tetrahydroazepine ring, which seems to be involved in promoting the growth of dendritic spines. This variant—a compound called tabernanthalog (TBG)—was less toxic and less hallucinogenic.
Experiments on mice suggested TBG has antidepressant and anti-addiction potential.
One test showed that mice subjected to a series of stressors showed less depression symptoms after one treatment, effects similar to ketamine, another psychedelic drug. More surprising was a test on opioid addiction: TBG seemed to virtually eliminate relapses in mice who had become addicted to heroin. This anti-addictive effect lasted about two weeks.
The researchers suspect TBG might be able to treat multiple conditions simultaneously.
"We've been focused on treating one psychiatric disease at a time, but we know that these illnesses overlap," David Olson, assistant professor of chemistry at UC Davis and senior author on the paper, told UC Davis News. "It's unbelievable how little we know about them." "It might be possible to treat multiple diseases with the same drug."
But before drugs like TBG could be used to treat addiction or depression in humans, more research will be needed to better understand the drug, its safety and whether its therapeutic effects extend beyond rodents. Another interesting question, though not explored by the study, is whether the psychedelic properties of ibogaine possess therapeutic benefits; by removing the trip aspect, would users be missing out?
The psychedelic aspect
Maybe. Psychedelic experiences are mysterious and highly subjective, with some people reporting terrifying and negative trips, while others gain useful insights. Here's one account of a positive experience posted on Erowid:
"[1 hour 20 minutes after ingestion] I am having an intense communion with a spirit in the shape of a purple-colored, brain-shaped cloud of vapor, which shows me the interconnection of myself and all things in the universe. It must sound comical to read it in words, but it was the most profound and beautiful experience in my life."
"[7 hours after ingestion] [...] something interesting has started happening in my brain. I feel as if there is a distinct second consciousness inside me, and I can carry on internal conversations with it, asking questions, receiving answers. The other consciousness seems extremely wise, I sense it is another part of me that has never been encumbered by fears or doubts [...]"To be sure, you can also find reports of ibogaine making people sick, being too powerful or not being worth the money to experiment with it at a treatment center. But regardless of the psychedelic properties, the new study adds to the renaissance of research exploring how psychedelics can help treat mental health conditions.