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Shelly Young's
Release and Empowerment Protocol:

A mindful approach to managing cravings & compulsions

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My Sugar Story


Once upon a time, I walked the colorful streets of Berkeley, California. The atmosphere was so bizarre that I was easily distracted from my agonizing feelings of self-loathing, self-pity, hopelessness, fear, and despair. On Telegraph Avenue, I could forget my swollen ankles, hands, and legs—swollen from the consumption of massive amounts of sugary foods and refined carbohydrates. In Berkeley, I could lose myself into unusual forms of creative expressions, some of which seemed pathological. You have to know the Telegraph Avenue of the seventies to understand what I mean. Day after day, hour upon hour, I was utterly consumed and tormented by a sugar and food obsession...sugar: my complete ruination. 

Before the Berkeley era, I had abstained from bingeing for seven months while attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings. Upon relocation to California, I fell off the wagon once again and gained fifty pounds in three months. Clinical depression accompanied the bingeing as I approached a nonfunctional existence. I was diagnosed with a mood disorder but refused medication.  


I awoke one morning and groggily opened my change purse to find only one penny. That was a most memorable morning! I had a choice: welfare or a psych hospital. I chose welfare and could barely get myself to the office. Along with the welfare came food stamps: a month’s worth binged away immediately.  

If I was lucky enough to stop eating, I would start chewing. Transformed into a sorbitol junkie, I chewed twenty to thirty packs of sugarless gum per day. Chewing-gum wrappers were strewn all over my room, and I had incessant bouts of daily diarrhea. Berkeley was the place I walked aimlessly on a daily basis, trying to make the most out of a quarter. 

In 1980 I desperately searched the Bay Guardian, a small San Francisco newspaper. I longed for a way out of my living Hell. I saw an advertisement for Zen meditation and phoned the teacher immediately. When he answered the phone, I asked, “Do you have peace of mind?” He said “yes” in a way that was truly genuine. I made an appointment and was on his doorstep the very next day, which happened to be my 29th birthday.  That was the beginning of a life-long meditation journey.


A few years later, after meeting Shinzen Young, mindfulness meditation became my practice of choice.  Although, I still had a sugar addiction, meditation helped tone it down a bit.  Very gradually, I was able to have longer and longer periods of abstinence from sugar and junk food.  In 2003 a dramatic shift took place.  Two years before that , I had released sugar for over 2 years which had been a record breaker.  I relapsed and it took 2 1/2 years of sugar bingeing until the power of my practice took over in a very deep way.  In May, 2003, I had my last sugar and junk food binge.  I have had no desire for any sugar, flour or junk food since then.  I was completely relieved of any craving or compulsion for it and that remains so to this day in 2023. At one time, I could never have imagined a life without sugar.  Today, I can’t imagine a life with sugar.  Breaking out of the Sugar Prison has been one of the best things that has ever happened.  I consider my healing to be primarily the result of a dedicated mindfulness practice.


Based on my early life challenges and following that, two decades of professional experience as an addictions therapist, I created a unique focus sequence that I call my Release and Empowerment Protocol.  The Protocol is based on Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness System but also incorporates cognitive/behavioral methods. This systematic approach allows many people to release their compulsion in a matter of  a few weeks or months as opposed to the years and decades that it took me.  The protocol also has application more broadly for reducing suffering and elevating fulfillment.


Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina are currently investigating how trans-cranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) can work together with this protocol to facilitate and accelerate positive change.

Release and Empowerment Protocol Videos
The following videos demonstrate the potential for healing sugar addiction. The demonstrations involve segments of the Release and Empowerment Protocol. The protocol in its entirety includes a desensitization/cognitive-behavioral process.

Doughnut Addiction: Part 1

Doughnut Addiction: Part 2

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Addiction Research


Evidence of Sugar Addiction:  Behavioral and Neuro-Chemical effects of Intermittent excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Bio-Behavioral Reviews, 2008



The experimental question is whether or not sugar can be a substance of abuse and lead to a natural form of addiction. “Food addiction” seems plausible because brain pathways that evolved to respond to natural rewards are also activated by addictive drugs. Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential. This review summarizes evidence of sugar dependence in an animal model. Four components of addiction are analyzed. “Bingeing,” “withdrawal,” “craving” and “cross-sensitization” are each given operational definitions and demonstrated behaviorally with sugar bingeing as the reinforcer. These behaviors are then related to neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs. Neural adaptations include changes in dopamine and opioid receptor binding, enkephalin mRNA expression and dopamine and acetylcholine release in the nucleus accumbens. The evidence supports the hypothesis that under certain circumstances rats can become sugar dependent. This may translate to some human conditions as suggested by the literature on eating disorders and obesity.



Section snippets


Neural systems that evolved to motivate and reinforce foraging and food intake also underlie drug seeking and self-administration. The fact that some of these drugs can cause addiction raises the logical possibility that some foods might also cause addiction. Many people claim that they feel compelled to eat sweet foods, similar in some ways to how an alcoholic might feel compelled to drink. Therefore, we developed an animal model to investigate why some people have difficulty moderating their sugar intake.

Defining addiction

Throughout this review we use several terms with definitions for which there is not universal agreement. Addiction research traditionally focuses on drugs of abuse, such as morphine, cocaine, nicotine and alcohol. However, recently a variety of “addictions” to non-drug entities, including gambling, sex, and in this review, food, have been investigated (Bancroft and Vukadinovic, 2004; Comings et al., 2001; Petry, 2006). The term “addiction” implies psychological dependence and thus is a mental addiction.

Drugs of abuse and palatable food activate a common subset of neural systems.


Overlaps in the brain circuitry activated by food and drug intake suggests that different types of reinforcers (natural and artificial) stimulate some of the same neural systems (Hoebel, 1985; Hernandez and Hoebel, 1988; Kelley et al., 2002; Le Magnen, 1990; Volkow and Wise, 2005; Wise, 1989). There are several regions in the brain involved in the reinforcement of both feeding and drug intake (Kalivas and Volkow, 2005; Kelley et al., 2005; Koob and Le Moal, 2005; Mogenson and Yang, 1991; Wise, Behavioral similarities between drug self-administration and intermittent, excessive sugar intake.

The concept of “sugar addiction” has been bandied about for many years. Clinical accounts of “sugar addiction” have been the topic of many best-selling books and the focus of popular diet programs (Appleton, 1996; DesMaisons, 2001; Katherine, 1996; Rufus, 2004). In these accounts, people describe symptoms of withdrawal when they deprive themselves of sugar-rich foods. They also describe food craving, particularly for sugar and other carbohydrates, which can trigger impulsive eating. 

Neuro-chemical similarities between drug self-administration and intermittent sugar intake

The studies described above suggest that intermittent sugar access can produce numerous behaviors that are similar to those observed in drug-dependent rats. In this section, we describe neurochemical findings that may underlie sugar dependency. To the extent that these brain alterations match the effects of drugs of abuse, it strengthens the case that sugar, in some cases, can resemble a substance of abuse.

Discussion and clinical implications

Food is not ordinarily like a substance of abuse, but intermittent bingeing and deprivation may change that. Based on the observed behavioral and neurochemical similarities between the effects of intermittent sugar access and drugs of abuse, we suggest that sugar, as common as it is, nonetheless meets many of the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be addictive for some individuals when consumed in a “binge-like” manner. This conclusion is reinforced by the changes in limbic system.


From an evolutionary perspective, it is in the best interest of humans to have an inherent desire for food for survival. However, this desire may go awry, and certain people, including some obese and bulimic patients in particular, may develop an unhealthy dependence on palatable food that interferes with well-being. The concept of “food addiction” materialized in the diet industry on the basis of subjective reports, clinical accounts and case studies described in self-help books. 


This research was supported by USPHS Grants MH-65024 (to B.T. Walsh (Columbia) and B.G.H.), DA-10608 (B.G.H.), DA-16458 (fellowship to N.M.A) and the Minnie B. and E.H. Lane Foundations.

More Research Articles

An Overview of Addiction to Sugar: Chapter 9

Dietary Sugar, Salt, Fat in Human Health: 13 March, 2020


Sugar Addiction:  Is it Real?  A Narrative Review

Br. J. Sports Medicine. 2018 Jul; 52 (14) 910-913


Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward

PLoS One 2007 Aug 1; 2(8): e698 doi:10.1371/.   


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