Can a vanilla inhaler trick my brain into quitting sugar?

Such devices could work in principle, says Dr. Nicole Avena, an assistant professor of neurology who studies the effects of sugar on the brain at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “Smell and taste are definitely related, but you have to train your brain to find the reward from the smell of vanilla the same way it did the reward.” [from sweet food]”, she says.

She sees potential pitfalls for some people, including the fact that your brain won’t necessarily always recognize vanilla as the scent of sweet foods. “I’ve smelled vanilla in my room freshener and other things,” she says.

Another problem with the stick is that it may increase cravings if used incorrectly. The instructions recommend inhaling through the stick for a full two minutes: Some studies suggest that inhaling a whiff of vanilla for 30 seconds or less “prepared” the next sweet food and increased cravings.

Avena says you can quench your cravings in a tool-free way, too. She advises her clients to try to identify “causative foods”: specific sweet or starchy foods that can cause them to overeat. For some people, she says, it can be as simple as “keep the cookies out,” while others get a strong dopamine response to all carbohydrate-rich foods, including things like bread. “It’s about sugars that you find that you can’t control,” she says.

She advises against eating cold sugar – it will likely give you a headache and make you feel nauseous for two weeks as your brain adjusts to low levels of dopamine. Instead, reduce your intake and switch to healthy sources like fruit.

However, she says it’s best to reduce ultra-processed foods in your diet as much as possible due to the special effects they have on the brain. “If you eat an apple, it won’t cause a dopamine rush,” she says.

The other problem with ultra-processed foods, which include breakfast cereals, crackers and ready meals, is the high levels of sugar they contain. The NHS recommends a maximum of about 30 grams of sugar per day, which is very easy with processed foods: the equivalent of a glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal.

Avena says ultra-processed foods made with artificial sweeteners aren’t the answer either. “Artificial sweeteners have a similar effect on the brain,” she says. “In the long run, they won’t help you shed sugar.”

After a few weeks of testing Killa Vanilla, my cravings are creeping up a bit but still less than before. If anything, the inhaler taught me an important lesson that cravings will often go away if I wait a few minutes. Ah, the sweet scent of victory.


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