We all know too much sugar isn’t good for us, but do you know what it can do to the brain?
We are bombarded with sugar in many forms. In fact, without a considerable amount of effort and determination, avoiding processed and added sugars can be quite a difficult task. Not only do we live in nation with a deadly sweet tooth, consuming several teaspoons a day on average from candy and other sweets, but we are also taking in an abundance of secretly added sugars in foods we wouldn’t even think of as having sugar! Foods like condiments, soups, sauces, and even meats often have one or more forms of added sugar. With all of this sugar floating around in the system, health problems are sure to abound.
The Effects of Sugar
While the conditions we typically think of when considering overindulgence in sugar, such as obesity and Type II diabetes, are very serious, have you ever stopped to consider the effects too much sugar can have on the brain? Most people probably haven’t, and yet, without a healthily functioning brain, we cannot live, or at least very well! In the past several years, we have seen a dramatic increase in mental problems, such as ADD/ADHD, depression, Alzheimer’s, and bipolar, to name a few. At the same time, we’re seeing a steep rise in the amount of sugar being consumed by our nation. Is this correlation merely a coincidence? Not likely.
Because the brain has so many vital functions that are sensitive, even slight variances in nutrition status can have a big impact on how well the brain can operate. Sugar can be an interesting situation because the brain actually requires sugar in the form of glucose in order to function and keep you alive. However, the amount of sugar (glucose) needed by the brain is relatively small. The balance of sugar needed by the brain is much, much less than what the typical American takes in on a frequent basis. Foods that nature provides, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes, deliver more than sufficient amounts of glucose for the brain and the rest of the cells of the body to operate efficiently, even optimally.
But what happens when too much sugar is passing through the veins? The answer can actually be a little scary! Sugar is highly linked with cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. An interesting study published in the New England Journal of Medicine followed 2,000 sixty-five-(and older)-year-olds for five years. They discovered that even for the participants who did not have diabetes, high blood sugar levels were associated with a higher risk for developing dementia. While the exact reasons why are still being researched, it is clear that high glucose levels in the blood are directly linked with cognitive dysfunction. Scientists hypothesize this is likely the case because sugar leads to insulin resistance, oxidative stress, inflammation, and increased stress hormone.
Furthermore, when blood glucose levels are elevated in the body, delicate blood vessels in the brain and body can be damaged. Studies indicate that this damage, especially when prolonged, can lead to learning and memory problems, slower motor speed, and an inability to concentrate. However, even the occasional excess of sugar can be damaging and have negative effects. One study showed that when the level of glucose is heightened, the brain’s ability to function optimally, and mood, memory, and concentration, can all be impaired!
Not only does high sugar in the blood cause a number of problems for a healthy brain, it is also highly addictive, just as the drug cocaine is, and always leaves you wanting more. Just remember the times you’ve tried to decrease or eliminate your sugar intake; many people are so addicted to sugar they can’t do it! Those with the strength to do so experience a number of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, mental fog, moodiness, and cravings.
Sugar has a very powerful impact on the reward centers of the brain. When we eat foods high in sugar, our brain releases a high amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that provides us with the feeling of enjoyment and reinforces or motivates us to do certain things, such as to continue to eat high sugar food because it feels rewarding. In time, however, after frequently eating foods that are high in sugar, the dopamine receptors in the brain start to wear out and aren’t able to regulate as well, meaning there are fewer receptors for dopamine.
When this happens, it will take a higher dose or more frequent occurrences of the pleasure food. This means we’ll start to require more and more sugar to get the same reward feeling. This is one of the main reasons we get so addicted to sweet foods! Sugar impacts the reward center of the brain so powerfully it’s considered by many to be a drug and is compared to drugs, like cocaine, that influence the same reward center of the brain.
In the End
So the message should be crystal clear: if you want to prevent mental decline and keep your mind clear and sharp to do your best at school, work, and life, it is vital to be mindful of the amount of sugar going into your mouth. This requires not only staying away from the obvious high sugar foods, but also commitment to reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists, as sugar is added to nearly all processed foods in our modern day! It is best to only consume naturally occurring sugars from whole food sources, such as fruit or raw honey.