The Effects of Sugar on the Brain: Everything you need to know

We are always hearing about how sugar is bad for us, but how does it affect us? How does sugar affect our brains? In this article, we will help you answer what are the effects of sugar on the brain, what are the consequences (too much) sugar can have on the brain, give some suggestions for healthy brain sugar foods, and show you how to get rid of sugar.

The Effects of Sugar on the Brain
The Effects of Sugar on the Brain

Effects of sugar on the brain: What is sugar?

What is glucose?

Glucose is a word often heard when talking about sugar, but what does it mean? Coming from the Greek word for “sweet, glucose is a type of sugar you get from the food you eat. Your body turns this sugar into energy as it travels through your bloodstream. While it travels, glucose is called blood glucose or blood sugar. Our blood sugar rises within the first hour or two after a meal, depending on the food eaten, and then slowly declines. A high level of blood sugar over a long period of time can cause damage to your eyes, kidneys, and other organs. Insulin is a hormone that moves the glucose from your blood to your cells to store energy.

General Cognitive Assessment Battery from CogniFit: Study brain function and complete a comprehensive online screening. Precisely evaluate a wide range of abilities and detect cognitive well-being (high-moderate-low). Identify strengths and weaknesses in the areas of memory, concentration/attention, executive functions, planning, and coordination.

Our bodies make glucose from foods with lots of carbohydrates, like potatoes and bread. After eating food, our body acids and enzymes break the food down into tiny pieces. When this happens, glucose is produced and released, where it then travels to our intestines to be absorbed. Afterwards, it goes into our bloodstream where the insulin helps the glucose get to our cells. Too much glucose has been associated with a low hippocampal activity, therefore, less memory. If you have trouble remembering CogniFit offers a General Assesment to help assess your cognitive abilities. 

Effect of sugar on the brain: Types of sugars

Sugar is everywhere and there’s lots of it. It comes in all different shapes and sizes. Each type of sugar has different effects on us, too. Some sugar is better and healthier than other sugar.

Here are some sugars that you can buy in the store:

  • Brown Sugar: granulated sugar with the grains deliberately covered in molasses to produce a dark-colored sugar.
    • Health Rating: a healthier alternative than other sugars, but best used in moderation
  • Granulated sugar: mostly sucrose (the typical white sugar we keep in the cupboard) and is refined from the natural sugar that is found in sugarcane.  It can be used as a preservative to prevent microorganisms from forming in food like jam and marmalade.
    • Health Rating: a healthier alternative than other sugars, but best used in moderation
  • Invert sugar/syrup: manufactured to be used in avoiding the sugar crystallization in processed foods.
    • Health Rating: not healthy and best to avoid if possible
  • Liquid sugar: strong sugar syrup made of over 60% granulated sugar dissolved in water. Used in processing beverages, hard candy, jams, and ice cream.
    • Health Rating: not healthy and best to avoid if possible
  • Low-calorie/artificial sweeteners: often made from maltodextrin, an easily digestible manufactured polysaccharide (short chains of glucose molecules and starch) alternative to granulated sugar. FDA approved brands are aspartame (artificial), Stevia (low-calorie), sucralose (artificial), saccharin (artificial), acesulfame (artificial), and neotame (artificial).
    • Health Rating: a Harvard study shows natural sugar is healthier, but there are worse alternatives than low-calorie and artificial sweeteners.
  • Milled sugar:  also known as powdered sugar or confectioners sugar, this type of sugar is ground down into a fine, white powder and typically used for baking.
    • Health Rating: a healthier alternative than other sugars, but best used in moderation
  • Molasses: refined sugarcane or sugar beets made into a syrup.
    • Health Rating: a healthier alternative than other sugars, but best used in moderation
  • Polyols: sugar alcohols that are used to prolong the flavor when making chewing gum and ice cream. Also known as a sugar-free sweetener.
    • Health Rating: not healthy and best to avoid if possible

 What are the effects of sugar on the brain?

Our bodies are designed to keep our glucose levels – blood sugar – constant. When our glucose levels rise after we eat, our beta cells, the cells that monitor our blood sugar, release insulin into the bloodstream. The insulin does this by breaking down muscle and fat cells so the glucose can slip inside them. Most cells in our bodies use glucose, amino acids (the basis of protein), and fats for energy. However, glucose has an even more important job than just bringing our bodies energy; it is the biggest source of fuel and energy for our brain. Without it, our brains wouldn’t work well. This is why the effects of sugar on the brain are a bigger deal than many of us think. 

When we eat, our cerebral cortex processes the different tastes in different places: sweet, salty, and spicy, for example. Once the taste reaches the brain, our reward system is activated, creating dopamine, the “feel-good drug”. This means that our brain has spots all over that connect and tell each other that what we ate was good and that we liked it. The effects of sugar on the brain activates our want to continue eating Mom’s delicious brownies. Our reward system is also triggered by socializing, drugs, and sex. A study published in 2007 by Magalie Lenoir shows that 94% of animals, when given the choice between saccharin (a calorie-free sweetener) and intravenous cocaine (a highly harmful and addictive drug), chose saccharin, the sugar because they preferred the sweet taste. Sugar behaves like a drug in the sense that if we eat lots of it, and continue to eat it, our dopamine levels never level out, as they would with a balanced and healthy meal. Our brain and body don’t stop communicating once our brain’s reward system is activated. Once we eat Mom’s brownie, the sugar travels down to our stomach and winds up in our gut, a place where we also have sugar receptors. These receptors tell our brain that we are full or that we need to produce more insulin to deal with the extra sugar intake.

Effects of sugar on the brain: What are the consequences?

One side effect and impact of sugar on the brain is diabetes. People who have diabetes have different glucose levels in their blood than normal. Either someone with diabetes doesn’t have enough insulin to move the glucose through the body, or their cells don’t respond to insulin as well as they should.

Two types of diabetes exist and they affect the brain in different ways. Type I diabetes means that the person has a total lack of insulin, the glucose-moving hormone. Type II diabetes means that the body doesn’t know how to effectively use insulin. Overall, there is a risk that there is damage to the brain’s small blood cells that affect the brain’s white matter, the nerves that communicate with each other. When these nerves are damaged, a cognitive impairment can occur known as vascular dementia. The longer someone has diabetes, the bigger the chance they develop dementia is; however, this is more common with type II diabetes because it is less controlled.

One possible treatment for type I diabetes is intranasal insulin, known as INI, which is intended to improve brain energy levels, reduce neuroinflammation, antioxidants and our energy metabolism (how our body breaks down and processes our glucose).

A study from the University of Texas in 2016 also found a correlation between those who consume a high sugar diet and an increased risk of developing lung cancer, even with people who don’t smoke. This means that diets high in sugar, in turn producing lots of glucose and insulin, promote our cells to change and can make us ill which in the long run leaves lasting effects of sugar on the brain.

Effects of sugar on the brain- Healthy brain sugar foods:

  • Avocado: avocados are a good-fat, green food full of vitamin B and vitamin C that help maintain blood sugar levels stable.
  • Milk: (low-fat) milk is a nice alternative to solid food because it keeps you full while maintaining protein and glucose levels.
  • Whole grain: eating whole grain rather than white rice or using white flour is healthier for maintaining stable blood sugar levels because whole grain foods process differently within the body than other foods.
  • Lean meat: chicken is a great meal option because it is packed with protein.
  • Fish: all fish, salmon especially, is wonderful brain food, packed with protein and oils to keep everything running smoothly.
  • Non-fat Greek yogurt: packed with fewer carbs and more protein than regular yogurt, it’ll keep your brain going for a longer period of time than a Snickers bar.

Effects of sugar on the brain: How emotions are impacted by sugar in the brain

“You are what you eat.” It’s a phrase heard many times, meaning that what you eat controls you — how you look and feel. Our blood sugar not only affects our emotions but our emotions, in turn, affect how our bodies regulate our blood sugar.

Hypoglycemia is a condition of unusually low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia makes it hard for the brain to concentrate on daily tasks and can lead to odd behaviors. The symptoms of hypoglycemia can appear right away and in some people, they might not appear at all. Some symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Weakness
  • Change in heartbeat
  • Blurred vision
  • Sweatiness
  • A headache or a migraine
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

Hyperglycemia, having a high blood sugar levels, can make one tired. Think about when you were a kid and you ate a lot of sugar. Now think about how after a few minutes of running around and being hyper, you collapsed, exhausted. Diabetes is the most common cause of hyperglycemia. However, severe stress and many medicines may also have hyperglycemia as a side effect. The main symptoms include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Need to urinate
  • The ability to see glucose in urine
  • A headache or a migraine
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred Vision

Stress is something that we can feel both physically and emotionally. Whenever we feel stress, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones can raise blood sugar levels. That is to say, that emotional stress, when high, can lead to high blood sugar levels. This stress can be difficult to treat and it is why people who have diabetes are recommended to keep stress levels low.

The Effects of Sugar on the Brain
The Effects of Sugar on the Brain

Effects of sugar on the brain: How thinking is impacted (possibly impaired) by too much sugar

Our brain is who we are. What we feel affects how it works. When we feed it healthy food (vegetables, for example) our brain has positive effects. When we feed it unhealthy and addictive food (like sugar), our brain has negative effects. For example, when we eat too much sugar, our thinking can be impaired, hindered, weakened, and harmed.

After we eat too much sugar, the production of feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, is slowed down. This means that they aren’t being produced in the amount or at the speed they should be. Because of this lack of chemical production, our body is unable to maintain a stable mindset and our thinking can be altered negatively.

In our brains, we have a protein called the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which influences our learning retention ability (how much of what we are taught stays in our minds) and short-term memory. Some studies have shown that eating sugar, especially in large amounts, affects our BDNF. For example, we become unable to learn things as easily and our memory begins to shrink. In some extreme cases, the effects of sugar on the brain are to the point that we have long-term effects like Alzheimer’s disease and long-lasting depression. 

The effects of sugar on the brain: how to get rid of sugar?

One study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that it could be useful to promote an increased water intake to help reduce energy (the glucose our brain makes) and targeted nutrient consumption. This means that drinking water could help decrease someone’s sugar levels and improve the effects of sugar on the brain.

However, if you’re hoping to quit sugar consumption completely, training your brain to eat healthily is important. Here are some methods to do so:

  • Stop eating processed foods. It’s been asserted by several studies that around 75% of packaged and processed food in the U.S. are sugary, and can be as addictive as drugs. A study from Connecticut College in 2013 found out that Oreos can be as addictive as cocaine, after observing how Oreos affected the behavior and brains in lab rats.
  • Keep your blood sugar levels stable. It’s better to eat smaller meals more frequently than three larger meals a day to help maintain a solid, non-wavering blood sugar level.
  • Eat green veggies and seafood. Due to the nutrition in greens and seafood, energy is boosted and sugar cravings are reduced with each bite.
  • Fermented foods and drinks. The fermentation process in our food takes away our desire for sugary foods. Furthermore, probiotics in fermented food and drinks eat sugar. Some examples of fermented food include kefir (a milk product), kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, raw cheese, and yogurt.

Do you have any foods you use to keep your blood sugar steady? How do you maintain your glucose? Let us know in the comments below!

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