Sweet as sugar, and just as smart. That’ll soon be the reality of your brain if you don’t start cutting down this diabolic devil of a food. High levels of sugar consumption can have a negative effect on brain health – from cognitive function to psychological wellbeing.
We know that too much sugar is bad for our waistlines and our heart health, but now there’s mounting evidence that it’s bad for our brains too. While sugar is nothing to be too concerned about in small quantities, most of us are simply eating too much of it.
The sweet stuff — which also goes by names like glucose, fructose, honey and corn syrup — is found in 74 percent of packaged foods in our supermarkets. And while the Word Health Organization recommends that only 5 percent of daily caloric intake come from sugar, the typical American diet is comprised of 13 percent calories from sugar. That is a LOT.
“Many Americans eat about five times the amount of sugar they should consume,” Natasa Janicic-Kahric, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital, told The Washington Post.
How Too Much Sugar Could Affect Your Brain
Vicious Cycle of Intense Cravings
When a person consumes sugar, just like any food, it activates the tongue’s taste receptors. Then, signals are sent to the brain, lighting up reward pathways and causing a surge of feel-good hormones, like dopamine, to be released. Sugar “hijacks the brain’s reward pathway,” neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis explained.
And while stimulating the brain’s reward system with a piece of chocolate now and then is pleasurable and probably harmless, when the reward system is activated too much and too frequently, we start to run into problems.
“Over-activating this reward system kickstarts a series of unfortunate events — loss of control, craving, and increased tolerance to sugar,” neuroscientist Nicole Avena explained in a TED-Ed video.
In fact, research has shown that the brains of obese children actually light up differently when they taste sugar, reflecting an elevated “food reward” response.
This suggests that their brain circuitry may predispose these children to a lifetime of intense sugar cravings.
Impairment of Memory and Learning Skills
A 2012 study on rats, conducted by researchers at UCLA, found that a diet high in fructose (that’s just another word for sugar) hinders learning and memory by literally slowing down the brain. The researchers found that rats who over-consumed fructose had damaged synaptic activity in the brain, meaning that communication among brain cells was impaired.
Heavy sugar intake caused the rats to develop a resistance to insulin — a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and also regulates the function of brain cells. Insulin strengthens the synaptic connections between brain cells, helping them to communicate better and thereby form stronger memories. So when insulin levels in the brain are lowered as the result of excess sugar consumption, cognition can be impaired.
Depression and Anxiety
If you’ve ever experienced a sugar crash, then you know that sudden peaks and drops in blood sugar levels can cause you to experience symptoms like irritability, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue. That’s because eating a sugar-laden donut or drinking a soda causes blood sugar levels to spike upon consumption and then plummet. When your blood sugar inevitably dips back down (hence the “crash”), you may find yourself feeling anxious, moody or depressed.
Sugar-rich and carb-laden foods can also mess with the neurotransmitters that help keep our moods stable. Consuming sugar stimulates the release of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. Constantly over-activating these serotonin pathways can deplete our limited supplies of the neurotransmitter, which can contribute to symptoms of depression, according to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, functional medicine expert and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?.
Chronically high blood sugar levels have also been linked to inflammation in the brain. And as some research has suggested, neuroinflammation may be one possible cause of depression.
Teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood. A recent study on adolescent mice, conducted by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, found a diet high in sugar to contribute to depression and anxiety-like behavior.
Risk of age-related Cognitive Decline and Dementia:
A sugar-heavy diet could increase risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2013 study found that insulin resistance and blood glucose levels — which are hallmarks of diabetes — are linked with a greater risk for developing neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Some researchers, in fact, have even referred to Alzheimer’s as “Type 3 Diabetes” — which suggests that diet may have some role in an individual’s risk for developing the disease.
How To Reduce Intake Of Sugar
It’s always better late than never. You can start saving yourself from the consequences of too much sugar consumption if you start now. Below are a few ways to get you started.
1. Gradually Cut Down Sugar
Do not go cold turkey. This isn’t a good idea. Instead, cut down your sugar consumption gradually every day. For example, if you take two tsp of sugar in your coffee, cut it down by a fraction every day. You’ll get used to it in no time.
2. Fighting Cravings
Go for a walk when you find yourself craving sweets. Research actually shows that athletes prefer less sweet foods after they exercise.
3. Don’t Skip Meals
When you skip a meal, your blood-sugar drops. This will make you crave food that’s high in sugar content.
4. Hidden Sugar
Be sure to be aware of what you’re eating. Read the nutrition labels of the things you buy.
Same with energy bars, which are loaded with sugar.
5. Stop Adding Sugar
Many food recipes require sugar. You should simply stop. For example, don’t add sugar to the biscuits you’re making. You’ll be surprised to see that you don’t really need it.
Stop purchasing anything that will trigger any cravings in you. Clean out all the ice-cream from your refrigerator.
7. Natural Options
Substitute dessert with a fruit. And limit the amount of sugar you eat every day.
You can even use some natural sweetening substitutes until you can completely cut down the sugar.
It’s easy to see how we can get hooked on sugar. However, we should be aware of the risks that a high-sugar diet poses for brain function and mental well-being.