It’s no secret that sugar affects our waistlines. We know it’s linked to cavities and diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But that’s not all that’s affected by consuming an excess of sweets. Sugar affects brain function as well. Eating too much sugar has been linked to poor memory, overeating, learning disorders, depression and anxiety.
How does sugar affect the brain?
Eating too much sugar can slow down the production and release of various “feel good” brain chemicals, such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. A lack of these important neurotransmitters diminishes our body’s built-in defense mechanisms for a stable mood.
Sugar can also make it harder for our bodies to fight mood disorders by preventing us from properly absorbing minerals. Let me explain. Magnesium has been proven to help our bodies relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, refined sugar tells the body to get rid of that magnesium instead of encouraging its absorption. Losing magnesium affects our brains by taking away a natural tool we have to balance our mental health.
The Inflamed Brain
Ready for another way sugar affects your brain? It can encourage the release of chemicals that cause inflammation. Inflammation is a necessary metabolic process in the body that expedites healing – however, we do not want inflammatory cytokines traveling to the brain.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Bacteria in our gut is essential to our health, and even plays a major role in the communication between the gut and the brain. Recently, research has shown that an imbalance between good and bad bacteria affects the brain. It is associated with schizophrenia, autistic disorders, anxiety disorders and major depressive disorders. Where does sugar fit in? Sugar affects the brain and threatens the good bacteria by simply encouraging the growth of bad bacteria. (Something to think about if you’re hankering for a late afternoon candy bar.)
Sugar slows down your brain activity
Feeling sluggish? Sugar could be the thing to blame. Recent studies show that eating a lot of sugar affects the brain by influencing a key protein called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) in our body that is responsible for learning and short-term memory. Lower levels of the protein can have longterm effects and have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
Why can’t I stop eating it?
New research has shown that eating too much sugar affects the brain by dulling its ability to let us know when it’s time to put the spoon down. Why, and how? Sugar stops cells in our brains from reminding us that it’s time to take a break, so we are more likely to eat more.
To make matters worse, sugar is addictive.
More and more often, research tells us sugar is addicting. Similar to drugs, sugar and processed junk foods flood the brain with the feel-good chemical dopamine, which affects brain function over time. We’re all familiar with the vicious sugar cycle. We crave sweets and simple carbs, like refined breads and pasta, when we’re in a funk, looking for something to improve our mood. And the pick-me-up is real, but short, and then we’re looking for that quick sugar boost again and again.
So what’s the bottom line here: Is sugar the enemy?
Not necessarily. But it certainly can be. Sugar affects brain and overall health in some pretty negative ways. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes 156 pounds of added sugar per year. That’s five grocery store shelves loaded with more than 30 one-pound bags of sugar. As consumers, we should be scrutinizing food labels. Sugar can be hidden in many foods, from sushi to Pad Thai to tomato sauce, making it nearly impossible to control our sugar intake, especially when consuming processed food.
But let’s be clear. Not all sugar is bad!
Sugar (glucose) is the main source of energy for the brain, which demands the most energy out of all the organs in our bodies. Brain functions such as thinking, feeling and memory are closely linked to how efficiently this energy is being used. While too much sugar can result in cell damage, too little can lead to anxiety, brain fog or forgetfulness. But remember, we should be getting our glucose from natural sources, like fruits and vegetables, not processed refined sugar filled treats!
Can’t live with it, can’t live without it?
Here’s some tips for navigating food choices and ensuring a healthy balance:
- Avoid hidden sugars in processed food and overly processed grains. These can affect your body and your brain.
- Eat whole foods like lean meats and fish, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These don’t have harmful sugars, and they have a lot of other health benefits to your body and your brain.
- Learn to fight your cravings. The more you cut out sugar, the less you will crave it.
- Try a sugar detox. By completely cutting out sugars for an extended period of time, you will stop the vicious cycle and be surprised by all the other positive health benefits you will feel.
- Enjoy moderate amounts of all natural maple syrup, raw/unpasteurized honey and fresh fruit. These whole foods contain nutrients that help to slow down the uptake of sugars into the bloodstream.
- Splurge! Every once in awhile – go for it! Have a piece of cake or slice of pie and enjoy it! After all, celebrations are good for mental wellness, too.
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