We all love sugar, but is it really that bad for us? Yes, it is. Most people know that consuming foods high in sugar, and simple carbohydrates that convert to sugar, leads to several health problems, such as obesity, tooth decay, diabetes and coronary artery disease. But eating too much sugar also has negative effects on your brain.
It’s helpful to understand a little about how sugar is used by the brain. The carbohydrates you eat, including sugars, are broken down into glucose. Your brain needs glucose to function properly. Unfortunately, many people eat much more sugar than they need. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the average American eats the equivalent of about 42 teaspoons of sugar a day. That added sugar comes from various sources, such as table sugar, baked goods, and sugary drinks.
How Sugar can Negatively Affect Your Brain
Although some glucose is needed, eating excess sugar can negatively affect your brain in the following 6 ways:
- Sugar addiction – Eating and drinking foods high in sugar can have a drug-like effect on the brain and lead to sugar addiction. According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, sugar appears to have drug-like effects, which are similar to those caused by addictive drugs. Addiction-like effects may include cravings and a loss of self-control. The research indicates that cravings for sugar may be even stronger than those for certain drugs, such as cocaine.
- Decreased cognition – Some evidence suggests that a high-sugar diet might lead to impaired cognitive function. Animal studies indicated that high-sugar diets may impair normal brain function. Disruption of normal brain function may include decreased cognitive function.
- Tension – Although some people reach for a sugary treat to increase energy, sugar may actually zap energy and increase tension. In a small study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18 people rated their tiredness, energy, and tension after eating a candy bar or walking briskly for ten minutes. The group that walked reported higher levels of energy and lower levels of tension. The group that ate a sugary snack reported higher levels of tension than the walkers. The snack group also had a pattern of increased energy after one hour of eating, but two hours later, reported decreased energy and increased tiredness.
- Depression – Too much sugar may be a contributing factor in depression. In a study published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, available data from six countries were reviewed to determine the connection between sugar consumption and depression. The results of the study indicated that higher rates of sugar consumption correlated with higher rates of depression. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition included about 70,000 women. The study found that women with a diet high in added sugar had an increased risk of depression. The study also indicated that high intake of natural sugars including those in fruit was not associated with higher rates of depression.
- Dementia – Dementia is a complex illness. Physiological, genetic, and nutritional elements may play a role in the development of certain forms of dementia. For example, it appears Alzheimer’s disease may occur due to a buildup of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, which disrupts normal function. A study published in the Journal of Gerontology found animal models of dementia may develop due to excess sugar consumption. The excess sugar is thought to cause an insulin reaction that might increase deposits of beta-amyloid proteins and increase the risk of developing dementia.
- Memory – Memory impairment can develop for several reasons including various diseases and lifestyle choices. Researchers are also looking at the link between memory and nutrition. Research published in Behavioral Neuroscience indicated that high sugar consumption might negatively affect memory.
The research included information that animal studies have found the hippocampus, which is an area in the brain associated with memory, may be affected by refined sugar. Two studies were conducted in the published report. In the first study, participants that self-reported eating a high-sugar diet had poorer performance on hippocampal related memory tasks. In the second study, the results were replicated. The second study also revealed that the effect of high sugar consumption on memory appears to be directly related to the hippocampal region and no other areas which may also affect memory, such as the prefrontal cortex.
Natural Alternative to Satisfy Sweet Cravings
Before you swap refined sugar for artificial sweeteners, you may want to keep reading. Artificial sweeteners also appear to have several negative effects on the brain. Sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, are not healthy alternatives to sugar. These sweeteners are in a variety of foods and drinks, such as diet soda, sugar-free snacks, and energy drinks.
The artificial sweeteners have been linked to everything from memory loss to an increased risk of obesity. Both the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association have issued a statement about the risks of using artificial sweeteners.
So, what can you do to satisfy your sweet tooth? Due to the research on the negative effects of sugar on the brain, it’s best to limit foods high in sugar. It’s also important to steer clear of artificial sweeteners. Fortunately, there are some alternatives to enjoy a sweet treat while avoiding the health risks. Below are a few options to consider:
- Stevia: Stevia is a natural sweetener, which is extracted from the leaves of a shrub in South American. Stevia is the perfect solution for coffee, tea and even baking.
- Xylitol: Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol derived from the bark of birchwood trees and the skin of fruits. It can also be used in coffee, tea and for baking.
- Fruit: Fruit contains natural sugars that can satisfy your sweet tooth while providing several nutrients.
Beware of Deceptive Words that Mean Sugar
Always read your labels. Below is a list of different words that mean “sugar” that you should avoid:
- Agave nectar
- Beet sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Brown sugar
- Cane sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Coconut palm sugar
- Corn syrup
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Palm sugar
- Raw sugar
- Rice syrup
- Turbinado sugar
Take action to protect your brain today and start cutting out sugar and simple carbohydrates from your diet. Your brain (and your body) will thank you!
Ahmed, S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013). Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 16(4), 434-439. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Abstract/2013/07000/Sugar_addiction___pushing_the_drug_sugar_analogy.11.aspx
Department of Health and Human Services. How much sugar do you eat? You may be surprised. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/nhp/documents/sugar.pdf
Francis, H. M., & Stevenson, R. J. (2011). Higher reported saturated fat and refined sugar intake is associated with reduced hippocampal-dependent memory and sensitivity to interoceptive signals. Behavioral neuroscience, 125(6), 943. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-24000-001
Gardner, C., Wylie-Rosett, J., Gidding, S. S., Steffen, L. M., Johnson, R. K., Reader, D., & Lichtenstein, A. H. (2012). Nonnutritive sweeteners: current use and health perspectives: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. Circulation, 126(4), 509-519. Retrieved from http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/126/4/509.short
Stephan, B. C. M., Wells, J. C. K., Brayne, C., Albanese, E., & Siervo, M. (2010). Increased fructose intake as a risk factor for dementia. Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biomedical Sciences and Medical Sciences, 65(8), 809-814. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/65A/8/809/572081
Thayer, R. E. (1987). Energy, tiredness, and tension effects of a sugar snack versus moderate exercise. Journal of personality and social psychology, 52(1), 119. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1987-14916-001