What Sugar does to your Brain. Some interesting facts.
January 1, 2013 in Uncategorized
What Sugar Does to Your Brain?
What is the correlation between sugar and brain function? It
turns out that this relationship, like any relationship, has it’s
good points and it’s bad points. Have you ever felt the
excitement and agitation of a sugar buzz? And then the lethargy
of a sugar crash? Your brain needs some sugar to function, yet
too much sugar can be harmful. We all love to have those
sweets but must learn to enjoy them in moderation.Overeating,
poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression—all
have been linked in recent research to the over-consumption of
sugar. And these linkages point to a problem that is only
beginning to be better understood: what our chronic intake of
added sugar is doing to our brains.
According to USDA, the average American consumes 156
pounds of added sugar per year. That’s five grocery store
shelves loaded with 30 or so one pound bags of sugar each. If
you find that hard to believe, that’s probably because sugar is
so ubiquitous in our diets that most of us have no idea how
much we’re consuming. The Centers for Disease Control
(CDC) puts the amount at 27.5 teaspoons of sugar a day per
capita, which translates to 440 calories—nearly one quarter of
a typical 2000 calorie a day diet.The key word in all of the stats
is “added.” While a healthy diet would contain a significant
amount of naturally occurring sugar (in fruits and grains, for
example), the problem is that we’re chronically consuming
much more added sugar in processed foods, generally in the
rapidly absorbed form of fructose.
Glucose is a form of sugar that your body creates from the
carbohydrates you eat. Once the glucose is made it gets into
the bloodstream so that your muscles and organs can use it for
energy. In fact, your brain needs at least 125 to 150 grams of
glucose per day to function. It’s usually the only source of energy
for the brain. The brain’s neurons must have this supply of
energy from the bloodstream since they aren’t capable of
storing energy, like fat, for later use.
But not all sugar is equal. There are different forms of sugar that
your body uses for energy, some more harmful than others. The
brain needs a steady supply of energy that will last until more
energy comes along. Spikes in this supply are dangerous and
cause things such as hyperactivity and ‘sugar crashes’. The
sugar from fruit will get into the bloodstream at a steady rate as
the fruits digests in the stomach. Fruits also provide great
sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber, so fruit sources of
sugar are great for the brain and your body.
Complex carbohydrates such as starch also break down in the
liver to form sugar. These strands of energy take a longer
amount of time to break down, so this source of sugar works
well with the brain in much the same way as fruit. They can
provide energy for hours without diminishing. One thing to think
about though about complex carbohydrates is that they contain
appetite enhancers and so tend to cause people to overeat,
Refined sugars and brain function are a big no-no. These are
the sugars we typically find in abundance on store shelves and
in the average North American diet. The sugar energy from
soda, cookies and desserts, flood your bloodstream with
glucose almost immediately. At first you get an initial ‘sugar
high’ as the sugar queues serotonin, a brain chemical that
makes you feel happy, to be released into the brain. The
massive increase in blood sugar signals the pancreas to start
pumping out large amounts of insulin. Once the insulin gets into
the bloodstream it soaks up the sugar to store for later use,
depriving the brain, other organs and muscles of energy. These
are the beginnings of the infamous ‘sugar crash’ as you
become weak, tired and unable to focus. The ‘sugar high’
combined with the ensuing ‘sugar crash’ causes you to crave
even more sugar, most likely resulting in a damaging cycle of
sugar binging. So avoid refined sources of sugar as much as
David DiSalvo of Psycholgy Today writes that Research
indicates that a diet high in added sugar reduces the
production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived
neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without BDNF, our brains can’t
form new memories and we can’t learn (or remember) much of
anything. Levels of BDNF are particularly low in people with an
impaired glucose metabolism—diabetics and
pre-diabetics—and as the amount of BDNF decreases, sugar
In other words, chronically eating added sugar reduces BDNF,
and then the lowered levels of the brain chemical begin
contributing to insulin resistance, which leads to type 2
diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which eventually leads to a
host of other health problems. Once that happens, your brain
and body are in a destructive cycle that’s difficult if not
impossible to reverse.
Another connection between sugar and brain function concerns
dysfunction. People who regularly eat too much sugar over a
long period of time often become diabetic. These people often
have dwindling mental capabilities. They are more at risk to
develop depression and different cognitive problems with
memory, processing information and recognizing spatial
patterns. It can even lead to dementia. Also, people who suffer
from diabetes have a 65% higher incidence of Alzheimer’s
disease than those who are not diabetic.
Research has also linked low BDNF levels to depression and
dementia. It’s possible that low BDNF may turn out to be the
smoking gun in these and other diseases, like Alzheimer’s, that
tend to appear in clusters in epidemiological studies. More
research is being conducted on this subject, but what seems
clear in any case is that a reduced level of BDNF is bad news
for our brains, and chronic sugar consumption is one of the
worst inhibitory culprits.
Other studies have focused on sugar’s role in over-eating. We
intuitively know that sugar and obesity are linked (since sugar is
full of calories), but the exact reason why eating sugar-laden
foods seems to make us want to eat more hasn’t been well
understood until recently.
New research has shown that chronic consumption of added
sugar dulls the brain’s mechanism for telling you to stop eating.
It does so by reducing activity in the brain’s anorexigenic
oxytocin system, which is responsible for throwing up the red
“full” flag that prevents you from gorging. When oxytocin cells in
the brain are blunted by over-consumption of sugar, the flag
doesn’t work correctly and you start asking for seconds and
thirds, and seeking out snacks at midnight.
What these and other studies strongly suggest is that most of
us are seriously damaging ourselves with processed foods
high in added sugar, and the damage begins with our brains.
Seen in this light, chronic added-sugar consumption is no less
a problem than smoking or alcoholsm. And the hard truth is that
we may have only begun to see the effects of what the endless
sugar avalanche is doing to us.
Manufacturers today put sugar in everything from the bread in
your pantry to the turkey on your table. That makes sweet ol’
sugar the ultimate supervillain—or at the very least a driving
force behind heart disease and diabetes.
SNEAKY SOURCES OF SUGAR
Asian sauces—or at least American versions of Asian
sauces—are notorious sources of hidden sugars. The viscous
liquids that give us sesame chicken, sweet and sour pork, and
beef teriyaki aren’t all that dissimilar from pancake syrup.
Check the nutrition label for ingredients like corn syrup and
high-fructose corn syrup, and watch out for anything that ends in
“-ose” (dextrose, maltose). These are all forms of sugar. Then
be prepared to do some math—most bottled sauces list
nutrition information for impractically small serving sizes. Who
uses only 1 tablespoon of sauce?
Jams, jellies, and preserves seem like healthy breakfast
alternatives to butter and cream cheese—and they are if they
contain only fruit. But many fruity toppings house a shocking
amount of added sugar. Smucker’s, for instance, packs three
different sweeteners into its classic Strawberry jam. Why three?
Because if the company used only one, it would have to list
“sugar” as the first item on the ingredient statement. By
spreading the impact over three sweeteners, it can push fruit to
the top of the ingredient list and hide the sweeteners below. It’s
a common trick used by food processors to make their
products look healthier than they are. Just remember that fruit is
its own natural sweetener. Opt for an unadulterated version like
Polaner’s All Fruit spreads, which—true to name—contain
nothing more than fruit and fruit juice.
You may not be aware of that salad saboteur lurking in your
pantry. When the so-called “light” dressings take out fat, they
often add sugar in its place. Take Ken’s Sun-Dried Tomato
Vinaigrette, pictured here. It contains as much sugar in each
serving as some ice creams do in each scoop. And what’s
worse, it’s laced with food starch. Although technically not
sugar, it reacts in your body in almost exactly the same way.
That means that in addition to the 12 grams of sugar on the
label, you’re also taking in a heavy dose of blood-sugar-spiking
starch. Let’s call this dressing what it really is: salad frosting.
There’s no need to add sugar to tomato sauce because
tomatoes are naturally sweet. So why do processors insist?
Because instead of using fresh olive oil and vegetables, they’re
often making their sauces from cheaper vegetable oils,
dehydrated veggies, and other subpar ingredients. Sugar is a
quick fix: It makes everything taste like candy! To that point,
Francesco Rinaldi lists sugar as the second ingredient in this
sauce, which brings the total impact to nearly 3 teaspoons of
sugar in each serving. Your best bet? Go with a
no-sugar-added option like Ragu’s Tomato Basil. It contains
just tomatoes, onions, and spices. And be sure to also look out
for the sugar count of barbecue sauces—another
tomato-based sauce notorious for sneaky sweeteners.
Oats have been linked to heart health, weight loss, and cancer
prevention, so it’s natural to assume that oatmeal is always a
nutritious breakfast choice. But many food producers spoil the
whole-grain goodness by flavoring their oats with artificial
ingredients and loads of sugar. Quaker’s Cinnamon Roll
Oatmeal Express, for example, takes its name very
seriously—it contains as much sugar as two Pillsbury cinnamon
rolls! A touch of sugar is one thing, but unless you want to eat
dessert for breakfast, go with a lower-sugar option. Or better
yet, make your oatmeal from scratch so you can control the
sugar load. (Tip: Berries are the perfect way to sweeten
Studies have shown that whole grains improve your heart
health, keep you full, and help you lose weight, but not all bread
products labeled “wheat” are true whole grains. Restaurants
and supermarket aisles are rife with whole-wheat imposters
containing enriched flours and sugars intended to improve the
taste of wheat products. So even though you don’t typically file
bread under the “sweets” category, your daily sandwich could
be loaded with refined carbs and sugars. The best example of
the whole-wheat bait-and-switch is the “Honey Wheat” bread
Arby’s uses on its Market Fresh sandwiches. First, it’s not
whole wheat (enriched flour is the first ingredient). And second,
there are 15 grams (!) of sugar in every two slices. That’s more
sugar than you’ll find in a Hostess Ho Ho!
Yogurt is low in calories and high in protein, which is why a
recent Harvard study found that regularly consuming the stuff
helps you lose weight. The problem? Many producers pump
their “fruit flavored” yogurts with sugar. Case in point: The cups
in Yoplait’s Original 99% Fat Free line pack as much sugar as
a bag of peanut M&M’s. Unless yogurt is your weekly diet
splurge, go with a less dessert-y option like Dannon Light & Fit,
or opt for plain yogurt and add your own healthy toppings like
fresh fruit and nuts.
The idea of a frozen meal packed in a nuke-able box probably
doesn’t get your taste buds giddy with anticipation. Food
manufacturers are aware of this fact, so they go heavy on the
sugar and/or salt. Some of the worst offenders? Low-cal or
otherwise “light” entrées. When food companies remove fat or
carbs from their items, they usually replace those calories with
excessive doses of sugar or sodium. Take Lean Cuisine’s
Roasted Turkey Breast entrée, for example. Chances are you
don’t think of turkey as dessert, but with 7 teaspoons of sugar,
that’s exactly what you’re getting if you pop one of these babies
in the microwave. Again, it’s all in the nutrition label. Don’t just
focus on fat and calories; make sure to look out for sneaky
sugars and sodium as well.
In recent years, tea has received a lot of good press for its
impressive antioxidant properties, and beverage companies
have taken advantage by flooding the market with options. But
the taste of plain herbal tea doesn’t draw in the crowds, so
many drink purveyors pump their teas with high-fructose corn
syrup and other cheap sweeteners to boost flavor. Before you
buy a bottle, flip it over and read the nutrition label. If you’re
looking at Arizona’s Green Tea, you’ll notice that it has more
sugar than a Snicker’s bar.
Please note that the products mentioned in this article are from America, so it is wise to check out the similar products you buy in South Africa to see what the sugar level in each one is.