Sugar and Your Brain – How Consuming Sugar Makes You Less Smart

We all know that junk food is bad for us – and yet, when we think about that chocolate bar we forgot about or walk past a donut stand, we start to crave these unhealthy foods.
This is because these foods are loaded with sugar, which not only affects our bodies, but it affects our brains as well.

Amy Reichelt TEDx Talk - Your Brain On Sugar

1. Sugar - It Feels So Good
Sugar activates the reward pathway in the brain, which releases Dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter which plays a critical role – it gives us pleasure! This is the reason we crave it from time to time (or all the time for some of us).

This sounds great, but consuming lots of sugar begins to overwhelm the brain, leading it to produce more receptors for Dopamine. This, in turn, sets up a need for even more sugar next time to reach the same levels of Dopamine saturation in the brain.

We can’t receive Dopamine or any other chemical substance in our bodies without the receptors for it. That means that somebody who doesn’t eat sugar at all can overwhelm the few receptors they have just by eating a small morsel of the stuff.

Just like any drug, you build a tolerance level for sugar, which can lead to some catch 22 cycles.

Sex, certain drugs (like nicotine, alcohol, and heroin), as well as socializing, also release Dopamine in the brain and can cause the same type of dependency as with sugar, also known as addiction.

Luckily, we have self control – right?

2. We Tend To Break The Rules On Sugar
When we take a bite of something sweet, our Dopamine receptors get flooded. In the brain, a significant portion of these receptors is scattered in a specific part of the Frontal Lobe known as our Pre-Frontal Cortex.

The Pre-Frontal Cortex is responsible for decision making, control, and judgment. Much like alcohol, sugar affects this area of the brain, effectively clouding our reasoning. When combined with the addictive nature of sugar, it makes it very difficult to resist.

This brings out a point of eating sugar and not being able to follow instructions or rules.

Amy Reichelt noticed this when she experimented on rats by feeding them a sugary solution akin to Coca-Cola. These rats had a lot of difficulties when it came to following orders or performing simple tasks that they were trained to do.

The Pre-Frontal Cortex only matures in our twenties. Until then, it is still creating connections relating to judgment and self-control.

This is one reason why adolescents are more vulnerable or receptive to developing cognitive deficits as opposed to adults. If you have a child with a particular problem in this area of the brain, such as ADD/ADHD, then you will want to avoid sugar like the plague!

Adolescents who have been consuming sugar from a very young age have a higher impairment in this region of the brain than those who never touched it at all. It also makes it truly difficult for these young people to resist sugar all through their lives (although not impossible!), and that is reflected in statistics related to obesity, diabetes, cholesterol, and metabolic disorders.

3. Can't Remember What Sugar Does Here...
Sugar affects the Hippocampus in the brain. This is a part of the brain that is vital for short-term memory and learning new things – in other words; sugar can make you forgetful as well as struggle to take in new information!

How does that work?

Scientists have discovered that eating a morsel of sugar (no matter what quantities) produces neuro-inflammation in the Hippocampus. That means that this area of the brain becomes swollen with inflammatory compounds. The brain has to then put energy into clearing the inflammation, as opposed to taking in information.

Have you ever eaten what you would consider a lot of sugar and then suffered a headache after the rush has died down?

At first, the Dopamine that overwhelms the brain produces a type of high or buzz. After that fades away, you will then feel the neuroinflammation in your brain, which can result in a headache – some people even need to pass out and fall asleep to allow the body to deal with the after-effects of excess sugar consumption.

In other words, do not eat sugar while studying before an exam or if you have to be mentally alert for something!

4. You Will Never Feel Like You Have Had Enough
The truth about sugar is that you will never feel like you have had enough. This is because the Hippocampus is not only responsible for memory, but for satiety – that feeling of fullness we get after a meal.

As food travels down into your gut, it is received by neurons there which send signals to the brain. The body responds to oils with signals that allow us to feel full, while sugar just creates inflammation both in the brain and the gut. This distorts the signals your Hippocampus receives and ultimately leaves you feeling hungry.

People like to argue that once they have had some sugar, they feel like they have enough energy to tackle a mountain! Sugar gives us a short burst of energy, due to a blood sugar level spike. As soon as that fades (after about an hour), we start to feel hungry.

If you are looking for a stable slow release of energy that gives satiety, turns to healthy fats and carbs that are loaded with antioxidants.

5. Sugar Damages Your Brain
What? Yes, it’s true – consuming excessive amounts of sugar actually damages your brain.

The Hippocampus is an area of the brain that also governs neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. The one is the ability for neurons to regenerate, and the other is for them to grow and fuse together, forming new connections as we learn new knowledge or activities.

This part of the brain has an abundance of new neurons that form. Sugar inhibits the growth and spread of these neurons, as well as disallowing them to be repaired.

The end result of this is a form of brain damage or mild cognitive impairment.

At the same time, we need neurons to experience Dopamine, our reward neurotransmitter chemical. Overindulging in sugar over extended periods of time starts to diminish our ability to feel good, making us depressed in the long run.

The Anti-Sugar Path Towards A Smarter You

To feel good and think clearly on a consistent basis, you need to stimulate and protect your brain without over-consuming sugar. Sugar does not serve you much at all, and there are other ways to get that feeling of reward.

Instead of sugar, put your focus on healthy foods for your brain and body, such as lipids, fruits, and vegetables.

But don’t fruits and some vegetables also contain sugar?

Fruits and vegetables also contain forms of sugar, but unlike refined products, they have the sugar in natural proportions with salts, trace minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and several other types of protective compounds. Everything inside a fruit works towards protecting your brain while simultaneously giving you energy and making you feel good.

The ultimate brain foods stem from lipids (fats). Coconut oil, olive oil, and particularly Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for maintaining a higher brain function!

Try adding some more healthy fat options into your lifestyle and avoid all the junk!

If you eat a balanced diet, do exercise and other activities that develop new neurons regularly, and refrain from sugar, then you will be able to withstand having a little bit of it now and then.

Cutting Sugar Out of Your Diet

To cut sugar out your diet, you need to understand that there are many types of sugars that are sneakily added to refined products. Unnatural sugar alternatives, like artificial sweeteners, are even worse for your health than ordinary sugar.

Here is a list of sugars to avoid which are often in products:

  • Glucose
  • Sucrose
  • Lactose (dairy)
  • Maltose
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Syrup
  • Starch (converts to excess sugars inside the body)
  • Aspartame

As a rule of thumb, anything ending in ‘ose’ is usually a form of sugar.

Alcohol is also generally loaded with sugar, and many of the above sugars are added to products in an alcohol form, such as ‘Maltitol’. Avoid anything with an ‘ol’ on the end as another general rule of thumb.

Natural Sugar Alternatives

For those of us who have a sweet tooth, we both know that cutting sugar out is hard. Stevia (a herb) and honey (manuka honey is the best) are the healthiest forms of natural sugar you can use.

Many people do not like the way they taste, but after time your body will adjust. Try them for at least two weeks before putting them aside, as the health benefits are well worth it when faced with the reality of sugar consumption.

Here are some great ones you can try that are just a click away!

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