I’ll probably get into a lot of trouble for writing this article. In the last 12 months I’ve worked for a major sugar company and live half the year in North Queensland, an area heavily dependent on the sugar industry. So what I am about to say probably won’t do my business interests much good in Townsville but here goes.
It’s well known that excess dietary fructose can harm your body by setting up the conditions for diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver, but what’s less appreciated is the damage that it does to your brain
How sugar makes your brain work less efficiently
The brain is a wonderful thing. I love my brain. I like it that it can make me cheeky, make me feel loved, make me love others, recall happy times and experience the beauty of the world around me. Maybe if my body didn’t work so well I would still have a brain that could love and experience the world. And therefore I want to honour my brain and make sure that it works well until its time for me to die.
It turns out that consuming excess sugar has a significant detrimental effect on the way our brains work.
How we become addicted to sugar
Neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis explains ; 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,”
Stimulating the brain’s reward system with a piece of chocolate now and then is pleasurable and probably harmless, however when the reward system is activated excessively and too frequently, we develop craving and sugar addiction. Check out TED video on sugar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEXBxijQREo
A high sugar diet may impair memory and learning
A new UCLA study published in the Journal of Physiology is the first to show how a steady diet high in fructose can damage your memory and learning. Researchers investigated the effects of high-fructose syrup, similar to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheap sweetener six times sweeter than cane sugar, which is used in most soft drinks and processed foods. The team sought to study the effects of a steady intake of a concentrated form of fructose. They fed rats a fructose solution as drinking water for six weeks, then tested their ability to remember their way out of a maze. The results were dramatic.
The rats fed fructose syrup showed significant impairment in their cognitive abilities—they struggled to remember their way out of the maze. They were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier. Additionally, the fructose-fed rats showed signs of resistance to insulin, a hormone that controls your blood sugar and synaptic function in your brain.
Because insulin is able to pass through your blood-brain barrier, it can trigger neurological processes that are important for learning and memory. Consuming large amounts of fructose may block insulin’s ability to regulate how your brain cells store and use sugar for the energy needed to fuel thoughts and emotions.
Researchers concluded that a high fructose diet harms your brain, as well as the rest of your body. Clearly more research is required but the early indication is that we should cut our sugar intake dramatically.
There is some good news emerging from the study however. A second group of rats was given omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), in addition to the high fructose diet. After six weeks, this group of rats was able to navigate the maze better and faster than the rats in the non-DHA group. The researchers concluded that DHA is protective against fructose’s harmful effects on the brain. DHA is essential for synaptic function—it helps your brain cells transmit signals to one another, which is the mechanism that makes learning and memory possible. The researchers concluded that DHA supplements would help repair/protect synaptic connectivity
It may cause or contribute to 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 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?.
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.
Research has also found that people who eat a standard American diet that’s high in processed foods — which typically contain high amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt — are at an increased risk for developing depression, compared to those who eat a whole foods diet that’s lower in sugar.
How much is enough
In order to best control your sugar intake, it would probably be wise to know what exactly sugar is. Sugar is actually a carbohydrate. Foods in the supermarket don’t always clearly label their sugar content so when reviewing nutrition labels it’s important to be aware that words such as glucose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, starch, corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar, and honey are quite inter changeable. Sugar is also added to ketchup, yoghurt, and flavored water just to name a few.
The American Heart association recommends a maximum of nine teaspoons of sugar a day for men and six for women. In order to regulate sugar consumption here are some pointers:
- a full fat can of coke NINE teaspoons
- a snickers bar is about EIGHT
- a pint of beer is about FOUR
- a glass of white wine is between TWO and THREE
We have to remember that as we consume carbohydrates they are broken down into sugars. This process is slower and less damaging to the body than consuming just sugar. However it will elevate your blood sugar levels and have a harmful effect, particularly if we consume low quality, starchy white carbohydrates.
If you want to know how much sugar is any food, find out the number of grams of starchy white carbohydrate is in the food and then divide by four (4). So the hidden sugar equivalent is even more scary :
- a bowl of white pasta (without any sugary pasta sauce) (say 100 grams) may be equivalent to the consumption of twenty five tea spoons of sugar (however it will be released more slowly and hence is less damaging than guzzling twenty five teaspoons of sugar)
- 2 slices of whole wheat bread are TEN tea spoons of sugar
A sugar free world
Your next steps to a sugar free world and a fit and healthy body and mind:
- Remind yourself that sugar and sugar alternatives are addictive. The more you consume the more you want to consume
- Remember that white processed carbohydrates equates to sugar consumption – go for slower release low glycemic index carbs
- Stop buying processed carbs like bread, biscuits, cakes and pasta and replace with vegetables
- Stop eating chocolate
- Stop drinking sports drinks
- Replace fizzy drinks with water and a squeeze of lemon
Within a few days your energy levels will increase and you will feel more mentally alert. Your weight will drop off and your skin will be clearer. Also remember that sugar alternatives are at least as bad as sugar so simply reduce the sweet things and allow your taste buds to come back to life
Other ways to enhance your brain functioning
Please check with your doctor to check whether any of the following are contra indicated with any medication you may be taking. The best policy is to eat a wide and varied diet avoiding sugars. Supplements may play a role but its better to get your nutrients from fresh food
- Take tyrosine supplements first thing in the morning to boost dopamine levels
- Take tryptophan or HTP3 supplements in the evening to boost serotonin levels
- Take high quality fish oil supplements
- Add vitamin B supplements
Remember everything in moderation. Enjoy the occasional treat but if you want long term excellent physical and mental wellbeing cut sugar out of your diet and by doing so protect the environment and enable crop diversity around the world.