28 Jun 2017
4 Things Sugar Does to Your Brain (and How to Break Up)
If you haven’t paid much attention to how much sugar you’re eating and what it may be doing to your health, now’s the time to give it some thought. There are articles coming out every day about the effects of sugar on weight, hormones, inflammation and a laundry list of chronic conditions. But what you don’t hear a lot about is what it does to your brain.
Your Brain on Sugar
Overconsumption of sugar is increasingly being linked to brain-related health issues such as depression, learning disorders, memory problems and overeating. Let’s take a closer look.
It creates a cycle of crazy cravings.
When you eat sugar, just like any food, it activates your 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. Basically, sugar hijacks the brain’s reward pathway…leading you to seek more and more of that dopamine hit. This requires more and more sugar. And while stimulating the brain’s reward system with a piece of chocolate now and then is pleasurable and probably harmless, continuous stimulation can lead to loss of control, cravings, and increased tolerance to sugar. Think crack.
It impairs memory and learning skills.
In a 2012 study on rats, researchers at UCLA found that a diet high in fructose hindered learning and memory by literally slowing down brain activity. Rats who over-consumed fructose had damaged synaptic activity in the brain, meaning that communication among brain cells was impaired.
Heavy sugar intake caused the rats to develop insulin resistance. Insulin helps brain cells communicate better and form stronger memories. So when insulin levels in the brain are lowered as the result of excess sugar consumption, thinking can be impaired.
It may cause or contribute to depression and anxiety.
Eating a donut or drinking a soda causes blood sugar levels to spike and then crash. You may find yourself feeling anxious, moody or depressed when this crash happens.
Sugar or high carb foods can affect the neurotransmitters that help keep your mood stable. Eating sugar stimulates the release of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. Constantly over-activating the serotonin pathways can deplete our limited supplies of this neurotransmitter, which then contributes to symptoms of depression.
It’s a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia.
A growing body of research suggests that a sugar-heavy diet can increase risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. A 2013 study found that insulin resistance and blood glucose levels are linked with a greater risk for developing neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Ready to Give It Up?
If you’re ready to give up sugar, great! Unfortunately, this is not one of those situations where gradually cutting back is the best approach. Best to go cold turkey. Cutting all sugar out of your life is next to impossible, so the trick is to lower your glycemic load. Glycemic load is an estimate of how much the carbohydrates in a certain food or meal will raise your blood sugar after you eat it.
Ideally, you want to your blood sugar and insulin levels to remain relatively level all day so that your body uses glucose (your fuel source) efficiently. You want to be a fat-burning machine!
Simple refined sugars cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin. But complex carbohydrates, fiber, protein and healthy fats promote more gradual increases and decreases in blood sugar and insulin, lowering the glycemic load and keeping things nice and steady in your body.
6 Ways to Lower Your Glycemic Load
Simple food swaps can make a big difference in blood sugar control. Here are 6 simple ways to lower your glycemic load:
- Replace sweet potatoes for white
- Try mashed avocado instead of dipping chips in salsa
- Add an extra serving of veggies to your plate instead of the carb choice (my personal favorite-ask restaurants to do this too. Most are very accommodating.)
- Drink mineral water with a lime or lemon instead of soda
- Trade nuts for candy
- Read food labels carefully. Anything that ends in -ose is a form of sugar.
What to Expect with a Sugar Detox
The first week is the hardest when you give up sugar. After that it gets much easier. After a couple of weeks, you’ll notice that eating really sweet foods isn’t appealing and that natural sugars are enough to satisfy you. You can expect brighter eyes, clearer skin and fewer dark circles. You’ll also have more energy and fewer mood swings (once you get past the crabby first part).
Can I Use the Fake Stuff?
Nope. Though they don’t contribute calories, artificial sweeteners are 100 times sweeter than sugar. Using them in no way retrains your brain and may make a sugar addiction worse. They can also contribute to weight gain and fat storage since your brain will go looking for calories to match the sweetness it perceives from the artificial sweeteners.
Dr. Anna Garrett is a menopause expert and Doctor of Pharmacy. She helps women who are struggling with symptoms of perimenopause and menopause find natural hormone balancing solutions so they can rock their mojo through midlife and beyond. Her clients would tell you that her real gift is helping them reclaim parts of themselves they thought were gone forever.
Find out more about working with her at http://www.drannagarrett.com/work-with-me/.