To explain what sugar can actually do to your brain, let’s begin with the thought triggering your requirement for sweetness.
Sometimes, it happens in the afternoon that your brain, that technically works on sugar, begin giving hints of hunger. To satisfy these cravings, the brain tends to activate a string of neurons, known as the reward pathway.
This reward pathway works to pump up the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain.
In a matter of minutes, you develop a craving for chocolate or that sweet muffin that you glanced at during lunchtime.
If you decide to work on this craving, the reward pathway shifts mode. It then pumps chemical like beta-endorphins to your brain. These chemicals eventually produce feelings of happiness and pleasure.
The Role of Sugar
A lot of names come into your mind when you think of the word “sugar”. Dextrose, lactose, fructose, maltose, all of these are a different name for sugar. In fact, sugar is said to have at least 50 different names.
But the real question is, is sugar bad for your health?
Essentially, two types of sugar can be found in your body; the good sugar which occurs naturally in vegetables and fruits and the “bad” sugar that is a part of candy, sweetened sodas, baked goods and other items.
Your body actually requires good sugar, particularly to regulate its nervous activities. As soon as you eat a sugar-loaded meal, it starts breaking down. All the proteins, carbohydrates, glycogen, triglycerides, and fats are eventually converted to form glucose.
Glucose is so important for the cells to function that the deprivation of it can cause loss of consciousness and death of the cells. Hence, your body has derived a system to store glucose in the form of reserve and use it at the time of shortage.
All the cells in your body require energy to work. Even the neuronal cells in the brain forming the delicate structure of the brain require it. The basic source of energy for the brain is derived from glucose.
Did you know that your brain alone utilizes around 20 percent of your daily energy intake?
Not only is sugar important to carry out different nervous functions, but is a treat to your taste buds as well. As soon as you eat something loaded with sugar, the taste receptors in your body get activated.
These receptors send signals towards the brain, setting off an entire cascade of stimulation. As soon as the dopaminergic pathway gets activated, it compels you to carry out the “YUM!” signal.
This particular pathway initiates in a cell cluster present at the base of the brainstem. The area goes by the name of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and is seen extending all the way through the lateral part of the hypothalamus and making its way into the nucleus accumbens present in the forebrain.
Behaviors that trigger the release of dopamine neurotransmitter within this particular pathway is known to create feelings of high motivation.
Glucose is critical for the cells to function and survive. It is also responsible for stimulating the reward pathway going on in your brain, the pathway that makes everything feel like rainbows and unicorn.
Life is good with sugar, except that too much of everything is essentially bad.
An important question that needs to be answered is that how much sugar can you safely consume?
According to the American Heart Association, the safe upper limit for women is 6 teaspoons of sugar per day. For men, the upper limit is restricted to 9 teaspoons per day.
In addition to the naturally occurring sugar that you consume in your diet, you are estimated to consume almost 22 teaspoons of added sugar on average.
This causes your reward pathway to keep getting stimulated, eventually desensitizing the dopamine receptors. This leads to a feeling similar to addiction in which your body starts requiring high amounts of dopamine to achieve the same pleasant feeling.
Hence, your body eventually starts demanding more amounts of sugar, in the form of food and drink, to carry out the same response. As the sugar consumption increases, the chances of obesity, particularly childhood obesity, increases.
A diet with high levels of sugar and saturated diet can induce different fundamental changes in the brain. These changes together with the increase in neurotransmitter dopamine can cause detrimental effects on your brain.
Learning and Memory
Studies have indicated that consuming a diet rich in saturated fats and sugar can increase the oxidative stress and induce cell damage. In 2010, a study was carried out at the Perdue University in which it was successfully shown that consuming a diet rich in sugar and saturated fats for three days can impair the functions of the hippocampus.
Since the hippocampus functioning gets impaired due to sugar, the mice that took part in this study had impaired learning and memory and were not able to find food within a maze.
Other studies have also illustrated that the brain, hippocampus, in particular, is extremely sensitive to a high-energy diet.
The addiction to sugar is real. The pathway involved in causing addiction is similar to the reward pathway. A continuous increase occurring in the release of dopamine neurotransmitter causes desensitization.
Hence, your body starts demanding more consumption to get the feeling of pleasure. A cycle in which dopamine release leads to reward and the feeling of motivation is initiate, which is hard to break
Depression & Anxiety
Once you get addicted to sugar, any attempt to break the addictive cycle may come with consequences such as irritability and mood swings.
Elimination of all the additive sugar from the diet can cause the symptoms similar to that of a drug withdrawal. Sugar withdrawal is real and is characterized by symptoms such as anxiety, depression, headaches, cravings, and sometimes chills as well.
RELATED: Why should you avoid sugar?
Eating a diet loaded with sugar for a longer duration of time can lead to alterations in your gene expression. This can affect everything, from the neurotransmitter functions to their receptors, even the basic functionality of the cells.
Studies have suggested that the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is greatly affected by sugar. This factor is present in the cortex, hippocampus, and the forebrain and is essential for the process of memory and learning. It also supports the existing neurons and stimulates the development of new synapses.
BDNF along with all the important functions it performs can be impaired by the excessive consumption of sugar.
Hence, it is not surprising to know that a relation between lower amounts of BDNF and diseases like depression, Alzheimer’s and dementia has been proved.
Continued research in neuroscience is providing valuable information regarding the effect of sugar on the brain. Further knowledge gained from research may also lead to changes in the ways to treat these cognitive disorders.
What can you do?
So, what is it that you can do to protect your brain from the harmful effects of sugar?
According to the experts, there is nothing much to do except trying to eat it in fewer amounts.
However, if you have already developed an addiction to sugar, meditation exercises can help to build focus and improve willpower.
Omega-3 fatty acids, usually found in the fish oil, have been shown to exert Neuroprotective functions in some clinical trials. These fatty acids have also been found to boost hippocampus function which is normally impaired in sugar addiction.