There’s no denying that what we put into our bodies affects both our physical and mental health. It’s what we’ve been taught since we were kids; remember Popeye chowing down on spinach for super strength or Bugs Bunny munching on carrots for better eyesight? But what about that one sneaky ingredient…. sugar? It’s everywhere! In ice cream, cookies, chocolate bars, cereal, and even in your bread, yogurt, and salad dressing… You name it, sugar’s in it. But what really happens when you savor that delicious bite of something sweet? As it turns out, sugar can significantly affect what goes on in your mind. So in this article, we’re going to show you how sugar affects your brain by taking you to a party – a place where you’re bound to find some sweet treats.
“This brain is on fire…”♫
If you enjoy partying in nightclubs, chances are you’ve encountered a bouncer or two. And if they’ve ever stopped you to search your bag before entering, you might have felt a tinge of anxiety. This feeling is similar to the way high sugar intake can also cause anxiety. But why does this happen?
Just as a bouncer’s job is to keep out any unwanted guests, your immune system is designed to keep harmful substances out of the body. When threats show up, it can trigger inflammation in the brain which acts like an alarm system, alerting your immune system to fight off any infection or injury.
When you consume too much sugar, it’s like inviting an unwanted guest to the club, overwhelming the bouncer with work and potentially damaging the club. Similarly, in your brain, the unwanted guests are cytokines, chemicals that can cause chronic inflammation and damage which can affect the production of important chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, which play a crucial role in your mental health.
A 2014 study in the journal Depression and Anxiety suggests that chronic activation of this immune response may lead to depressive and anxious symptoms in vulnerable individuals. So even though we sometimes reach for chocolate when we’re sad, it seems like it actually keeps our brains from helping us feel better.
Okay, the bouncer lets you in, and you’ve been dancing for hours, feeling energized and having a great time. But suddenly, you start to feel exhausted and your body just can’t keep up with the beat anymore. Just like a partygoer who has been dancing for hours and suddenly feels drained, consuming high amounts of sugar can also lead to feelings of fatigue.
When you eat sugary foods, your body breaks down the sugar into glucose. As Sanford Health’s staff explains it, this glucose then triggers your body to produce insulin. Insulin takes the glucose and stores it in your cells to be used later for energy. Think of it like when you store leftover cake in the fridge to eat later when you’re hungry.
However, when there’s too much glucose in your bloodstream, the body releases too much insulin which then causes a rapid drop in blood sugar levels, leading to fatigue and exhaustion. Feeling fatigued and drained can make it challenging to enjoy social events and hobbies, and it may even impact your ability to concentrate and perform your best in school or work. But let’s get back to the party for now!
Only two more! Maybe three…
While taking a break from dancing, you notice everyone holding a drink – a cold beer, a sweet cocktail, or your favorite soda. You take a sip as well, feeling the refreshing bubbles dance in your mouth. As the night progresses, you keep refilling your cup not because you’re thirsty, but because you want to keep that buzz going. You feel more relaxed, more carefree, and you’re having a blast. It’s that feeling of pleasure and excitement that keeps you going back for more, just like sugar.
A 2013 study published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care explains that our brains are naturally wired to find and eat foods that are high in sugar and calories, which makes sense because we need energy to survive. This is also why sugar activates parts of our brains that react to pleasurable feelings of reward. This in turn releases dopamine which makes us feel happy and content. This same process is responsible not only for a sugar high, but also drug addiction. In fact, the same study found that sugar can be even more attractive and rewarding than cocaine! It’s pretty scary stuff, but don’t worry – we’ve got some tips on how to cut back on sugar without getting FOMO.
Food and science writer Rachael Moeller Gorman says that over time, your perception of sweetness intensity changes. That’s why experts usually recommend you start this journey slowly. For example, if you like adding sugar to your coffee or tea, gradually add a little bit less over time. That way, you’ll still be able to taste the sweetness, but your taste buds will require less and less.
Next, try eliminating at least a little bit of unnecessary sugar you take in daily. Nutritionist Renata Micha for EatingWell.com said that eliminating sugary drinks is a good first step, since sweetened beverages can often be the largest source of added sugar in your diet. She believes that just by choosing a glass of water with a squeeze of lime or orange for flavor, you can dramatically reduce your sugar intake for that day.
Finally, Michael Dansinger, MD, fromWebMD recommends trying to incorporate some healthier alternatives in your diet like fruits to sweeten your meals, since they contain fructose – a completely natural type of sugar. You could also try swapping cereal for oatmeal with applesauce in the morning. Check out the description box for some resources if you’d like to dive into more ideas!
Were you as amazed as us to discover the staggering impact that sugar has on our brains? We hope this article has given you some food for thought – pun intended! If you’re feeling inspired to make some positive changes, we encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Remember, taking care of your health doesn’t have to be a sacrifice – it can be a delicious adventure!
- 13 Simple Ways to Stop Eating Lots of Sugar
- 7 Ways To Cut Sugar Without Giving Up Sweets
- Your Organs When You Eat Too Much Sugar
Ahmed, S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013). Sugar addiction: Pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit – PubMed. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 16(4). https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0b013e328361c8b8
Dansinger, M. (2023, January 28). Here’s how to cut down on sugar. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-how-cut-back-sugar
Gorman, R. M. (2021, August 17). 15 ways to eat less sugar—without missing it. EatingWell. https://www.eatingwell.com/article/7914285/ways-to-eat-less-sugar-without-missing-it/
Miller, A. H., Haroon, E., Raison, C. L., & Felger, J. C. (2013). Cytokine targets in the brain: Impact on neurotransmitters and neurocircuits. Depression and Anxiety, 30(4). https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22084
Sugar crash effects and how to fix them. (2022, December 19). Sanford Health News. https://news.sanfordhealth.org/healthy-living/sugar-crash-effects/