We all know that too much sugar is bad for our waistlines and our heart health, but now there’s evidence that high levels of sugar consumption can also have a negative effect on brain health – from cognitive function to psychological wellbeing.
While sugar is nothing to be too concerned about in small quantities, most of us are simply eating too much of it.
Associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital, Natasa Janicic-Kahric says “many Americans eat about five times” the daily recommended amount of sugar — According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are 150 calories (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons) for men and 100 calories (25 grams or 6 teaspoons) for women. To put this in perspective, one 12-oz can of Coke contains 140 calories from sugar, while a regular-sized Snickers bar contains 120 calories from sugar.
While it’s easy to see how we can get hooked on sugar, we should be aware of the risks that a high-sugar diet poses on our brain function and mental well-being.
IT CREATES A VICIOUS CYCLE OF INTENSE CRAVINGS
Sugar makes our dopamine levels rise, which in turn makes us want to consume even more. As energy levels spike and fall, an individual may feel the need to eat even more sugar to help lift their mood again. When it falls again, the individual will feel the same need – starting a cycle of addiction.
Not only can this be bad for your body, but it can also play havoc on your mind, leading to loss of control, craving and increased tolerance to sugar.
Swap sugar for: sweet potato, dark chocolate, honey, fruit
IT IMPAIRS MEMORY AND LEARNING SKILLS
A 2012 study on rats, conducted by researchers at UCLA, found that a diet high in fructose (another word for sugar) hinders learning and memory by literally slowing down the brain. The researchers found that rats who over-consumed fructose had damaged synaptic activity in the brain – meaning that communication among brain cells was impaired due to heavy sugar intake causing the rats to develop a resistance to insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and regulates the function of brain cells. It strengthens the synaptic connections between brain cells, helping them to communicate better and thereby form stronger memories. So, when insulin levels in the brain are lowered as the result of excess sugar consumption, cognition can be impaired.
U.S. studies have also pointed to a connection between high sugar intake and Alzheimer’s disease.
Swap sugar for: dark chocolate, almonds, blueberries
IT MAY CAUSE PERSONALITY CHANGES
Our bodies utilize two key chemicals to keep our emotions in check: Vitamin B and Chromium. Unfortunately, high sugar levels can block these naturally balancing chemicals and lead to uncharacteristic outbursts of irritability and aggression.
Swap sugar for: kale, kimchi, natural yogurt
IT MAY CAUSE OR CONTRIBUTE TO DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
In addition to a sugar crash – caused by the sudden peaks and drops in sugars levels which cause symptoms like irritability, mood swings, brain fog, and fatigue – a high sugar intake can leave you feeling anxious, moody or depressed.
Sugar-rich and carb-laden foods can mess with the neurotransmitters that help keep our moods stable. Consuming sugar stimulates the release of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter, serotonin. However, over-activating serotonin pathways can deplete our limited supplies of the neurotransmitter, which can contribute to symptoms of depression.
Additionally, chronically high blood sugar levels have been linked to inflammation in the brain; which some research suggests, may be one possible cause of depression. Teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood and how they contribute to depression and anxiety-like behavior. And people who eat a diet high in processed foods, which typically contain high amounts 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.
Swap sugar for: oily fish, avocados, bananas
In order to minimize sugars in your diet. Try to avoid these foods, in order of importance:
- Soft drinks: Sugar-sweetened beverages are unhealthy and should be avoided like the plague. Drink water instead and try not to add as much (or any) sugar to your coffee or tea.
- Fruit juices: Fruit juices actually contain the same amount of sugar as soft drinks! Choose whole fruit instead of fruit juice.
- Candies and sweets: Try any of these alternatives to drastically limit your sugar intake.
- Baked goods: Cookies, cakes, etc. tend to be very high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. Instead of sugar in recipes, you can try things like cinnamon, nutmeg, almond extract, vanilla, ginger or lemon. Here are 15 recipes for some delicious sugar-free treats to get you started.
- Fruits canned in syrup: Choose fresh fruits instead
- Low-fat or diet foods: Foods that have had the fat removed from them are often very high in sugar.
- Benenden Health. Seven ways sugar is affecting your mental performance. Benenden.co.uk
- Boston, Gabriella. Avoid the sour side of a sweet tooth. The Washington Post. 2013.
- Gregoire, Carolyn. This is What Sugar Does to Your Brain. Huffpost. 2015.
- Gunnars BSc, Kris. Daily Intake of Sugar – How Much Sugar Should You Eat Per Day? Healthline. 2018.