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Biomedical Research

How Does Sugar Influence Your Brain?

Our modern diet is filled with an overwhelming amount of sugar, yet we still we find ourselves craving more and more of this sweet substance. Why does sugar have such an influential role in our body, and what are the consequences of consuming too much sugar?

Introduction

Most of us enjoy a sweet snack once in a while. It can be very difficult to refuse sweets, especially during the holiday season. Even those who shy away from sugar consume more than they think since sugar is also one of the most prominent ingredients in refined foods. This is a huge problem, as our modern diet has an excessive amount of sugar. At first, sugar was a luxury item, only consumed by the wealthy and elite. Soon it became more common as it started to be added in beverages. Slowly more and more items were infused with sugar. This brings us to our modern 21st-century diet, filled with processed food containing heaps of sugar. This common item of sugar can have a huge impact on our health and well-being. 

Impact

Sugar influences your brain because it is an addictive substance. When you eat any substance it triggers certain responses in your brain. In the case of sugar, the signal stimulates the brain reward system; dopamine (a feel-good brain chemical) is emitted and the action is repeated, which makes us want to replicate it again. Over time, higher levels of the drug are needed to reach the same level of reward. Studies show that over-eating sugar results in a reduced incentive response and increasingly worsening addiction to low-nutrient foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. Companies are aware of this and use this to their advantage. Marketing food full of sugar to a person with a sweet tooth is what junk food marketers are trying to do. Getting the sugar will activate dopamine, a feel-good hormone in the brain that blends the carbohydrate with pleasure—makes the body more willing. That feeling-good feeling keeps you hooked on those things, which will give you immediate pleasure when eaten. Wanting to reiterate that enjoyment is normal, and this can lead to overconsumption of that meal. Reading product labeling is one of the easiest ways to track the consumption of added sugar. Pay close attention to the serving size. Products may list a small amount of sugar, but it is only for one serving size whereas we often consume multiple servings.

All of this sugar can have a very negative impact on your brain. In humans, high-glycemic foods have been shown to stimulate brain regions associated with reward responses and to induce more extreme feelings of hunger compared to low-glycemic foods. Foods that induce a higher rise in blood glucose have a higher addiction influence in the brain. New studies are showing that too much sugar slows your mental capacity. You feel more slow and lethargic, as the ability to process information is hindered.

There are also impacts on your physical health. Eating too much added sugar will raise blood pressure and increase systemic inflammation, all of which are pathological pathways to heart disease. Elevated blood glucose destroys blood vessels. Harm to blood arteries is the primary cause of vascular complications of diabetes, leading to other conditions, such as damage to blood vessels in the brain and retinopathy of the eyes.  Excessive sugar intake, particularly in sugary drinks, often leads to weight gain by tricking the body into shutting off its appetite regulation system, so liquid calories are not as fulfilling as solid food calories. That’s why it’s easier for people to add more calories to their daily diet as they eat sugary drinks.  

Solutions

There are various solutions to this problem. You can start cutting back on sugar day by day; experts recommend to keep sugar intake to around 7-8 teaspoons. This will lead to a reduced dependency as only a little bit of sugar will be enough to satisfy you. In this manner you can “retrain” your brain- it’s like using the same method that inversely caused the problem.  Of course, you shouldn’t eliminate this from your diet as it can provide a quick source of energy for your body and is a mood booster. Besides, some people find that as they cut sugary foods out of their diet it is replaced by other foods like refined starches, which are just as bad. A great solution is to replace sugary treats with fresh fruit like strawberries and watermelon. These fruits provide a sweet taste and are full of fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamins. In conclusion, a small snack every once in a while doesn’t hurt anyone, but it is important to be careful and watch your sugar intake.

Harshal Chinthala, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References

Joel Fuhrman, M. (n.d.). Understanding What Sugar Really Does to Your Brain. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-sugar-affects-the-brain-4065218

Publishing, H. (n.d.). The sweet danger of sugar. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar

By Harshal Chinthala

Harshal Chinthala is student in Kansas City. He is interested in the fields of neurology and cardiology.

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