Sugar rush. Sugar high. Sugar buzz. Sugar slump. We’ve all heard these phrases that describe what our brains feel like when we’ve had too much of a sweet treat.

When it comes to overall physical health and body function, it’s no secret that glucose is the primary means our body uses for energy. Every cell in the human body utilizes sugar to fuel our day to day brain and metabolic processes. While glucose is imperative for normal, healthy brain and body functions, the relationship between sugar and a healthy brain is one that depends on moderation. Sugar comes in many forms known as glucose, sucrose, fructose, and even honey.

What happens in your brain when you eat sugar?

“When sugar hits our tongue, it activates certain taste buds that send a signal up to the brain, including the cerebral cortex,” says Nicole Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who wrote a book about sugar addiction. The signal activates the brain’s reward system; dopamine (a feel-good brain chemical) is released and the behavior is reinforced, which makes us want to repeat it (mmmm, that’s nice, give me more!).

Sugar is rare among dopamine-producing foods. Most of the time when we eat something new and tasty, dopamine is released the first time we taste it. This is an evolutionary advantage to help us to pay attention to new and different tastes, in case they make us sick. If we eat something new and don’t get sick, typically the dopamine response then goes away the next time—so basically we only release dopamine in response to eating new foods. However, sugar is different. It’s more like what happens with a drug of abuse, where dopamine is released every single time it’s consumed. Eating lots of sugar will continue to feel rewarding because the dopamine level doesn’t balance out, which it does when eating healthier foods. So sugar does act a bit like a drug in our system — which is why people get hooked on sugary foods.

Sugar in Moderation

To help our brains function as efficiently as possible for as long as possible, it’s important to manage our glucose levels with a healthy diet. For some, diabetes can be easily managed without medical intervention. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, Americans consume more than 20 teaspoons of sugar a day; that’s well above the American Heart Association’s recommended 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 for men. Added sugar can be found at high levels in most processed foods. To reduce sugar consumption, becoming familiar with nutrition facts found on packaged foods is a must. Not only does a diet high in sugar impede cognitive function, the impact on your heart can also be devastating. To help reduce the amount of sugar you consume in a day, check out some of these helpful tips:

sugar and the brain
  • Pay attention to all types of sugar – When reading nutrition labels, it’s important to pay attention to all varieties of sugar. Fructose, dextrose, corn syrup, honey, lactose, raw sugar, and sucrose are a few fairly common sugar types.
  • Cut out sweet beverages – There’s an astounding level of sugar in juices, sodas, and other sweet drinks. By replacing these beverages with water, you’ll be making a giant step in the right direction.
  • Be mindful of artificial sweeteners – Harvard Medical School advises that the addition of artificial sweeteners may hinder healthy sugar receptor function and may cause normal foods to taste differently. There may also be a chemical risk between the brain’s desire for more calories when artificial sweeteners are routinely used. Everything in moderation!
  • Switch to healthy snacks – Instead of sweet treats like cookies and candy, try grabbing fresh fruits or vegetables.
  • Be observant – Because sugar tastes good, food manufacturers tend to add more sugar than necessary to processed foods. By checking labels, you can help familiarize yourself with products that contain too much sugar. Common culprits include breads, sauces, and dressings.
  • Exercise – Exercise can help counter the negative effects of an unhealthy diet. By adding exercise to your daily routine, you can help encourage healthy functions throughout your whole body. When it comes to sugar, burning that energy through physical activity can mitigate sugars’ negative impact.
  • Alcohol – Moderate amounts of alcohol consumption can cause a rise in blood sugar, while excessive alcohol consumption can have the reverse effect. Too much alcohol can cause a dangerous drop in blood sugar levels and can have the same impact on healthy brain and body functions. We know that addiction can make avoiding things like sugar and alcohol difficult, and can impact your brain. Here at the United Brain Association, we’re helping fund research on the treatment of Alcohol Dependence. Find out more, including how you can help, here.

Once the damage of too much sugar in your diet has been done, it is sometimes too late. This is why it’s important to become aware of your sugar intake sooner rather than later. When it comes to obesity or other heart-related diseases, the effects of too much sugar in your diet can be reversed to a degree. Unfortunately, some damage done to your cognitive function and brain chemistry cannot be undone. The time to make a difference is now! Focusing on a healthy diet with appropriate levels of glucose is extremely important in maintaining a healthy mind and body throughout your life.

Why sugar makes your brain crave more sugar:

You may not be aware that there’s a strong connection between our gut and our brain — and sugar comes into play here as well. “When that sugary thing you’ve eaten hits your gut,” It activates sugar receptors there too, which signal the brain to release insulin to deal with the extra sugar you’ve eaten.

To explain further: Excess sugar drives the pancreas to produce extra insulin, a hormone involved in blood sugar regulation. The insulin signals fat cells to store excessive amounts of glucose, fatty acids, and other calorie-rich substances. As a result, too few calories remain in the bloodstream, so the brain thinks it’s now low on fuel (since it has those very high energy needs). So your hunger level rises quickly. And sugar is appealing then because it provides quick energy. Thus, the cycle begins again. And thus, cravings for more and more brownies or ice cream or candy.

Can you retrain your brain to crave less sugar?

Want to get your brain in line with a healthier sugar level? Your brain can readapt when you cut back on sugar, and you won’t crave it as much. However, it can take a while, even months, for this to happen, depending on the severity of dependence on sugar that one has.

To find out more about how to start cutting back on sugar and shake off a sugar dependence, consider trying a 7-day detox plan at first. When you can successfully cut back, there’s a payoff, besides a much healthier body: Just a small taste of, say, that delicious chocolate brownie will be enough of a sweet treat to satisfy you.

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