It’s true – the effects of sugar on the brain can be huge. The brain only weighs around 2% of our body weight but uses up a whopping 20% of our energy resources.
But there’s a reason why the brain is an energy hog! As well as all the usual jobs it does, the brain needs to transform and synthesise nutrients and to do this it needs carbohydrates, including sugar. Our bodies digest the sugars found in foods and turn it into glucose, or blood sugar, making us feel more alert and energetic.
So what are the effects of sugar on the brain? Do we really need sugar in our diets? What happen if I get addicted to sugar?
I’m here to answer those questions for you right now!
Brain talk: sugar addiction
The frontal lobes in the brain are super sensitive to both spikes and drops in glucose. One of the first signs that we’re not getting enough nutrients is mental function and mood. High glycemic food such as white bread gives us a really fast release of glucose in the blood. It’s so fast, in fact, that we get the dreaded ‘sugar crash’ where glucose rapidly dips shortly after spiking. But that’s not the only crash – our attention span and mood also goes with it.
If you eat food with a slower glucose release, which is stuff like oats, legumes and grains, our attention span and mood is much more steady and we avoid the crash altogether. To keep your brain sustained it needs a varied diet of nutrient-rich foods.
The power of the mind
All you have to do is imagine a smooth chocolate cake with a rich gooey centre and it makes you crave dessert. But how? Why? Sugar, as I mention in this blog [good, bad ugly sugars blog], are carbohydrates. Any ingredient on the back of the packaging with the ending ‘ose’ is sure to be a sugar. And as soon as it makes contact with your tongue, that’s when sugar addiction really begins.
The sweet taste receptors, some of the many taste buds on your tongue, send a message to the brain stem. The message is then spread all over the forebrain, including the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain that processes all the different tastes). It’s here sugar addiction really gets going – your reward system is activated and your brain associates sweet tastes with good feelings. It answers your subconscious question of ‘should I eat that again?’ with ‘Hell, yeah!’
Sugar isn’t the only culprit – this reward system is also activated by sex, drugs, alcohol and even dangerous activities such as skydiving! The reward system activates several other incidents including:
- Losing control of your sugar intake
- Craving sugary treats
- Bigger tolerance to sugar so you’ll need more just to get the simplest of kicks
Sugar addiction isn’t just the tastebud’s fault. The stomach also has sugar receptors and they too send signals to your brain such as when you’re full or whether your body needs to produce more insulin so it can deal with all that extra sugar you’re eating.
Dopamine hotspots for sugar addiction
Chances are, you know that dopamine is one of the biggest feel-good chemicals. Unfortunately, the dopamine receptors aren’t evenly distributed in the forebrain. There are particular areas of the brain that have a huge concentration of dopamine receptors and it’s here you’ll find the reward system. Addictive substances like alcohol, nicotine and sugar cause these receptors to go crazy so you’re always trying to get your fix…in other words this is addiction.
Unlike eating a healthy balanced meal, eating sugary foods always feels rewarding, even if the rewarding feeling is a bit less each time you bite into that donut or cake. It’s all to do with how the brain evolved. We’re always seeking out new and interesting tastes so we can determine whether food has ‘gone bad’ and to keep our diet varied so we can maximise the chances of getting all those good nutrients.
If you were to eat the same healthy meal every day for a week then it becomes boring and the dopamine levels start to subside. But if you ate sugar-rich foods then your dopamine levels don’t subside – it’s just the tolerance to sugar that goes down over time. That’s why you crave more and more of the sweet stuff so you can keep your feel-good hormones on the up.
Now you’re clued up on the effects of sugar on the brain check out Sugar Smackdown – my ingenius way to give sugar the BOOT!