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Understanding The Effects of Sugar on the Brain According to Research

Published in Nutrition

7 min read

November 30, 2021
a person holding a spoon full of sugar
a person holding a spoon full of sugar

Sugar. It's such a buzzword these days, isn't it? It's good, it's bad, it's everywhere! It's flooding discussions by doctors, influencers, and dietary brands alike, and who can blame them? We're all likely to give in to sugar cravings from time to time, and there's a good reason for it. Technically, your body converts sugar into fuel. Still, studies show that too much sugar can affect your physical and mental health

Because it's such a hot topic, there's so much information (and some misinformation) that it can be confusing to get to the root of it all. Trying to understand the effects of sugar on the brain can lead to a lot of confusion, way too much Googling, and some social media obsessions. And while several factors can change your craving for as well as individual response to sugar, it's still an interesting thing to think about. So what really happens to your brain when you consume sugar? Read on to find out. 

Understanding The Effects of Sugar on the Brain

Did you know that your brain is one of the most metabolically active organs in your system? And that your brain requires some amount and type of sugar to operate? Your body converts food into sugar to use as fuel—it actually makes sugar out of the healthy foods you eat. So, you could say your brain needs some of this to function well. But of course, if you eat excess sugar, it can actually impair brain function.

More research is needed on this topic, but some studies have found that a diet high in sugar can reduce the effectiveness of serotonin receptors and metabolism, which can lead to increased cravings and mood swings. This makes balancing your sugar intake particularly hard once you're hooked. Let's look at how our brains interact with sugar and whether it's as much of an enemy as people assume. Here's more about your brains' relationship to sugar, so you can discover what the "sweet spot" of sugar consumption really looks like. 

The Relationship Between Our Brains and Sugars

a person holding a glass of sugar

The relationship your body and brain have with sugar is a delicate balance. You need it, but how much of it do you need, and what constitutes "healthy sugar"? Remember that one of the underlying layers that the brain utilizes for fuel is glucose. It then burns this fuel to produce neurotransmitters, which are responsible for carrying messages to our cells. When your brain doesn't have enough glucose to burn, it ceases to produce these neurotransmitters. 

The brain has evolved over thousands of years to crave sugar. Early humans hunted and scavenged for their food and did not have the easy access to the carbohydrates and sugars that we do today. As a result, humans have evolved a drug-like reaction to eating sugar. Thousands of years ago, this was for survival. Today, this has led to a primitive instinct to consume more sugar than you need. 

When you eat sugar, the reward center in your brain is activated as a result of this "sugar evolution." This leads to more intense cravings and hunger pangs when you're around foods that have a high glycemic index. 

Four Ways Sugar Impacts the Brain According to Researchers

a person holding sugar on their palm

While many parts of the brain remain a mystery to researchers, they now know a fair amount about its anatomy and how it functions chemically. There have been countless studies revolving around how the brain reacts to different foods, including sugar. 

While research is still ongoing, interesting findings show that not only does your brain use sugar as a fuel source, but that it also affects cognitive functions and mental health. It can often lead to addiction, similar to the sort that drugs can cause, and affect the likelihood of developing certain diseases later in life. Here's a little more about some of these findings.

How Sugar Impacts Cognitive Function [Learning, Memory, and Motor Speed]

a person holding a spoon of sugar with one hand and a lollipop with the another

Research shows that [in adults] sugar consumption that exceeds what your brain needs to function can lead to a decline in cognitive function and memory. Excessive sugar consumption has links to inflammation in the body, including in your brain. When your brain becomes inflamed, it can affect your memory, your ability to learn efficiently, and your motor speeds. 

The more sugar you consume in excessive amounts, the more damage you do to your system. Add dopamine to the mix, and addictive reactions begin to occur in response to sugar consumption. This can also lead to distracting thoughts and an inability to focus. But some data shows that by changing your diet, you can reverse these effects. It's even possible to reverse brain inflammation!

Sugar, Mental Health, and the Ability to Process Emotions

a person holding a plate of sweet looking stressed out

A recent study found that young adults with high levels of sugar consumption and high blood glucose levels were 23 percent more likely to develop some kind of mental disorder. Sugar also links to depression in many studies around the world. Eating more sugar than your body needs can result in spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels. When you have these spikes in energy, you can feel intense happiness and increased productivity levels. When you have these dips, you can feel extreme fatigue and irritability. This eventually leads to stress, which can negatively affect your blood glucose levels too. 

The impact of sugar on your brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) genes is thought to be a likely cause for the link between sugar and mental health. The BDNF gene is a protein located in your brain and spinal cord that is active when cells communicate with one another. It's also a crucial element in your learning and memory.  

Minimizing your intake of added sugars, in particular, may help improve your mental health and increase happiness. While transformations don't happen overnight, it's never too soon to begin taking control of your health and lowering your sugar intake. Consider consulting with a professional, like a registered dietitian, if you're unsure how to start making manageable adjustments to your diet. 

Cravings: Sugar's Impact Looks a Lot Like Addiction

sugar and word "Addict" on it

Addiction usually means you're indulging in compulsive practices that can be so psychologically and physically habit-forming, it's challenging to control them. While sugar isn't technically a narcotic, scientists have found that you can become addicted to sugar the same way you can become addicted to narcotics. 

Here's how to think about this. When you consume sugar, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. As a result of our caveman ancestors evolving to crave sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods for survival, our bodies began to release dopamine to encourage this behavior. This dopamine gives you that oh-so-good feeling that makes you want to repeat the behavior that led to its release. As you lose the dopamine "high," you can feel the urge to consume more sugar to elevate your mood again. Sounds like a few other addictions, doesn't it? 

This might feel overwhelming, but don't worry too much. There are links between lower blood sugar levels and a healthier, happier brain, and by monitoring your blood sugar levels, you can make sure to keep your brain happy! 

In Extreme Cases, High Glucose Levels in the Body Are Linked to Alzheimer's and Dementia

Inflammation that occurs because you've been overindulging your sugar cravings can lead to long-term health issues. Inflammation can not only cause cognitive problems, but it can also lead to long-term damage linked to diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

Eating an anti-inflammatory diet can help reverse some of the damage that may already be done here. If you or anyone in your family gives in to sugar cravings a little too often or has pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, you may want to consider checking and monitoring your blood glucose levels and aligning your diet appropriately.

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Kara Collier

Reviewed by: Kara Collier RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.