Back when our ancestors discovered the benefits that sugar—more specifically glucose—had on our brains and bodies, they had not considered just how “hooked” their predecessors would become on it.
Nowadays, sugar can be found in many compositions, such as corn syrup, honey, fructose, or glucose. It is produced both naturally and artificially, and is sold by the millions all around the globe. But why is it consumed over and over, and why can’t we get enough of it? The answer is in our brains.
The key relationship between glucose, a kind of simple sugar, and the brain, goes back to the most basic of our biological functions. It is the primary source of energy, and one that our most energy-demanding organ essentially needs. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, “brain functions such as thinking, memory and learning are closely linked to glucose levels.” Basically, we cannot function properly if our sugar intake isn’t balanced.
Look at it this way; every time we consume certain carbohydrates, our intestines break them down into glucose. This is the same glucose, or sugar, that is absorbed into the bloodstream, so that it may be used for other tissues and become the main fuel for brain cells. Thanks to our neurons, we are able to process information, recall memories, and simply experience life; it is through each microscopically electrical transmission that they communicate. But if glucose is lacking and neurons are not well fed, this communication simply breaks down. The body is almost like a machine, which is why it is integral to understand the effects of the chemicals that are put in it.
However, as there is good on one side, there is also bad on the other side of the scale. Too much sugar can have a negative effect on the brain.
The white and brown sucrose, which we mainly recognize as table sugar, comes from sugarcane or sugar beets. It is refined, processed, and turned into cakes, bottled juices, and candies. It is the sweet stuff most of us love, and much different from the natural sugars (glucose and fructose), which are found in natural plant-based foods like fruit. Added sugars (or disaccharides) are found in 74 percent of the packaged foods in American supermarkets, which is why Americans consume roughly five times the amount of sugar they should. This high consumption rate has been linked to vascular dementia and poor immune function.
Sugar has a side effect on the brain. From the moment sugar touches the tongue’s receptors, the brain receives signals to activate a rewarding reaction of feel-good hormones such as dopamine, a neurotransmitter also artificially found in cocaine. The more we consume it, the higher our tolerance becomes, turning our consumption into a vicious cycle of more and more sugar. But what happens when we just can’t get enough? The body doesn’t necessarily overdose on sugar, but the nervous system has proven that it eventually breaks down from it.
A 2012 study on rats conducted at UCLA showed that the ones that had over-consumed fructose had damaged the communication among brain cells. Due to the heavy sugar intake, the rats developed a resistance to insulin, a hormone that strengthens the synapsis between cells, slowing down their ability to form memories and learn. When sugar takes over certain functions in the brain, the brain tries to avoid working for itself, which is why it is beneficial for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia to avoid sugary foods or beverages.
Learning about the real effects, both the good and bad, that sugar has on us is the key to maintaining the balance that will make a difference in our lives. Try to obtain sugar from natural sources, as opposed to processed food products and baked goods we tend to go for when sugar cravings strike.
10 Sources of Good Sugar
- Raw Organic Honey
- Raw Agave Nectar
- Whole Grains