Refined sugar has been called poison, toxic, and the “anti-nutrient”. It’s said to be more addictive than cocaine. Is it really that bad? How much does sugar really affect your brain?
Let’s take a look at the somewhat complex relationship between sugar and your brain.
Your Brain Needs Glucose, Not Fructose
Brain cells need twice as much energy as other cells. After all, there’s a lot going on up there! Your brain cells can’t store energy, so they need a steady stream of glucose from your bloodstream. Your brain cells can live only a few minutes without energy supply – it’s that critical!
The healthiest sources of glucose are from the complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Glucose is also a building block of the lactose found in dairy products.
Unhealthy sources of glucose are sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which are all are roughly half glucose and half fructose. Virtually every cell in the body can metabolize glucose for energy, but only your liver cells metabolize fructose.
While honey and maple syrup do contain some nutrients, they are still the same basic composition as refined sugar – half glucose, half fructose.
All Fructose Is Not Created Equal
A healthy diet contains lots of fruits and vegetables which are sources of dietary fructose. But a diet high in these sources of naturally occurring fructose is not the same as a diet high in fructose from refined sweeteners. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you should skip eating carrots or apples because they contain fructose. It’s the added fructose from refined sweeteners you should be concerned about. So there’s no need to pick carrots out of your salad.
Dangers of a High Fructose Diet
Fructose has wrongly been promoted as a healthy sweetener because it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels or spike insulin. Instead it raises blood fructose levels, which is arguably even worse. Here are some of the problems with high fructose diets:
- Increases triglycerides, blood pressure, and LDL (bad cholesterol), all markers for cardiovascular disease.
- Increases levels of uric acid which can lead to gout and kidney disease.
- Increases risk for diabetes. Fructose intake and diabetes rates are directly proportional worldwide.
- Causes systemic inflammation.
- Contributes to obesity by leading to leptin resistance. Leptin is a “satiety hormone” that lets you register feelings of fullness.
- Causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
A word about agave syrup or nectar. The sugar in agave is virtually all fructose, making it a particularly bad choice of sweetener. I was disappointed when I learned this, too.
How Too Much Glucose Gives Your Brain the Blues
Just because your brain requires a steady stream of glucose doesn’t meant that more is better.
Too much glucose reduces the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that promotes the formation of new brain cells. Low levels of BDNF can lead to depression and dementia.
Poor memory formation, learning disorders, and depression are linked to eating refined sugar. Chronically high blood sugar levels leads to decreased activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain most associated with memory.
Excessive glucose affects your attention span, short-term memory, and mood stability. It increases free radical damage and inflammation of the brain. It can even change your brain wave patterns, making it hard to think clearly.
High blood sugar levels trigger the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol which can lead to feelings of anxiety and further impair your thought processes.
Refined sugar consumption leads to wild swings in blood sugar levels. After a sharp rise comes the crash. Low blood glucose levels lead to mood swings, irritability, tiredness, mental confusion, and impaired judgment.
But it gets worse. Consuming too much sugar can lead to insulin resistance in the brain. A insulin becomes less effective in helping the brain take up glucose from the blood, brain cells begin to starve to death. This could be a cause of Alzheimer’s which is now being considered type-3 diabetes. It’s evident even in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s that the brain’s ability to metabolize glucose, it’s only form of energy, is reduced.
So stop giving your brain the “sugar blues” by cutting refined sweeteners out of your diet. You’ll benefit immediately with clearer thinking, level moods, stable energy, and better judgement. And you’ll benefit in years to come by taking a big step towards staying mentally sharp for life.
Deane Alban is co-founder of and author of . She has taught and written on a wide variety of natural health topics for over 20 years. Her passion is teaching others how to rejuvenate their brains and overcome the common, but avoidable, problem of midlife mental decline.
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