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Your Brain on Sugar

Background
Fall is here and alas, the season of added sugars is upon us. From trick-or-treating on Halloween to Thanksgiving to holiday baking and New Year’s celebrations, it is important to know about the holiday sugar rush and its potential impact on the health of your brain.

It’s commonly advised for many Americans to reduce their intake of added sugars. While the general recommendation on added sugar per day varies for adult men (9 teaspoons) and women (6 teaspoons), the average American is consuming 17-20 teaspoons!

Americans’ sugar consumption is increasing year after year, and it is not just during the high holiday season. This blog will explore the different types of sugar, how sugar impacts the brain, the health implications of sugar, and where sugar commonly hides in our diet while making simple recommendations to decrease sugar in your everyday life.

The Different Types of Sugar
Simply put, sugar is a type of carbohydrate that naturally occurs in many types of foods. Added sugars are sugars that aren’t inherently present in foods. Natural sugars are inherently present in foods like fruits (fructose) and milk (lactose), while added sugars are incorporated during processing or preparation, often to enhance flavor or extend shelf life. Common sources of sugar include sugarcane, sugar beets, and corn, from which many commercial sugars are derived. These sugars can be found in a range of forms, such as granulated (the white sugar commonly used in households), powdered (finely ground sugar), brown (contains molasses), raw (less processed), and various syrups (like high-fructose corn syrup or maple syrup). Essentially, sugars come from various sources and forms. 

Sugar and the Brain
Sugar’s interaction with the brain is both intricate and profound. Glucose, a simple sugar, is the primary energy source for the brain. The brain consumes about 20% of the body’s total energy, and a significant portion of that energy comes from glucose. 

When we consume sugar, it prompts the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, explaining why sugary foods can be so enticing (and addictive for some). Beyond the immediate pleasure response, sugar can influence your mood and cognitive functions. While it might offer a temporary mood lift, consistent overconsumption can lead to fluctuations in energy and mood, often culminating in the notorious “sugar crash.” This crash is commonly characterized by feelings of fatigue and sluggishness that occur when the initial surge of energy from sugar subsides, leaving the body yearning for rest and recovery.

Health Implications
Sugar, while a natural component of many foods, carries with it a spectrum of health implications that are commonly associated with inflammation from added sugars. On the positive side, it provides short-term energy essential for daily activities and is crucial for optimal brain function. However, the downsides of sugar become evident with overconsumption especially added sugars. Excessive intake can lead to dental problems, such as cavities, and contribute to weight gain due to its high-calorie content. Even more concerning are the severe health risks associated with chronic high sugar consumption. Studies have shown that it can increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease (referred to as Type 3 Diabetes), and other chronic ailments, which stresses the importance of moderation in added sugar intake.

Hidden Sugars
Unfortunately, in today’s world and standard American diet, sugar lurks in many unsuspecting places, making it imperative for us to be vigilant. Processed foods often contain added sugars, but they might be listed under various aliases with the word’s “syrup” like “corn syrup” or ending of “ose” like “maltose” on ingredient labels. There are over 50+ different names for sugar that can be found on food labels. 

Beverages can also be deceptive. Many drinks, including those marketed as “healthy” or “natural,” contain astonishing amounts of sugar like sports drinks that quench your thirst or natural fruit juices. Speaking of “healthy” alternatives, while options like agave nectar or coconut sugar are touted as better choices, they still impact blood sugar levels and should be consumed in moderation. To genuinely reduce sugar intake, it’s essential to cultivate habits like reading food labels diligently, being aware of sugar’s many names, and seeking out genuinely low-sugar or sugar-free alternatives based on your health goals and body’s needs. 

Tips and Tricks
Navigating the sweet world of sugars can be overwhelming, but with a few strategic changes, it’s possible to reduce your intake without feeling deprived.

  • Retrain Your Taste Buds 

Cutting back or eliminating added sugar is a commendable goal, but it can be challenging given its prevalence in our standard diets. One effective approach is a gradual reduction, allowing your taste buds to adjust over time. Instead of abruptly eliminating all sugary foods, try decreasing the amount consumed, which can help retrain your palate to appreciate less sweetness.

  • Use Natural Sweeteners 

When you do crave something sweet, consider natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or stevia. These alternatives can offer a touch of sweetness without the same health implications as refined sugars. However, it’s essential to use them in moderation.

  • Mindful Eating 

Pay attention to when and why you crave sugary foods. Recognizing patterns and triggers can empower you to make healthier choices, replacing sugar-driven habits with more nutritious alternatives. Try swapping out sweet fruits like berries for dessert.

By embracing these strategies, not only can you enhance your overall health, but you’ll also discover the genuine flavors of food, unmasked by excessive sweetness. 

Conclusion
While sugar undeniably plays a role in various brain functions and processes, the mantra “moderation is key” cannot be overstated. Overindulging in sugar can cast a shadow over both our physical and mental well-being. The journey towards a healthier lifestyle hinges on balance and moderation, and as readers, arming yourselves with knowledge is paramount. Being an informed consumer means not only understanding the present landscape of sugar in your diet but also keeping an eye on the horizon for innovations and alternatives. As the narrative around sugar continues to evolve, so too should your approach, always prioritizing your personal brain health and well-being.

In brain health and wellness,
Krystal

 

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider or specialist regarding any medical concerns or before making any changes to your health regimen.

Images from Canva

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