Sugar, it doesn’t get sweeter than that –literally. It is known by many different names and fractions, glucose, fructose, maltose, lactose, dextrose, etc. at the end of it all, it’s just sugar. Its use can be traced back to the 1st Century where in places like Europe, it was used for its medicinal purposes. In the modern world, it was introduced by Christopher Columbus in 1492, which he was gifted by a governor he was romantically involved with from the Canary Islands.
Enough with the history, let’s go into what sugar really does to our bodies. But first, you need to know there are two types of sugar. There is ‘good’ sugar, and there is artificial sugar. Good sugar is that which is naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables while artificial sugar is that which is added to products we consume every day like cakes, sodas, sweets and many more.
The naturally occurring sugar is used by the body, particularly the brain. When you ingest a meal, it is broken down into nutrients that the body needs to function. Such nutrients include proteins, carbohydrates, glycogen, vitamins, fats, and triglycerides. Further breakdown happens, in which glucose is formed. Glucose is a key ingredient to the proper functioning of cells that its deprivation can lead to cell death, and loss of consciousness in the host. To avert such mishaps, the body stores excess glucose for when there isn’t enough supply. The brain uses up to 20% of your daily energy intake.
Sugar is not only beneficial to brain function, it is also sweet. Whenever you eat sugar, or something sugary, your brain cells are alerted by the activation of the taste receptors. Think of a burglar alarm, but instead of warning you burglars are around, it’s informing you of sweet substances. Through an intricate process that involves the ventral tegmental area and the lateral hypothalamus, sugar leads to the release of dopamine from the brain. With time, the amount of sugar that would ordinarily satisfy you becomes less than adequate, you start craving more of sugar, either in direct form or in an indirect form with a craving of junk food and sugary drinks that house unhealthy amounts of artificial sugar. To an extent, you become a sugar addict. The recommended amount of daily sugar intake is six teaspoons for women, and nine for men. The current average intake is 22 teaspoons per day.
Now let’s get to the bitter truth. Is sugar all its amped up to be and how does it affect your brain?
Memory and learning
Research shows that continuous consumption of foods with high sugar and saturated fats concentration can result in impairment of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a small organ in the brain, its size does little to equate its importance as it is responsible for memory, particularly long-term memory. It’s also responsible for spatial navigation.
Damage to the hippocampus may lead to loss of memory, and hardship in establishing new memories. In Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that distorts memory, thinking and behaviour, the hippocampus is one of the first organs to be attacked.
Sounds funny, right? Wrong! Sugar addiction is real, and it is dangerous. As aforementioned there’s an intricate process that takes place when you ingest sugar. This system is the same as the reward system. In simple terms, the neurotransmitter that releases dopamine gains resilience (meaning you need more sugar to activate it). With time, your gene expression changes to a cycle that looks more like this;
Consumption à dopamine release à reward à pleasure à motivate cycle. This cycle can be very hard to break.
Anxiety and depression
When you are addicted to any drug, it’s hard to live without the perennial fix. Sugar is the same and attempts to reduce or eliminate unhealthy sugar from your diet can lead to withdrawal symptoms which include anxiety, severe headaches, cravings, and chills.
We’ve already established unhealthy sugar can damage the brain cells. But it is the place where it damages that are of key concern. A rise in sugar consumption attacks and reduces the efficacy of the cortex, hippocampus and the forebrain.
In recent times, there has been a correlation between diseases like Alzheimer’s, depression and dementia with the failing functionality of the prior cerebral systems.
Sugar and all its sugary subforms are part of our everyday livelihoods. It is illogical and unpractical to lay off sugar from your diet, seeing that your brain needs it for efficient functionality. However, since an excess amount of artificial sugar is destructive to the same system it ought to aid, it is prudent to moderate the consumption of sugar. This will also guard your body against obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular illnesses.