4 Ways Sugar Messes with Your Mind

Wednesday Dec 10 | BY |
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You know too much sugar can pad your waistline,
but did you know it can also affect your mood and memory?

Too much sugar in your diet can lead to overweight and obesity, diabetes, a less efficient immune system, and an increased risk of things like polycystic ovarian syndrome, acne, and even some cancers.

In fact, according to a 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, sugar can even hasten death. Participants who took in more than 25 percent of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who took in less than 10 percent added sugar.

Sugar doesn’t just affect your body, though. Recent research has found sugar can affect the brain, too, potentially leading to mental disorders, bizarre mood swings, memory problems, and more.

Here’s how some of the evidence is adding up, and more reasons why you may want to be sure you keep your sugar intake to a minimum.

1. Sugar Can Lead to Addiction

We now have animal studies showing that sugar can be just as addictive as illegal drugs, like heroin. In December 2008, scientists from Princeton University reported that they had a set of comprehensive studies “showing the strong suggestion of sugar addiction in rats and a mechanism that might underlie it.”

In their experiments, animals denied sugar after learning to binge on it worked harder to get it when it was reintroduced, and consumed more than they had before. Researchers also observed changes in brain function, noting that the brain released dopamine when hungry animals drank a sugar solution—a chemical signal thought to trigger motivation and addiction. Binging on sugar created increased dopamine levels and other chemical changes similar to those seen in animals on cocaine and heroine.

“Our work provides links between the traditionally defined substance-use disorders, such as drug addiction, and the development of abnormal desires for natural substances,” said lead study author Bart Hoebel.

A later 2013 study showed similar results. Researchers from Connecticut College found that lab animals “formed an equally strong association between the pleasurable effects of eating Oreos and a specific environment as they did between cocaine and morphine and a specific environment.” Even more surprising was the fact that eating the cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s pleasure center than exposure to illegal drugs.

Granted, these are all animal studies. Human research may show different results, but the early evidence does suggest that sugar can cause chemical changes in the brain that may push us to eat more and more.

2. Sugar May Increase Risk/Worsen Outcomes of Mental Illness

In 2004, British scientists Malcolm Peet published a study in which he reported that a high intake of sugar could have adverse effects on mental illness, specifically schizophrenia.

He analyzed national dietary patterns in relation to outcomes of schizophrenia, and found that a higher national dietary intake of refined sugar and dairy products predicted a worse two-year outcome of schizophrenia.

In 2014, another study found that people with diabetes may be more prone to depression because of how high blood sugar levels interact with neurotransmitters in the brain associated with the disorder. Researchers studied participants who were not depressed. Some had type 1 diabetes, and some didn’t. They scanned their brain activity when blood sugar levels were normal, and again when they were moderately elevated.

Results showed that increased blood sugar levels affected connections in the brain involved in self-perception and emotions, with the affect more pronounced in those with diabetes. Higher blood sugar in diabetics also raised levels of the neurotransmitter “glutamate” in a part of the brain associated with controlling emotions.

Researchers concluded that these changes increased risk of developing depression.

3. Sugar May Negatively Affect Your Mood

You may have experienced how having a piece of cake can lift your mood—temporarily. You get the spike of blood sugar and everything feels good for a bit, but when the body processes the sugar and the levels go back down, you may not feel so great.

Research is still preliminary in the area of mood and diet, but we’re seeing some evidence that what you eat can definitely affect how you feel. The relation of sugar to mood has been studied mostly in diabetics, as they suffer more from varied blood sugar levels. A 1989 study, for example, found that high blood sugar levels were frequently correlated with negative moods, specifically, anger and sadness.

An article in Psychology Today noted that clinical evidence links mood swings to blood sugar changes, with bipolar patients responding well to cutting refined sugar from their diets. A 2012 study reported that blood sugar variations were associated with mood and quality of life, and that participants with steeper blood sugar increases tended to experience more anxiety.

4. Sugar May Shorten Your Memory

A number of recent studies have linked a high sugar intake with memory problems. In October 2014, for example, scientists found that sugar consumption affected memory and was linked to brain inflammation in rats. They made sugar-sweetened beverages (like sodas) that contained sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) available to the animals, and found that those who consumed the sugary beverages, particularly those with the HFCS, performed worse on a maze test than any other group. They also became pre-diabetic.

An earlier 2012 study from the University of California Los Angeles showed similar results. Scientists found that after giving the animals a fructose solution instead of water for six weeks, they forgot their escape route. They also found that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids could counteract the effect.

“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information,” said study author Fernando Gomez-Pinilla. “But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.”

How to Minimize Cravings and Protect Your Brain

Though we need more studies to further clarify exactly how sugar (and high blood sugar levels) can affect the brain, we have enough information already to understand that consuming too much sugar may affect our thinking, behavior, memory, and mood. We can use that information to adjust our diet and keep our brains sharp and efficient.

If you have a sweet tooth, you may choose to try complete abstinence. It works for some people, as they gradually lose their taste for it. But for others, denying themselves only leads to a dangerous rebound effect.

Here are a number of tips that can help you keep your sugar cravings and consumption under control.

  • Look for natural sources of sweetness like berries and yogurt, and other fruits.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids to counteract any negative effects of sugar consumption. Good sources include fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseed.
  • Maintain your blood sugar. Eat at regular intervals—don’t allow yourself to get too hungry. Include protein and fiber with each meal to keep you satisfied.
  • Find other healthy ways to feel good. Listen to music, exercise, meditate, dance, and engage in other activities you enjoy.
  • Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages as much as possible. Try water, tea, sparkling water, and natural sodas sweetened only with stevia extract.
  • Read labels. A lot of innocent-looking sauces, soups, salad dressings, yogurts, and more contain sugar. Look for organic brands that don’t add sugar.
  • Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep throws your hormones out of whack, causing you to crave sugar and fat.
  • Exercise. Daily exercise reduces cravings!
  • Try JJ Virgin’s Book. Entitled JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet: Drop 7 Hidden Sugars, Lose Up to 10 Pounds in Just 2 Weeks, it can help you lose weight and find healthy substitutions for sugar in your diet.

Have you tried to reduce your sugar intake? Please share any tips you have with our readers.

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Quanhe Yang, et al., “Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among U.S. Adults,” JAMA Intern Med. 2014; 174(4):516-524, http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1819573.

Kitta MacPherson, “Sugar can be addictive, Princeton scientist says,” Princeton University, December 10, 2008, http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S22/88/56G31/index.xml?section=topstories.

“Student-faculty research suggests Oreos can be compared to drugs of abuse in lab rats,” Connecticut College News, October 15, 2013, http://www.conncoll.edu/news/news-archive/2013/student-faculty-research-suggests-oreos-can-be-compared-to-drugs-of-abuse-in-lab-rats.htm#.VGzyAmTF8Vk.

Peet M., “International variations in the outcome of schizophrenia and the prevalence of depression in relation to national dietary practices: an ecological analysis,” Br J Psychiatry, May 2004; 184:404-8, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15123503?dopt=Abstract.

Endocrine Society, “High blood sugar causes brain changes that raise depression risk,” Science Daily, June 23, 2014, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140623092011.htm.

Gonder-Frederick LA, et al., “Mood changes associated with blood glucose fluctuations in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus,” Health Psychol., 1989; 8(1):45-59, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2707223.

Emily Deans, “Do Carbs Make You Crazy?” Psychology Today, March 1, 2012, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201203/do-carbs-make-you-crazy.

Sue Penckofer, et al., “Does Glycemic Variability Impact Mood and Quality of Life?” Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics, April 2012; 14(4): 303-310, http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/dia.2011.0191?journalCode=dia.

Ted M. Hsu, et al., “Effects of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup consumption on spatial memory function and hippocampal neurinflammation in adolescent rats,” Hippocampus, October 3, 2014, DOI: 10.1002/hipo.22368, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hipo.22368/abstract;jsessionid=DFC46B7BD1630C13F9C455C0BBA786AE.f04t03.

Gergana Koleva, “Binging on Sugar Weaknes Memory, UCLA Study Shows,” Forbes, May 17, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/gerganakoleva/2012/05/17/binging-on-sugar-weakens-memory-ucla-study-shows/.

Rahul Agrawal and Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, “Metabolic syndrome in the brain: deficiency in omega-3 fatty acid exacerbates dysfunctions in insulin receptor signaling and cognition,” The Journal of Physiology, May 15, 2012, (590): 2485-2499, http://jp.physoc.org/content/590/10/2485.full.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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