A model of a human skull with a candy worm going through the eye.

The Surprisingly Damaging Effects of Sugar on The Brain

And practical ways to reduce your daily consumption.

A model of a human skull with a candy worm going through the eye.
Photo by cottonbro: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gummy-candy-on-a-skeleton-eye-socket-5554178/

“Because sugar is not arsenic, many graves are full.”- Idries Shah

Anyone who has read my work or followed me for any length of time knows that I promote the reduction or abstinence of alcohol from individuals’ lives and that you should unequivocally stop drinking at this age.

Many of my reasons are related to the harmful long-term effects alcohol can have on your body and brain. It doesn’t allow you to reach your full potential from an intelligence standpoint.

While traveling on my alcohol-conscious journey and began recognizing the immediate cognitive benefits of no longer digesting this toxic substance, I began to acknowledge another dangerous culprit that had been hiding in the shadows for some time that was equally damaging to my brain and long-term intelligence.

This culprit was sugar, and the more I researched and learned, the more I started to believe it should reside in the same category as alcohol — something you should reduce or eliminate to protect your brain.

How it affects your brain

While I’ve written about the effects of alcohol in numerous posts in the publication AINYF (Alcohol is NOT Your Friend), I have only commented on the dangers of sugar a few times.

This was related to how sugar makes it very challenging to hit your fitness goals long-term.

While I can’t say that sugar is way worse for you than alcohol, I can say that the more I research it, the more I realize there are some severe effects on our brains and our ability to think that we need to take into consideration as we age.

Creates an addiction for itself

Similar to alcohol, the danger of sugar is how extremely addictive it can be.

We don’t often think of it, but we all realize that stopping at only a few skittles is really hard.

This relates to the dopamine receptors in our brain and how our body is physiologically engineered to make us want to eat as much sugar as possible how our body is physiologically arranged to make us want to eat as much sugar as we can.

The stimulus dates back to our prehistoric days, when the body was engineered to eat as much caloric-rich food as possible in one sitting to increase the chances of survival because you never knew when you would run across it again.

As ironic as it may sound in light of this article, sugar is one of the primary fuels of our bodies, and our brain uses about half of all the sugar energy in our body to perform optimally.

Like other substances that create a substantial dopamine spike in our brain, if we’re not careful, we can quickly find ourselves addicted to it.

Decreases the functional connectivity between neurons

While our brain needs sugar to function correctly, consuming too much can drastically affect our ability to learn and remember things.

Diets high in sugar reduce the production of an essential neurotic protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factors or BDNF. This protein assists in the connection of our brain’s synapses, which are directly related to our ability to learn new things and recall core memories.

This negative effect eventually leads to our brain’s overall decline in cognitive function. It has even been linked to the possibility of the development of degenerative brain degenerative disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Simply put, the less of this we have, the harder it is for us to recall and retain information (i.e., think and learn new things), and the more at risk we are for developing these various memory-affected diseases as we age.

It shrinks the brain and could lead to mental disorders

And if that isn’t enough, sugar can impair your brain’s ability to transmit information efficiently and lead to your brain’s shrinkage through atrophy.

In a 2011 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers discovered that a diet high in sugar was associated with decreased brain volume and cerebral blood flow.

This has been linked to what is known as small-vessel disease, in which the shrinkage of your brain restricts the blood flow, causing increased cognitive difficulties, which could eventually lead to vascular dementia.

And one scary revelation is that too much sugar could also cause or exacerbate various mental disorders. In a recent study, researchers found that those with higher sugar diets were 23% more likely to develop some mental disease over time than those with a moderate or low-sugar diet.

How much is too much?

The number depends on how many calories you consume daily. Still, the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that sugar should not account for more than 10% of your daily caloric intake.

This means using the standard 2,000-calorie diet, you should consume no more than 200 calories as sugar. This equates to about 50 grams or 12 teaspoons.

The American Heart Association is a bit stricter in that it recommends only half that amount (25 grams) for women and 3/4 (36 grams) for men due to the large number of people who are currently obese or at risk for heart disease.

To give you a sense of how most people stack up to this, the average American consumes about 80 grams of sugar per day, well over the recommended amount from the AHA or Dietary Guidelines.

To understand how easy it is to go over this amount in a day, the average 12 oz. can of Coca-Cola has 39 grams of sugar, while one 1.56 oz. Snickers bar has 20 grams in it.

Therefore, any one of these could put you over the daily recommended amount. If you had both of them together daily, you could fall in the category of those who consume up to 25% of their calories from sugar and are twice as likely to die from heart disease.

What can you do about it

The first thing you should probably do is get used to becoming a maniacal nutrition label reader.

In reality, so many things have added sugar that you’ll probably have no idea how much you’re consuming unless you’re vigilant in your assessment.

We typically think of things like soda and sweets when we think of sugar. Still, there’s also a lot of added sugar in several condiments and seemingly healthy items, like ketchup or even low-fat yogurt, to make them taste better.

The second thing you should probably do is cut back or eliminate your consumption of sugary drinks.

Sugary drinks are the leading category source of all added sugars, as they currently sit around 47%.

Therefore, instead of drinking the full version of a drink, going for the diet initially is the “healthier” option.

You can also do this with various foods, as you should look for the “low-sugar” or “no-sugar-added” label on anything you buy if possible.

You have to be careful with the no-sugar-added label, as that doesn’t mean that there isn’t already a high amount of sugar naturally in it.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: There have been several concerns about diet drinks and food sweetened with artificial sweeteners due to how our body reacts to them. Therefore, drinking only diet drinks and eating food sweetened in this manner is NOT a good long-term solution.

I only use this as a short-term bridge to slowly wean yourself off the addiction to full-sugary drinks and products.

Suppose you want to make the transition to much healthier version. In that case, you should instead shoot for more natural sugar substitutes and drinks that don’t use these potentially dangerous substances.

Final thoughts

Sugar…so good yet so damaging to our brains.

Although most of us know the health risks of it as it relates to diabetes, few are aware of how it can equally damage our short-term and long-term brain health.

Because even a single elevated instance can hurt our cognitive functioning, reducing or eliminating this from our diet is something everyone should consider.

And if you couple this with giving up alcohol, you’ll give protection to your brain’s health that will yield dividends for years to come.