This Is Your Brain On Sugar (And What It Has To Do With Your Mood)

We know the risks of sugar to our physical well-being, but new research shows that sweets can have a negative effect on our mental health, too.

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For years now, you’ve been inundated with information about how sugar wrecks your waistline and can damage your heart. But there’s now increasing evidence that sugar can do long-lasting damage to your mental health as well. There’s no denying that when it comes to sugar intake, Americans are consuming far above the recommended amount. The World Health Organization recommends that a person’s daily consumption of free sugars should amount to less than 10 percent their total energy intake. A reduction to only 5 percent would see additional health benefits. In a typical U.S. diet, however, sugar accounts for 13 percent of daily caloric intake, meaning we consume nearly five times the recommended amount. That’s high, but there are reasons to believe that it’s actually not as high as it used to be. A September 2016 article by the Associated Press relates that finding out how much sugar we’re actually consuming is tricky, since government data is estimated: “The data and industry trends indicate we’ve actually made progress in cutting back. On average, Americans’ total consumption of caloric sweeteners like refined cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup is down 15 percent from its peak in 1999, according to government data. That’s when we consumed an average of 111 grams of sugar a day (423 calories).” Still, there’s no doubt that Americans’ sugar consumption is still excessive. And recently, science has started to prove that sugar adversely affects not only our bodies but our brains as well.

Sugar, you’re always on my mind.

Sugar functions remarkably like drugs on the brain. In a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis breaks down the process: “Repeated access to sugar over time leads to prolonged dopamine signaling, greater excitation of the brain’s reward pathways and a need for even more sugar to activate all of the midbrain dopamine receptors like before. The brain becomes tolerant to sugar—and more is needed to attain the same ‘sugar high.’” Sugar can also cause depression, fatigue, and brain fog. When you eat a sugar-filled pastry or consume a sugary drink, your blood sugar levels will spike and then plummet. That sharp decline or “crash” can leave you feeling moody and anxious, which may in turn lead you back to sugar in order to cope. What’s more, sugar releases serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that results in improved mood. But constantly activating serotonin can deplete the limited amount you have and lead to depression. In order to cut down on your sugar intake, start by educating yourself on sugar’s many aliases (“fructose,” “dextrose,” “corn syrup,” etc.) and start reading food labels. Sugar is in so many products these days that it can easily slip into your diet without your notice. Stay away from “diet” soda and other artificial sweeteners as well, since they can give your taste buds what they crave while depriving your body of the calories and nutrition it needs. The whole point is to save your sugar intake for the deliberate enjoyment of desserts where sugar should be found—cake, ice cream, cookies, and so on, rather than in all the other stuff where it shouldn’t be (cereal, breads, and sauces, to name a few). That way, when you do indulge, you can go for it guilt-free. (And if you’re looking to further reduce your sugar intake when it comes to sweets, see our nearly sugar-free dessert recipes here.) Consuming sugar should be a conscious choice, not a passive one.