When it comes to overall physical health and body function, it’s no secret that glucose is the primary means our body uses for energy. Every cell in the human body utilizes sugar to fuel our day to day brain and metabolic processes. While glucose is imperative for normal, healthy brain and body functions, the relationship between sugar and a healthy brain is one that depends on moderation. Sugar comes in many forms known as glucose, sucrose, fructose, and even honey. At United Brain Association, we are taking a closer look at this relationship because this fuel is imperative to a healthy brain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claims that the average American consumes roughly 156 pounds of sugar a year, or 34 teaspoons of sugar a day more than our bodies need. These amounts go above and beyond the recommended daily serving size. While our bodies certainly need glucose for normal body and brain functions, consuming too much sugar can be detrimental. Knowing how our body turns glucose into fuel and the reasons sugars are necessary to its function can help us understand how to manage it in our diets. In the long run, understanding why we need sugar and how much is the right amount will help us all lead healthier and longer lives.

How Sugar Affects the Brain

To better understand why glucose and other forms of sugar in moderation are important to a healthy lifestyle, we need to first understand exactly how and why our bodies use this chemical as fuel. We know that the brain cannot function without glucose, but what do various forms of sugar do to our brain? Because the human brain is rich in neurons and nerve cells, it’s no surprise that it happens to demand the most use of glucose supplied energy.

Neurotransmitters, the parts of the brain that serve as chemical messengers, are not produced when there is a lack of glucose. A lack of sugar means communication between these imperative cells breaks down, and cognitive function is impacted. It can also cause hypoglycemia, a complication of diabetes caused by low glucose levels. Diets high in sugar also reduce the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors or BDNF. BDNF assists in the connections between nerve cells also known as synapses. Without this key protein, growth, development, and communication between these nerve cells becomes impaired. When these synapses are unable to communicate properly, a decline in multiple neurological functions can be seen. Further research has linked BDNF to degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Unhealthy levels of blood sugar have an adverse effect on the brain; excessive levels can lead to cognitive decline. According to the Diabetes Research Institute, over 34 million people are living with diabetes in the U.S. alone while The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that over 422 million people worldwide live with this disease. How do diabetes and sugar consumption affect the brain you ask? Research published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2014 found that the link to significant cognitive decline in middle-aged individuals living with diabetes was astounding. The conclusion of their research shows that glucose metabolism and BDNF may go hand in hand.

Sugar in Moderation

To help our brains function as efficiently as possible for as long as possible, it’s important to manage our glucose levels with a healthy diet. For some, diabetes can be easily managed without medical intervention. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, Americans consume more than 20 teaspoons of sugar a day; that’s well above the American Heart Association’s recommended 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 for men. Added sugar can be found at high levels in most processed foods. To reduce sugar consumption, becoming familiar with nutrition facts found on packaged foods is a must. Not only does a diet high in sugar impede cognitive function, the impact on your heart can also be devastating. To help reduce the amount of sugar you consume in a day, check out some of these helpful tips:

sugar and the brain
  • Pay attention to all types of sugar – When reading nutrition labels, it’s important to pay attention to all varieties of sugar. Fructose, dextrose, corn syrup, honey, lactose, raw sugar, and sucrose are a few fairly common sugar types.
  • Cut out sweet beverages – There’s an astounding level of sugar in juices, sodas, and other sweet drinks. By replacing these beverages with water, you’ll be making a giant step in the right direction.
  • Be mindful of artificial sweeteners – Harvard Medical School advises that the addition of artificial sweeteners may hinder healthy sugar receptor function and may cause normal foods to taste differently. There may also be a chemical risk between the brain’s desire for more calories when artificial sweeteners are routinely used. Everything in moderation!
  • Switch to healthy snacks – Instead of sweet treats like cookies and candy, try grabbing fresh fruits or vegetables.
  • Be observant – Because sugar tastes good, food manufacturers tend to add more sugar than necessary to processed foods. By checking labels, you can help familiarize yourself with products that contain too much sugar. Common culprits include breads, sauces, and dressings.
  • Exercise – Exercise can help counter the negative effects of an unhealthy diet. By adding exercise to your daily routine, you can help encourage healthy functions throughout your whole body. When it comes to sugar, burning that energy through physical activity can mitigate sugars’ negative impact.
  • Alcohol – Moderate amounts of alcohol consumption can cause a rise in blood sugar, while excessive alcohol consumption can have the reverse effect. Too much alcohol can cause a dangerous drop in blood sugar levels and can have the same impact on healthy brain and body functions. We know that addiction can make avoiding things like sugar and alcohol difficult, and can impact your brain. Here at the United Brain Association, we’re helping fund research on the treatment of Alcohol Dependence. Find out more, including how you can help, here.

Once the damage of too much sugar in your diet has been done, it is sometimes too late. This is why it’s important to become aware of your sugar intake sooner rather than later. When it comes to obesity or other heart-related diseases, the effects of too much sugar in your diet can be reversed to a degree. Unfortunately, some damage done to your cognitive function and brain chemistry cannot be undone. The time to make a difference is now! Focusing on a healthy diet with appropriate levels of glucose is extremely important in maintaining a healthy mind and body throughout your life.

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