Sugar Is Addictive: Here’s How It Rewires Your Brain

The brain’s functional connectivity and size can be impacted by high sugar intake. Is your sugar consumption causing ripple effects to the rest of your body? Learn about sugar addiction and how to manage sugar levels.

By URLife Team
30 May 2023

We all love to have sweets every now and then. Whether it’s the frappuccino that you’re drinking in the morning or that slice of cake you’ve had at the office, there’s no denying how sugar has pervaded most of our meals and snacks.  Today, conditions like tooth decay, weight gain, heart disease, acne, and diabetes have all been linked to high sugar intake. The World Health Organisation recommends that only 5 per cent of daily calories should come from added sugar. Despite knowing this, many of us find it difficult to resist the temptation of sugary foods.


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As per a 2022 study by Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (USA), sugar is a form of glucose that is an essential source of energy that fuels many cellular processes in our bodies, including the brain cells. When we consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose, which is then transported through the bloodstream to provide energy to our cells. The brain, in particular, relies heavily on glucose for its energy needs. Neurons require a constant supply of glucose to function optimally.


Related story: The Diabetes Guide: How To Balance Your Blood Sugar


Link of Diabetes And The Brain

While glucose is necessary for brain function, excessive consumption of sugar can have negative health effects such as hypertension and diabetes. A 2023 report by the WHO reveals that 75 million Indians will be suffering from either hypertension or diabetes by 2025.


Sugar can have addictive properties. Many people turn to sugary foods as a form of comfort or stress relief. A 2023 study in the United Brain Association shows that when we consume sugar, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This dopamine release creates a sense of pleasure and can lead to cravings for more sugar, similar to the way addictive substances can affect the brain. The temporary pleasure and mood-enhancing effects of sugar can provide a brief escape from negative emotions, leading to emotional eating patterns.


Both excessive and insufficient sugar intake can have an impact on the brain in different ways.

How High Blood Sugar Rewires The Brain

As per a 2022 study in the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (USA), high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) impairs blood vessels in the brain that carry oxygen-rich blood. When the brain receives too little blood, brain cells can die. This is called brain atrophy and can cause problems with memory and thinking and eventually can lead to vascular dementia over time. Consuming large amounts of sugar, particularly in the form of added sugars found in processed foods and sugary beverages, can have negative effects on the brain. Here's how excessive sugar intake can impact the brain:


1. Cognitive function and mental performance

High sugar consumption has been associated with cognitive impairments, including decreased attention span, impaired memory, and reduced cognitive flexibility. Research suggests that excessive sugar intake may impair synaptic activity in the brain, affecting learning and memory processes.


2. Inflammation and oxidative stress

High-sugar diets have been linked to increased inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress can damage brain cells and contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.


3. Mood and mental health

High sugar intake and an increased risk of depression and other mental health conditions. A 2023 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, found those with the highest level of sugar consumption were 23 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder.


Test your blood sugar


Related story: 7 Ways To Control High Blood Sugar In The Morning


How Low Blood Sugar Rewires The Brain

On the other hand, inadequate consumption of sugars and carbohydrates can also affect brain function negatively. Here's how insufficient sugar intake can impact the brain:

Energy deprivation

The brain relies heavily on glucose for energy. In cases of very low carbohydrate or sugar intake, such as with extremely low-carb or ketogenic diets, the brain may initially experience a shortage of glucose. However, the brain can adapt to using alternative fuel sources, such as ketones produced during ketosis.


Cognitive changes

Some individuals may experience cognitive changes, such as difficulty concentrating or "brain fog," during the initial adaptation period when transitioning to a low-carb or ketogenic diet. However, these effects are typically temporary, and the brain adapts to using alternative fuel sources over time.


Related story: Sugar Substitute: Healthy Sweetener Alternative For People With Diabetes


Tips To Consider When Consuming Sugar


Remember, moderation is key for the right intake of glucose in the body. It's not about completely eliminating sugar from your diet but rather reducing your intake to a level that supports your overall health and well-being. A well-balanced diet that includes appropriate amounts of complex carbohydrates, which break down into glucose, is generally recommended for optimal brain health. This ensures a steady supply of energy while providing essential nutrients for brain function. To eat sugar in moderation and reduce your overall consumption, here are some helpful tips:


1. Read nutrition labels

Sugar can hide in unexpected places, such as in flavoured yoghurts, granola bars, cereals, and even savoury foods like pasta sauces. Pay attention to the amount of sugar listed in the nutrition facts panel on packaged foods. Look for hidden sugars under various names like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, and more. 


2. Choose whole foods

Whole, unprocessed foods are generally lower in added sugars compared to processed foods. Emphasise whole, unprocessed foods in your diet such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats which are generally lower in added sugars compared to processed foods.


3. Cook meals at home

By preparing your own meals, you have control over the ingredients you use. You can reduce or eliminate added sugars in your recipes and experiment with natural sweeteners like fruits or spices.


4. Limit sugary beverages

Many times, it might not actually be what you’re eating so much as what you’re drinking. Focus on reducing or replacing these items first. Sugary drinks like soda, fruit juices, energy drinks, and sweetened coffee or tea can contribute significantly to your sugar intake. Choose water, or unsweetened tea, or infused water with fruits and herbs for flavour.


5. Find alternatives

Explore sugar substitutes like stevia, monk fruit extract, or erythritol. However, use them in moderation as some people may experience digestive issues with certain artificial sweeteners.


Consult a registered dietitian


Related story: Does Exercise Help Lower Blood Sugar


Individual nutritional needs may vary, and it is always advisable to consult with a registered dietitian from UR.Life for personalised dietary recommendations on sugar reduction and healthy eating habits.


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