How Sugar Affects the Brain: What You Need to Know
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Nicole Avena

Don’t believe your tastebuds, sugar isn’t your friend.

Refined sugar is over 99 percent pure calories, with no vitamins, minerals, fats, or proteins – just carbohydrates that can spike blood sugar. This spike is soon followed by a sugar crash, which can activate cravings for even more sugar.

Harmful Effects of Sugar

Eating sugary foods tends to make people hungry and tired. It also can lead to unwanted weight gain.

Excessive refined sugar consumption can create mineral deficiencies, interfere with the actions of calcium and magnesium, trigger an unhealthy inflammatory response, increase erratic brain cell firing, and may even cause aggressive behavior.

Additionally, sugar consumption has been associated with mood issues and attention problems. It also can increase triglycerides, lower HDL, and increase LDL cholesterol.

BrainMD’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Nicole Avena, has identified many harmful aspects of sugar in her TED-Ed lesson, “How Sugar Affects the Brain.” In the short but informative video, Dr. Avena discusses the dangers of sugar and how sugar affects your brain and gut.

Key Takeaways from Dr. Avena’s “How Sugar Affects the Brain”

In simple terms, sugar belongs to a class of molecules called carbohydrates (carbs). On food labels, sugar may appear as glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, lactose, dextrose, or starch. Keep an eye out for corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar, and honey, which also contain sugar.

When considering sugary foods, we tend to think of the usual culprits, like cake, cookies, candy, and candy bars. The alarming reality is that sugar can be found in a host of items at the grocery store. Sadly, sugar is added to a wide array of products including dried fruit, yogurt, ketchup, granola bars, and even flavored water.

How Sugar Affects the Brain

Hypothetical: you take a bite of cereal. The sugars in the cereal activate the sweet taste receptors at the tip of the tongue. These receptors send a signal to many areas of the brain via the brain stem.

One of these brain regions, the cerebral cortex, registers different tastes, including bitter, salty, umami and, of course, sweet. The unique taste sensation activates the brain’s reward system, which is a complex network of chemical and electrical pathways across several different regions of the brain. Eating a spoonful of cereal prompts the subconscious question, “Should I do that again?”

Unfortunately, overactivating the reward system can lead to a loss of control, greater cravings, and increased intolerance to sugar.

Sugar and the Gut

Did you know your gut has sugar receptors? These receptors don’t function like tastebuds, though. They send signals to the brain that you’re full or that your body should produce more insulin to counter the increased intake of sugar.

Sugar and the Brain

Central to our reward system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Alcohol, nicotine, or illicit drugs can help send dopamine into overdrive, leading people to continuously seek the high they get from these substances.

Sugar may affect our reward system in a similar manner to these substances. In fact, some animal studies have demonstrated the drug-like effects of added sugars.

If someone eats too much sugar, the dopamine level doesn’t level out; eating too much sugar will continue to feel rewarding. This may explain how many people get hooked on sugary foods.

Bottom line: overconsumption of sugar can have addictive effects on the brain.

So, now that we’ve seen how sugar affects the brain and body, let’s look at some practical ways you can curb sugar consumption.

3 of the Best Ways to Reduce Your Sugar Intake

1. Avoid Hidden Sugars

Even if you aren’t adding sugar to the foods and beverages you enjoy, you still may be consuming sugars without even realizing it. Many so-called health foods contain added sugars. Always read food labels to identify these hidden sugars.

How Sugar Affects the Brain 2 Here are 10 “health” foods that may contain hidden sugars:

2. Balance Your Blood Sugar

Low blood sugar levels are associated with overall lower brain activity, including lower activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain’s brake system. Low brain activity in the PFC can translate to more cravings and bad decisions. Research in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review shows that self-control failures are more likely to occur when blood sugar levels are low.

Drinking alcohol and eating sugary snacks, sweetened beverages, and other high-glycemic foods (rice, pasta, cereal) can cause blood sugar levels to drop. Stabilizing blood sugar levels throughout the day can help improve self-control and overall feelings of wellness.

These simple tips can help you keep your blood sugar balanced:

  • Eat protein and healthy fats at every meal.
  • Have smaller meals throughout the day. This helps eliminate the blood sugar rollercoaster ride that can impact your emotions and increase cravings.
  • Replace simple sugars and refined carbs with healthier options. For example, swapping candy for a square of sugar-free dark chocolate can help you kick a sugar habit.

3. Try Sweetener Alternatives

If you want to avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners, there are better, healthier options to consider. To add a little sweetness to your coffee or tea, reach for natural, lower-calorie sweeteners like monk fruit powder, erythritol, or unprocessed stevia. In their raw and natural state, these are much healthier choices than their refined counterparts and include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.

Note: stevia should be used in limited amounts as it can keep the tastebuds hooked on the “sweet” taste of foods.

Curb Your Sweet Tooth

Consuming large amounts of sugar can be detrimental to your health. Many illnesses have been linked to excessive sugar intake over extended periods of time.

If you’ve been struggling to curb your sweet tooth, these three tips may help you outsmart your sugar cravings.

Now’s the perfect time to say, “So long, sugar!”

For a deeper dive into the dangers of sugar, be sure to purchase Dr. Avena’s new book, “Why Diets Fail.”

At BrainMD, we’re dedicated to providing the highest purity nutrients to improve your physical health and overall well-being. For more information about our full list of brain healthy supplements, please visit us at BrainMD.

Keith Rowe