What Sugar Does to Your Brain
The old adage, “everything in moderation” is particularly applicable to the interaction between sugar and brain functioning.
The brain is one of the neediest metabolic organs in the body. Even when we are asleep, the brain continues to control the process is in our body that we need for sustained living. Obviously, our bodies are designed to maintain energy sustenance for our brains. But optimal performance is dependent on consistency.
Too much sugar, too little sugar, and sugar of the wrong kind can have a deleterious an impact on performance in a negative way.
How You Metabolize Sugar
The first thing that needs to be understood relating to the use of sugar for brain functioning is how exactly the body metabolizes carbohydrates, which include sugars, starches, and sugar compounds. Sugar is a generic term that describes sweet organic compounds.
There are a host of sugars that are consumed in natural and processed foods. Complex sugars can be broken down into primary sugars including glucose, fructose, maltose, and lactose. Glucose is the specific simple sugar needed to fuel our brains.
The metabolic processes in our cells can directly break down simple sugars for use. Complex sugars are metabolized through multiple processes that typically involve various organs including the stomach, pancreas, and liver. The stomach secretes enzymes that break the chains of complex carbohydrates into their component parts.
Once broken down, the primary sugars are absorbed through the small intestine into the bloodstream where they can be used for cellular energy.
Fruits, vegetables, grains, and other natural foods are all sources of sugars. The problem is, people continually load up on unnecessary refined sugars. We sprinkle sugar on our cereal, put sugar in our coffee, grab a cookie, drink a soda, or pop in a piece of candy in order to give us that little extra boost to get through the day.
The refined sugars in these snacks and drinks give us an immediate energy source because they are loaded with glucose that can be directly absorbed into the bloodstream for metabolic use. Who hasn’t witnessed a young child going bonkers after drinking a sugary drink, or getting their hands on too much candy?
Inevitably, the child goes berserk for short time and then suffers an energy crash.
In a normally functioning system from appropriate food sources, sugar conversion happens at a steady pace. Glucose gradually enters into the bloodstream and the supply and demand of the energy system stays in balance. When an excess of sugars enters into the bloodstream, the brain registers the excess and signals to the pancreas to release insulin into the system.
The insulin converts the excess into lipids and glycogen. Lipids become fat stored in cells for later metabolism , and glycogen gets stored in the liver to be converted back into glucose when sugar levels drop.
When You Consume Too Much Sugar
When too much simple sugar is thrown into the system too quickly, the body overreacts and goes into conversion overdrive. The hypothalamus in the brain signals to the pancreas to start pulling the sugars out of the bloodstream for fat and glycogen stores.
This results in a quick depletion of sugars from the bloodstream. In the case when the sugar source comes from highly processed sources, like candies, cakes, or sodas, there are no complex carbohydrate elements serving as a backup source of gradual sugar infusion. The insulin pulls the energy out of the bloodstream, and the person suffers that energy crash.
Studies show that people who binge on simple sugar and suffer the subsequent crashes are prone to moodiness, irritability, confusion, difficulty problem solving, and short-term memory lapses.
So what effect do these types of processes have on brain functioning?
There are differences between the short term and long-term effects of sugar on the brain. Initially, sugar can produce a high in terms of energy and excitement which quickly will swing to a low. Studies show that people who binge on simple sugar and suffer the subsequent crashes are prone to moodiness, irritability, confusion, difficulty problem solving, and short-term memory lapses.
In addition, a pattern of inattention on continual performance tasks is associated with sugar over-ingestion .
That’s not to say that all sugar ingestion is bad. We know that the brain needs to process glucose in order to function. The key is to have a long sustained glucose supply available from complex carbohydrate breakdown that is able to gradually be metabolized for use in the bloodstream.
Sugar and Decision Making, Alzheimer’s and Brain Inflammation
In a study related to decision-making processes on parole boards, patterns were discovered showing that throughout the day the decision making process itself becomes more and more difficult for the individuals on the board. At the beginning of the day, board members were able to weigh the pros and cons of independent situations for potential parolees in order to make a decision.
As the day wore on, however, these decisions became more difficult to deliberate. There was resurgence of decision-making abilities following lunch when glucose levels were restored, which, when depleted as the day neared its end, resulted in more postponements of paroles.
Blood-sugar roller coasters may contribute to brain inflammation and subsequent lessening of brain matter later in life
The long-term effects of inconsistent sugar intake are being examined by researchers involved in the neurological study of Alzheimer’s. Researchers are finding that cognitive functioning and short term memory retrieval in our aging populous may be partially determined by a history of inconsistent blood-sugar levels.
While a small spike in blood sugar levels may contribute to somewhat more sustained attention and decision-making in the short term, blood-sugar roller coasters may contribute to brain inflammation and subsequent lessening of brain matter later in life.
Alzheimer’s researchers are also linking the plaque formation that is a primary marker of Alzheimer’s to a breakdown in the regulatory insulin system. Some researchers have gone so far as to say that Alzheimer’s is potentially “Type 3 diabetes.”
So where does this leave us as we strive to strike a balance between glucose levels that fuel our brain and glucose levels that ultimately lead to its destruction? As consumers, awareness of the detrimental effects of processed sugary foods can go a long way.
Diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease are both on the rise. Those older adults who are succumbing to either or both of these disease processes are the same adults who grew up in a society pushing candy bars and soda rather than healthy snacks to get through the afternoon slump.
While these foods are readily available in every gas station, school cafeteria, and break room, we should carefully deliberate before purchasing what may ultimately destroy our ability to think.
Hopefully, we will have enough glucose in our system to fuel the decision making processes that will keep us steady on our path, rather than buying the ticket for the sugar roller coaster that may end in Alzheimer’s disease.
Image by Pink Sherbet Photography