Too Much Sugar Slows the Brain, Decreases Memory

Too Much Sugar Slows the Brain, Decreases Memory

The next time someone calls you a sugar junkie, you might think twice about eating that doughnut.

Name-calling aside, there is a great deal of scientific evidence to show that a diet rich in too much processed sugar, such as that found in high-fructose corn syrup, is enough to make us addicts for life.

In fact, the pleasure centers of the brain that light up in heroin- or cocaine-addicted persons are the same as those that are aroused by corn syrup, which is now found in almost every processed food from ketchup and salad dressing to coffee creamer and fast food — even the fries are coated in the stuff according to Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser.

A Food “High”

Evidence also suggests that, like heavily addictive drugs and alcohol, your body builds up a tolerance to sugar over time and that you’ll need more and more of it to achieve the same “high.”

Like brains that are addicted to heroin, brains that are processing sugar release endogenous opioids, which cause a similar “rush” in pleasure that injected heroin provides, though in a fraction of that same sensation.

(That’s also why recovering heroin addicts very often crave sweets when they stop using, an affect called “cross-tolerance.”)

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We now understand that excess sugar consumption as a child may in fact make that child more susceptible to becoming an alcoholic later in life.

Again and again we are learning that sugar acts on the brain’s reward centers in much the same way as other highly addictive substances, releasing dopamine.

Recent evidence has also shown similarities in brain imaging in people who are obese and those who are drug addicts and/or alcoholics.

Part of the problem is how developed nations like the United States have used a corn surplus and turned it into a low-cost sweeter that manufactures can use as an additive in place of cane sugar to bring down the price of food; it’s also why you can go into any supermarket in America and still buy a two liter bottle of soda for a buck — about the same price it was a decade ago — while the costs of meat, milk, and produce are continuously climbing.

But people need to ask themselves, what is the real cost of all that cheap corn syrup? What is it actually doing to our health?

How Much Is Too Much?

A little processed sugar in our diets is acceptable; experts also claim that a daily measure of cane sugar, such as those two teaspoons in your morning coffee are also fine — to the degree of about six per day.

But with all the high-fructose corn syrup found in every soft drink, condiment, dressing, and alcoholic beverage, those six teaspoons quickly turn into much more.

Today the average American consumes more than 80 pounds of sugar annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while other experts quote that amount as much higher — up to 150 pounds per year — which is most likely the reason why the U.S. has among the highest global obesity rates for both children and adults and why chronic disease like Type II diabetes has reached epidemic levels.

(Even sugar substitutes, sometimes touted as healthy alternatives, are largely processed in the body in exactly the same way as cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.)

A Sugared Brain Is a Slow Brain  

Scientists are now looking at how high sugar consumption can literally alter brain chemistry over time.

For instance, Princeton University researchers have noted that lab rats given a regular diet of sucrose developed cravings as well as symptoms of anxiety, depression, and increased aggression even after sugar was removed from their diets for 30 days.

While excessive sugar in the short-term might feel like a way to jump-start your energy, making you more alert or energized, the reverse is actually true.

A steady diet in sugary foods actually makes your brain’s response time slower, according to information provided by UCLA research scientists and can even impair learning and memory.

“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage,” says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, study co-author and professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

In the study, Gomez-Pinilla compared two groups of rats eating a steady diet of high-fructose sugar water; while one group was also given flaxseed oil, which is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, as well as the supplemental fatty acid docosahexaenoic (DHA).

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Within just six weeks, the rats deprived of the essential fatty acids faired much worse in navigating a maze they had memorized just months earlier. Further tests showed that those same rats had less synaptic activity than the rats who had been given the fatty acids along with the sugar.

Interesting, those same rats also developed resistance to insulin in much the same way as a human diabetic, suggesting that supplementing with DHA might help protect the body from developing insulin resistance in the first place. Since the body cannot manufacture enough DHA, physicians suggest supplementing with it.

“Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning,” continues Gomez-Pinilla.

Eating too much sugar might very well affect how our brain cells use and store sugar in order to have sufficient energy to learn and remember.

Gomez-Pinilla recommends eating foods rich in omega-3s and -6s (salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseeds) while consuming sugar to counteract its adverse affects; he also recommends taking one gram of DHA daily in accordance with your physician’s advice (as it can affect other medications, such as those prescribed for high blood pressure).