BY Erica N., MA CREST Program Co-Occurring Specialist
I was recently talking to my husband about our plans for Valentine’s Day this year. Now that we have a toddler, we decided to keep it simple. We are going to have a family dinner at home, complete with a special Valentine’s Day dessert. Both my husband and I have a sweet tooth, so I was excited to browse Pinterest for some new dessert ideas. I was not disappointed. I saw everything from chocolate cherry marshmallow fudge to tiramisu trifles to pink meringues! But I was interrupted during my search for the perfect Valentine’s Day dessert when I started noticing pin after pin on sugar cravings, sugar addiction, ways to eat less sugar, and sugar detoxes. And just like that, I fell into a Pinterest wormhole. Now that I have resurfaced, I am going to share with you what I learned about sugar and our brain.
Sugar may cause or contribute to depression an anxiety. If you’ve ever experienced a sugar crash, then you know that sudden peaks and drops in blood sugar levels can cause you to experience symptoms like irritability, mood swings, brain fog, and fatigue. That’s because eating a sugar laden snack or beverage causes blood sugar levels to spike upon consumption and then plummet. When your blood sugar “crashes” you may find yourself feeling anxious, moody, or depressed. Sugar-rich and carb laden foods can also mess with neurotransmitters that help keep our moods stable. Consuming sugar stimulates the release of the mood boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. Constantly overacting these serotonin pathways can deplete our limited supplies of the neurotransmitter, which can contribute to symptoms of depression, according to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, functional medicine expert and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?
Sugar impairs memory and learning skills. A 2012 study on rats, conducted by researchers at UCLA, found that a diet high in fructose hinders learning and memory by literally slowing down the brain. The researchers found that rats that over consumed fructose had damaged synaptic activity in the brain, meaning that communication among brain cells was impaired.
Sugar creates a vicious cycle of intense cravings. When a person consumes sugar, just like any other food, it activates the tongue’s taste receptors. Then signals are sent to the brain, lighting up reward pathways and causing a surge of feel good hormones, like dopamine, to be released. So basically, sugar hijacks the brain’s reward pathway. And while stimulating the reward pathway with a piece of chocolate now and then is pleasurable and probably harmless, when the system is activated too much and too frequently, we start to run into problems. In fact, research has shown the brains of obese children actually light up differently when they taste sugar. This suggests that their brain circuitry may predispose these children to a lifetime of intense sugar cravings.
So it’s easy to see how we can get hooked on sugar, but I believe that as long as you are mindful of your sugar consumption, eating the occasional chocolate dessert will not harm you, and will probably be even more enjoyable if you are making a conscious decision to indulge. So on Valentine’s Day I decided, I will be making slow cooker hot fudge brownies… and enjoying every bite!