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How sugar affects the brain?

When you eat something loaded with sugar, your taste buds, your gut and your brain all take notice.

By Betty-AnnPublished 9 months ago 3 min read
How sugar affects the brain?
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Imagine a world of culinary delights, where warm, gooey cookies beckon with their enticing aroma, crunchy candies invite you to savor their satisfying snap, velvety cakes promise indulgence, and waffle cones rise like sweet towers, crowned with the creamy splendor of ice cream. Does the mere thought of these delectable treats make your mouth water? Are you suddenly gripped by an irresistible craving for dessert? If so, you're not alone, for there's a fascinating interplay between our brains and sugary foods that makes them incredibly hard to resist.

First, let's unravel the enigma of sugar. It's a catch-all term encompassing a class of molecules known as carbohydrates. Sugar exists in myriad forms, from the familiar glucose, fructose, and sucrose to less-recognized siblings like maltose, lactose, dextrose, and starch. Even high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar, and honey share the sugar family tree. Surprisingly, sugar's pervasive presence isn't confined to candies and desserts; it stealthily infiltrates seemingly innocent products like tomato sauce, yogurt, dried fruit, flavored waters, and granola bars. Given its omnipresence, understanding how sugar affects the brain is paramount.

By Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

When sugar encounters your taste buds, a remarkable journey begins. The sugars in your food activate sweet-taste receptors on your tongue. These receptors send signals to your brain stem, which then branches into various regions of the forebrain, including the cerebral cortex. In the cerebral cortex, different sections are dedicated to processing various tastes, such as bitter, salty, umami, and, of course, sweet. The sweet signal then triggers your brain's reward system, an intricate network of electrical and chemical pathways spanning multiple brain regions. This system, though complex, ultimately answers a simple, subconscious question: "Should I do that again?"

Think of the warmth and comfort you experience when you savor Grandma's chocolate cake—that's your reward system saying, "Absolutely!" Notably, it's not limited to food; social interactions, sexual experiences, and even certain drugs can activate this reward system, making it a key player in our pursuit of pleasure. However, overstimulating this system sets off a chain reaction of negative consequences, including loss of control, heightened cravings, and increased tolerance to sugar.

By Rod Long on Unsplash

But let's return to that initial bite of cereal. As it journeys down into your stomach and digestive tract, more sugar receptors come into play. While these aren't taste buds, they convey messages to your brain, signaling satiety or prompting the production of insulin to manage the incoming sugar influx.

In this intricate dance of brain and body, dopamine, a vital neurotransmitter, serves as the major currency of the reward system. While dopamine receptors are scattered throughout the forebrain, they cluster densely in certain regions, forming dopamine "hot spots" integral to our reward system. Drugs like alcohol, nicotine, or heroin can send dopamine levels skyrocketing, driving individuals to seek that euphoric high—a classic hallmark of addiction. Surprisingly, sugar, while less intense in its dopamine impact compared to drugs, does indeed release dopamine, contributing to our craving for sugary delights.

By Caitlyn de Wild on Unsplash

Sugar's unique aspect lies in its scarcity among dopamine-inducing foods. Vegetables like broccoli, for instance, have no effect on dopamine release, which may explain the struggle of coaxing children into consuming their greens. Conversely, a balanced meal triggers dopamine spikes in reward system hot spots, but if you consume the same meal repeatedly, those spikes diminish and eventually level out. This phenomenon reflects the brain's evolutionary strategy to prioritize novel tastes, ensuring that we detect spoiled food and maintain a varied diet.

Now, consider what happens when sugar-rich foods replace balanced meals. If you indulge sparingly or moderately, the dopamine response mirrors that of a wholesome meal. However, with excessive consumption, the dopamine surge doesn't taper off, making sugar-laden foods perpetually rewarding. This continuous reward cycle contributes to sugar's potential for addiction, resembling the patterns seen with certain drugs.

By Aron L on Unsplash

In essence, every type of sugar, despite its distinct properties, sets in motion a cascade of reactions in the brain that culminate in a pleasurable sensation. When consumed in excess and too frequently, sugar can push the brain's reward system into overdrive, leading to a dependence on sugary foods. Yet, it's crucial to remember that an occasional slice of cake or an indulgent treat poses no immediate harm.

In conclusion, the allure of sugary delights is more than mere temptation; it's a complex interplay between our taste buds, brain chemistry, and evolutionary history. Understanding this intricate relationship can empower us to make mindful choices when it comes to our sweet indulgences, allowing us to savor them in moderation while safeguarding our overall health and well-being.


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    Betty-AnnWritten by Betty-Ann

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