We all know we aren’t “supposed” to eat sugary treats, but often we feel powerless when it comes to avoiding them. In an interesting article in Forbes Magazine, David DiSalvo describes how sugar literally becomes an addictive substance, and how this addiction can cause some disturbing impacts on the function of our brains.
Chinese medicine has long held the view that a little bit of sweet (i.e. naturally occuring sugars in foods like fruits and grains) tonifies the digestive system, thereby supporting activities like memory, calm sleep, and the ability to view the world clearly. On the other hand, excess sugar, including refined and added sugars, harms the digestive system. Sweetness is cloying and too much impedes digestive function and the ability to properly break down food. This results in over-production of fat and phlegm, lethargy, cloudy-headedness, worsened immunity, poor memory and decreased mental function.
Interestingly, DiSalvo’s article shows scientific evidence that refined sugar has precisely the same effect on the brain as Chinese Medicine theory believes it to. Glucose is required by the brain to function, so we need some naturally occuring sugars in our foods. However, “a diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without BDNF, our brains can’t form new memories and we can’t learn (or remember) much of anything.” Those with impaired ability to metabolize glucose from the blood stream, like diabetics and pre-diabetics, have particularly low levels of the BDNF factor, and as the levels of BDNF fall, so does their ability to metabolize sugars.
So sugar has been shown to cause poor memory and reduced mental function. What’s worse, once we pass the threshold of “useful” sugar levels in the brain, our brain begins to lose it’s ability to recognize that it’s had too much. Chronic sugar consumption reduces the sensitivity of oxytocin cells, the brain’s own blood sugar monitor. Thus the more sugar we eat, the more we begin to think that another serving would sound good. It’s a strikingly similar pattern to that of many addictions.
The trouble here is that with increased tolerance for sugars, cutting back becomes harder. Many people feel withdrawal symptoms in the first few days of reducing sugar consumption, and the brain will come to crave its standard systemic flooding of glucose. But replacing your sugary treats with fresh organic fruits and low-glycemic sweeteners like stevia and raw-honey will have its rewards. Cravings for sugar tend to go away over time as added sugar is removed from the diet. In return? Among many other things are weight loss, better memory, and a clearer mind.
When you must sweeten – such as in baking – here’s a handy guide on how to replace processed sugar with some natural, healthier alternatives.