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Sugar and the Brain: What to do with all of that Halloween Candy!

November 09, 2017

Too Much Candy in Your House?

By: Sarah McCarren, RN, MSN, CPNP
Dr Don's Care Packages, CEO

If you have children that have returned from trick-or-treating with a pillowcase full of candy, this blog is for you!

If you were a little ambitious in your Halloween candy purchases and you have bags of left over candy, this blog is also for you!

Or maybe you find yourself priming the pump in November for sugar-laden holiday treats. By January 1st, you find your waistline growing and your brain is issuing a rebellion against healthy foods. If you can relate, this blog is also for you!

What Sugar Does to the Body

Sugar is a source of energy for every cell in our body and should comprise about 10% of our daily caloric intake. Unfortunately, the American diet is about three-times higher than the recommended intake of sugar. When you eat (or drink) an item with added sugar, your brain fires-up and hijacks your reward system. You know it, you can feel the pleasure! This sensation is produced through a wondrous interplay between your sense organs, your gastrointestinal system, and most importantly, your brain.

Your Brain's Response to Sugar

  1. The Reward Circuit: Our reward system is activated constantly through what we consume and activities in which we engage. The term "hedonistic hunger" refers to a powerful desire for food, even when the body is not in need of the nutrients. When we continuously activate our food reward circuits, we create a feedback loop that includes increased tolerance for added sugar, increased cravings, and increased consumption.
  2. Chemical Response: Dopamine is the most researched neurochemical regarding the relationship between food consumption and the chemical response of the brain. When we eat new foods that appeal to us, dopamine is released and activates the reward circuit. It tells us to eat more. When we continue to frequently eat that food, the brain reduces dopamine to encourage nutrient diversity. Foods with added sugar (and food high in fat) are exceptions and dopamine remains elevated. Simple sugars are rapidly absorbed by our digestive system. Like addictive drugs, this "fast fix" either activates or suppresses multiple neurochemicals and hormones which leads to our sense of craving, loss of control, and eventual tolerance to sugar. Conversely, naturally occurring sugars from fruits, vegetables, and grains have a slow steady absorption. Some of the chemicals with strong research related to added sugar include insulin, leptin, ghrelin, serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and brain-derived neuropathic factor (BDNF).
  3. Two Medically Significant Reasons we should Reduce Added Sugar
  • Type-two Diabetes: Sugar does not cause diabetes. The causes of diabetes are multi-factorial but there is a strong association between type-two diabetes and obesity. There is also a strong association between obesity and added sugar consumption. Recent research has been conducted on brain-derived neuropathic factor (BDNF), a chemical that is reduced when we regularly consume added sugar. This chemical is thought to be a necessary component in sugar metabolism and the lack-there-of contributes to insulin resistance and type-two diabetes. Poor sugar utilization and metabolism can also contribute to depression and memory problems.
  • Obesity: Some people's reward circuits react more vigorously than others and create a cycle of unhealthy eating. The old thinking of dieting and self-control to lose weight has gone by the way-side with strong research recognizing neurologic and chemical causes of obesity. One example is the hunger hormone ghrelin, which is secreted in the stomach. Ghrelin increases dopamine and activates the reward circuit. Conversely, the hormones leptin and insulin normally reduce dopamine. Researchers are studying a relationship between increased body fat, lack of sleep, and decreased leptin and insulin. This relationship could help explain some of the neurochemistry behind overeating.

What to do with all that Halloween candy or those holiday desserts? You do not need to deny yourself these goodies. Simply stated, to avoid sugar binging, keep high-sugar foods and drinks out of your home! Dietitians recommend watching food labels for added sugar (such as high-fructose corn syrup) and purchasing foods with naturally occurring sugars and a low glycemic index (such as vegetables, fruits, and grains).

For more information about the brain's response to sugar, take a look at the following TED Ed video by Nicole Avena:



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