Sweets and Treats, Good For The Soul?
Halloween has come and passed, leaving bags of candy in its wake. Now we have the Holiday season full of pies, cookies, hot chocolate, and parties with sweets galore approaching. What does all this sugar mean for our brain?
Some Background Information on Sugar
Sugar. Its a critical part of our diet. But ‘sugar’ is a misleading term. When we hear sugar, we typically think of the white substance that makes ice cream, candy, cookies, cakes, and all sorts of modern treats taste sweet. But, the biochemical definition of sugar is a bit different. To scientists, sugar is any of the class of soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates found in living tissues. When some plants are processed, we can strip them down and extract what we commonly think of as sugar, but this isn’t the only ‘sweet tasting carbohydrate’ out there. Sugar can come in many forms, and they are not all created equal. There are several major molecules that nutrition professionals, doctors, and biologists think of when you say sugar. These are fructose, galactose, and glucose and are monosaccharides. Monosaccharides, also commonly referred to as simple sugars, means that they are single molecules. Monosaccharides can combine to form disaccharides, which are simply two simple sugars linked together. This class of molecules is commonly referred to as ‘complex sugars’. Each complex sugar has a glucose molecule, and either a second glucose, a fructose, or a galactose molecule.
Ok, so why the chemistry lesson? Our body reacts differently to each kind of sugar. To understand why we need some sugar, but not all is created equal we need to understand what it does in our body.
Glucose is the head honcho, the big deal, and the molecule that runs the show. Literally. The brain uses glucose almost exclusively as a fuel source. When there isn’t enough glucose for the brain, neurotransmitter formation is diminished, and communication between neurons breaks down. Low blood sugar can also lead to confusion, poor energy levels, and decreased cognitive function. Because of the role of glucose in the brain, it is important to give yourself enough of it to have a productive neurofeedback session! We recommend having a piece of fruit, a smoothie, or similar snack around your neurofeedback sessions.
Fructose and Galactose are also used in the body, but are not directly used for energy in cells. Rather, they are converted to glucose in the liver and then released back into the blood. They also can be converted to and stored as fat throughout the body. Because of the differences in metabolism of these types of sugars, it is important to watch our intake of these. Fructose is the sweetest of the sugars, which is why it is often used in commercial products. When possible, get products that use sweeteners like dates, beets, or other forms of the sugar in which it is in a less concentrated and still has the fiber from the plant it came from.
If Glucose Is So Important To The Brain And Body, Does That Mean We Can Eat All The Sugar We Want?
Common sense tells us no, but why? While the brain uses massive amounts of this molecule, up to 50% of the glucose in the body to be precise, having too much circulating glucose - either from simple sugars or complex sugars - can be very harmful. The harmful effects can also come from the other forms of simple sugars. Excessive sugar in the blood can cause many issues like diabetes, weight gain, hypertension, tendon and ligament issues, premature aging of cells, and more.
Excessive Sugar and The Brain
While having enough glucose is important, excessive sugar intake has severe impacts on the brain. People with high sugar diets are also generally at increased risk for anxiety and depression. This is paired with decreased ability for emotional processing. Chronically elevated blood glucose has been linked to poor memory and cognitive function. This is related to the fact that excessive sugar can cause the brain to lose functional connectivity. This is the ability for different areas of the brain to communicate with each other. It has also been linked with brain shrinkage, and restricted blood flow to the brain. If bad enough, this not only hurts memory and cognition, but can even contribute to the development of dementia.
Excessive sugar in the short term may not lead to the severe effects described above, but it does alter brain chemistry in a way to make you crave more sugar. In other words, sugar is addictive, and exposing yourself to it will make you want more, and more, and more. This is related to how sugar affects the genes for creation of and receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Lets not forget the brain body connection. Even if you aren’t worried about sugars direct effect on your brain, there is no doubt it is bad for the body when consumed in excess. And when your body doesn’t feel good, you probably won't either. You may also exercise less, find exercise harder, feel sluggish, and more which has been linked to decreased mood. Excessive sugar also alters the gut microbiome, aka our ‘second brain’. Check out our blog post on the brain gut axis for more information on this.
Holiday Season Tips
At the end of the day, we at Thrive understand that holiday sweets are one of the highlights of the season. We want you to enjoy them, but also want you to make informed choices. Here are a few ideas on how to enjoy sweets this season without putting your health at long term risk:
Have your sweets as part of a meal, not a stand alone treat.
Having protein and fat with your sweets can help your body slow down when digesting it, helping regulate the spikes in blood sugar
Know when to stop
Having a slice of pie or a Christmas cookie is great. But when you fill your plate with only sugary treats your brain will disregard the signals telling it is full, and will keep eating and eating. Start small and listen to your body
Basic, but important. Water is key in regulating the concentration of molecules in our body, and helping the kidneys in clearing what we don’t need.
When available, go for fruity treats.
Fruit contains fiber and other healthy molecules and vitamins which can be good for you and help slow the breakdown of sugar in the body
Take a walk
Even just a 15 minutes of light exercise such as a walk, or 5 minutes of a quick walk can cause the receptors on your skeletal muscle cells to pick up more sugar, clearing it from your blood. Consider taking a group stroll after desert and make it a social thing!
Don’t fall for the trap of ‘oh I ate a slice of cake, my whole day is ruined may as well eat unhealthy for the rest of the day’. Try to have some healthy meals or snacks in your day, and remember this is just one part of your health. You can still take care of yourself and have an overall healthy day.
Guilt and feeling disappointment in yourself can lead to negative self talk and even depression, anxiety, ect if it goes unchecked. Just enjoy your treats, and follow some of the other strategies listed here to do it responsibly.