It’s that scary time of year again when sugar takes over the holidays…
But do you have to be afraid? Not if you understand a few key ways to help minimize the impact on the brain and body.
The first step is to really understand what happens in our body when we consume sugar. There are a couple of key questions that we need to address.
Let's first dive into some terminology you will need to know:
Glycemic Index (GI)
A rating system for foods containing carbohydrates. It shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar (glucose) levels when that food is eaten on its own.
- A value used to measure how much specific foods increase blood sugar levels. Foods are classified as low, medium or high glycemic foods, and ranked on a scale of 0–100. The lower the GI of a specific food, the less it may affect your blood sugar levels.
High GI foods
- Carbohydrate foods that are broken down quickly by your body and cause a rapid increase in blood glucose. High GI foods include:
- Sugar and sugary foods (candy)
- Sugary soft drinks
- White bread
- White rice
Low and medium GI foods
- Low or medium GI foods are broken down more slowly and cause a gradual rise in blood sugar levels over time. They include:
- Some fruits and vegetables
- Legumes, such as beans or peas
- Wholegrain foods, such as porridge oats
Types of Sugars in Foods
Almost everything in the Standard American Diet (SAD) has added sugar. One serving of Prego sauce has more sugar than two Oreos! One glass of orange juice has the same amount of sugar as a can of soda! Pharmacologic doses of sugar every day can cause problems.
Natural Sweetener Options to Consider
Stevia leaf sweetener is a natural sweetener which may improve overall cognition, and may help with cancer. There are a couple of versions of stevia:
- Organic Stevia Leaf extract – Beneficial to the body
- Highly processed stevia sweetener (sponsored by commercial beverage companies) – Linked to studies related to non-nutritive sweeteners and the disruption of beneficial intestinal bacteria
Organic Stevia Leaf extract is naturally 200 times sweeter than sugar. It has been known to lower glucose and insulin levels, maintain a consistent flavor profile when used as a sweetener in foods and supplements, and is GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) in the food industry.
Monk Fruit is a natural sweetener which is incredibly sweet but reaches a specific sweetness after a certain quantity. Monk fruit is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels initially. It also boasts a low level on the glycemic index and is also considered GRAS making this natural sweetener a good alternative to traditional sugars and sweeteners.
Allulose is a type of sugar that resembles fructose, which is the sugar that occurs naturally in fruit and comes in a granulated form and resembles regular sugar. Allulose is considered a low-calorie sweetener with 70% of the sweetness of sucrose.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), allulose has around 0.4 calories per gram(g), which is much lower than sugar's 4 calories per gram. Furthermore, because the body takes allulose but does not convert it to glucose, it is almost calorie-free. Allulose, according to the FDA, has little to no effect on blood glucose or insulin levels.
Preliminary data on Stevia, Monk Fruit, and Allulose indicate the responses are not as bad as artificial sweeteners, but many studies still need to be conducted.
Other Natural Sweeteners
- Maple Syrup
- Brown Sugar
- Coconut Sugar
- Raw Cane Sugar
Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy. These react similarly in the body with one exception...fructose:
Fructose – is a naturally occurring sugar that combines table sugar with glucose with a powerful bond. The fruit itself contains fructose, but this is in the matrix of the fruit (fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) that all pair with the fructose and adjust how it is absorbed (and offset) in the body.
For example, honey is high in fructose and agave is pure fructose (without the balancing factors). It is all-natural, but very similar to High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is very damaging.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – contains glucose and fructose but there is more fructose (55-75% more) but this fructose is ‘free fructose’ which is easily and quickly absorbed. When HFCS is ingested (soda, fruit juice, etc.) it creates drastic changes in the liver, causing fatty liver, and raising triglycerides, but does not raise insulin levels or blood sugar directly. It does indirectly, however, lead to even more damaging downstream consequences.
Did You Know:
88% of the population is considered metabolically unhealthy.
Sugar and the Body
The human body is designed for starvation. Bodies are designed to store sugar. Think of a bear hibernating. The bear eats and prepares for hibernation, then goes to sleep and lives off this storage all winter. The problem with starch and sugars, is that they have similar effects on the body and the brain! The body stores these as visceral fat (fat which coats the liver, kidneys and other organs), and produces various molecules.
One of these molecules are cytokines.
Visceral fat cells make cytokines (IK6 – interleukin 6) which is fuel for inflammatory diseases like autoimmune disorders, kidney disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
Visceral fat also produces hormones and neurotransmitters and works with insulin to let the sugar and fat into the cells, but cannot let it out (one-way pathway). In short, by eating sugar, the body literally shuts down the body’s ability to burn fat, slows metabolism, creates inflammation, and causes hormonal changes in men and women. These processes cause the hippocampus to shrink (shrinkage of the brain and memory center—also known as Type 3 Diabetes) causing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The body can still have a response to sugar, or a sugar-like substance, even if it does not ingest it. Think Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov’s dogs start to salivate every time they heard a bell ring, just like the human body reacts to sugar-like substances.
For example: Coke zero triggers the body to think sugar is coming into the body, so insulin is released. When insulin (an inflammatory substance) is released and cannot find the sugar to target, insulin resistance can build up in the body.
If eating sugars, try to pair with fiber.
Fibers like Konjac Fiber Root are thought to slow the absorption of sugar and cholesterol in the gut, not only helping control spikes in blood sugar, but also helping reduce cholesterol.
Sugar and the Brain
Let’s look at glucose. Hypometabolism is a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s brain has an inability to generate ATP (energetic currency of cells) and is diminished by 50% when using glucose as a fuel source. But the brain’s ability to use ketones is unperturbed making the ketogenic diet a therapeutic option for Alzheimer’s disease. Limiting carbohydrates (or the effect of sugars in the body) has shown the ketogenic diet’s positive effect on brain development. We’ve also learned that glucose is difficult to process in the Alzheimer riddled brain.
Can the brain process glucose?
The brain consumes about 20% of the body’s glucose, but runs better on fat. Neurons have the highest demand requiring continuous delivery of glucose from the blood. Though the brain makes up only about 2% of the body’s weight, it consumes 20% of the energy! Glucose metabolism fuels physiological brain function (using ATP).
Glucose is essential metabolic fuel for the brain,
but is not always good for the brain.
“The brain on sugar is essentially a depressed, demented, and hyperactive brain.”—Dr. Mark Hyman
(Think kids at a birthday party after sugar, cake, and tantrums.)
Drivers for sugar are mediated through multiple pathways, many of which have to do with insulin, insulin resistance, and its effect on cognitive function over time. Eating lots of sugar turns into amyloid plaques which eventually leads to Alzheimer’s and dementia. (Alzheimer’s is considered to be Type 3 Diabetes.)
Sugar and brain health is also thought to be linked to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), depression, misregulation of hormones, and creating dysbiosis in the microbiome.
True artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame) do have significant adverse neurological effects on the brain. But, does natural sugar (stevia, monk fruit) have the same addictive properties as the artificial sugars on the brain?
Artificial versus Natural Sweeteners – What’s the difference in brain health?
“Sugar, is sugar, is sugar.”—Dr. Mark Hyman
Healthy fats on the other hand are a requirement for the brain to function. The brain feeds off ketones, produced by fat, rather than glucose. Liver health is also required for optimal brain function.
Four Things You Need to Know
- Minimize sugars (especially added sugars) for optimal brain function. However, if you eat sugar, pair with fiber.
- Decreasing overall sugar intake and increasing quality fat can not only decrease inflammation, but will increase fuel for the brain and cognitive function.
- Stay away from streamlined fructose or high fructose corn syrup, one of the key factors triggering inflammation, visceral fat, and Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), which all dramatically impact brain function.
- Eat healthy fats when possible, for sustainable brain function.
Want to dive-in even deeper into understanding how sugar affects your body and brain? If you do, click the button below to join Scott Jessen, Director of Product Development, for about a 20 minute dive into sugar.
- Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load [Oregon State University: Linus Pauling Institute–Micronutrient Information Center, March 2016]
- Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults [National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016]
- How Sugar Affects the Brain [United Brain Association, June 2020]
- Low-Dose Stevia (Rebaudioside A) Consumption Perturbs Gut Microbiota and the Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System [National Library of Medicine: Nutrients, May 2019]
- Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels [National Library of Medicine: PubMed Central, March 2010]
- Effects of stevia on synaptic plasticity and NADPH oxidase level of CNS in conditions of metabolic disorders caused by fructose [National Library of Medicine: BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, December 2017]
- Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function [National Library of Medicine: PubMed Central, August 2013]
- Monitoring and Maintenance of Brain Glucose Supply [National Library of Medicine: Appetite and Food Intake, 2nd edition, 2017]
- Link between Diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease Due to the Shared Amyloid Aggregation and Deposition Involving Both Neurodegenerative Changes and Neurovascular Damages [National Library of Medicine: Journal of Clinical Medicine, June 2020]
- Essential fatty acids and human brain [National Library of Medicine: PubMed.gov, December 2009]
- Impact of Dietary Fats on Brain Functions [National Library of Medicine: Current Neuropharmacology, August 2018]