Did you forget your keys on the way out the door? Are you struggling to remember your to-do list? Having trouble focusing at work? You might be experiencing brain fog due to sugar. Here’s what to know about the effects sugar can have on your brain and body, plus the best sugar alternatives to try instead.
How does sugar affect the brain?
You might be surprised to learn this, but as the largest organ in your body, your brain actually needs sugar to function. Here’s a pared-down explanation of how it works. Any time you take in food, your body starts to process glucose (which you may also know as blood sugar). Foods with high levels of carbohydrates, like bread and fruit, are robust sources of glucose. With your body’s help, that glucose then helps power your brain.
Of course, in the standard American diet, we also get sugar through food and drink with added sugars. When we ingest too much refined sugar, it affects our brain in certain ways.
Sugar affects self-control
Have you ever heard someone say that sugar is addictive? There’s some truth to that. One notable study found that sweet foods can be more addictive than cocaine. Similarly, high-glycemic foods have been shown to light up regions of the brain linked to the reward response and trigger more intense hunger cues than lower-glycemic foods. These addiction-like effects can drive overeating and loss of self-control.
Sugar hurts your cognitive function
Remember that brain fog we talked about earlier? Research has linked high sugar consumption to inflammation in the brain, which can lead to memory struggles. Good news though: this inflammation can be counteracted with a low-sugar, low-GI diet.
Another study showed that a diet high in added sugar slows the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is crucial for the formation of new memories and learning. Finally, long-term research on diabetics has shown progressive brain damage and a greater degree of brain shrinkage.
Sugar influences your mood and emotions
You might associate high-sugar items with happy, celebratory times (like birthday cake at a party, or the aroma of freshly baked cookies in your grandmother’s kitchen). However, research has consistently linked sugar with depression and a reduced ability to process emotions. For example, people with Type 2 diabetes reported feeling more sadness and anxiety during episodes of elevated blood sugar. Another study found a high correlation between sugar consumption and incidence of depression. Finally, a brain imaging study has shown that high blood sugar can hurt one’s ability to process emotion.
Best sugar alternatives
While added sugar has proven negative effects on your brain, there are still ways to satisfy that sweet craving with healthier sugar alternatives. Try one of these sugar alternatives instead:
- Monk fruit: Monk fruit is naturally 200 times sweeter than sugar and is a natural, low calorie sweetener with anti-inflammatory effects.
- Local, pure honey: Local, raw honey is a powerful antioxidant. As a bonus, eating raw honey from within 50 miles of your home can act as a natural anti-allergy shot.
- Coconut sugar: A natural, plant-based sweetener, coconut sugar contains a small amount of inulin which can reduce the chances of blood sugar spikes and crashes.
Homemade date syrup: Date syrup dates back thousands of years to cultures in the Middle East and North Africa. Today, date syrup (which is easy to make homemade) offers up benefits like low glycemic index, fiber, and antioxidants.