Brain Inflammation and Sugar: Effects of Sugar on The Brain

Camille Freking, MS Translational Pharmacology and Clinical Research
Brain Inflammation and Sugar: Effects of Sugar on The Brain

There are a lot of things we still don’t really know about the brain or how it works, but some of the fun brain facts we do know may point to areas of interest that call for additional research.

One of the more obvious of these facts is that the brain uses more energy than any other organ in your body. The heart might pump 60 to 100 times a minute, but it’s ultimately the brain sending the signals to tell it to do that, while also simultaneously coordinating and directing billions of other reactions, signals, and functions that not just keep you alive, but provide you a meaningful experience of the world around you. 

So, how do you pay your brain back for all it does? How do you properly fuel and nourish your brain so it can be the best it can be? 

The key to maximizing your brain's efficiency and productivity is ensuring you’re providing it with the fuel it needs while also working to avoid triggers that can limit its abilities and contribute to cognitive issues.

Sugar finds itself somewhere in the middle of these two. On the one hand, the brain needs sugar to function, specifically in the form of metabolized sugar that comes from your food. On the other hand, too much sugar intake can have severely damaging effects on the brain, from inflammation to brain fog to much more.

Before we go into the pros and cons of sugar, there are a few things that we need to cover about the brain first. 


How Is the Brain Powered?

The human brain is one of nature's fastest and most efficient information processors. Over the last few million years of evolution, human brains have grown exponentially in size and complexity. The increase of neurons in the cerebral cortex allows humans to think ahead and react to complex situations. 

Other mammals and animals in the world either don’t quite have these same abilities or are severely limited. Creating languages, inventing tools, self-analyzing, remembering the past to make impactful decisions, and planning for the future are just a few examples of the unique abilities of the human brain. 

The primary source of energy for the brain is a substance called glucose, which is the result of our digestive and metabolic systems breaking down our food into usable components. For carbs, that usable component is glucose. 

The neurons (i.e. brain cells) that constitute brain function require a continuous supply of glucose, delivered via the bloodstream.

Glucose can result from different processes within the body, with the breakdown of carbohydrates you eat being the primary method. 

Otherwise, if the body needs to generate glucose from other sources, the liver may break down and convert some of its stored glycogen into glucose, or use noncarbohydrate sources such as amino acids found in proteins, fatty acids, and waste byproducts to provide fuel.

Ketogenesis is when the liver produces an alternative fuel source for glucose. The fuel source, known as ketones, is made from the breakdown of fats instead of carbs. Ketogenesis occurs primarily overnight when the body is sleeping and incapable of overeating. However, it’s also a popular dietary trend (aka the keto diet) that is said to help people eliminate fat stores in their bodies


How Is Glucose Different From Other Sugasr?

Technically, glucose is a type of sugar. Honey, molasses, agave, dried fruits, and corn contain high amounts of glucose in its purest, single-sugar form, called a monosaccharide.

You can also find glucose as a disaccharide, i.e. when it combines with other monosaccharides to create a different type of sugar. For example, lactose in milk is a combination of glucose and another monosaccharide called galactose. 

The main difference between other forms of sugar and the glucose used by your cells for fuel is that glucose is essential during cellular respiration. During this process, glucose is used to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the chemical compound that provides the energy needed for chemical reactions within cells. 

An easy way to think of it is that glucose is the type of sugar needed for cellular energy, and most of everything eventually gets broken down into glucose or converted to glucose in order to be used. 

An analogous way to think of it might be that glucose is the specific currency our society of cells use, and while other “currencies” like fructose may end up in the body, they can’t be used in the day to day lives of cells because while they provide value, they are not in the right currency for our cellular society. That fructose needs to be “exchanged” for the local currency, glucose, to be usable by the cells, who only know how to use glucose. 


Does That Mean That Eating Sugar Can Be Good for You?

The answer is more complicated than that. You need to get glucose, aka a type of sugar, from your diet, but it’s not going to come from the excessive amount of high fructose corn syrup in your favorite soda.

Rather, the sugar that your body and mind need for fuel will come from naturally occurring sugars, aka “good” sugars.

Where does sugar naturally occur? Think whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains. 

In fact, whole grains are an excellent example of the type of complex carbs that can provide you with “good” sugar in the form of whole wheat bread and ancient grains while also providing the nourishing fiber, vitamins, and minerals needed to support the digestive process that will metabolize that sugar into usable glucose. 

There is rarely a situation where you’ll need to add excess sugar to your food. Added sugars are considered to be the “bad” type of sugar because they generally offer no nutritional benefits of added sugar consumption. Even more, added sugars often show up in excess because options like high fructose corn syrup are cheap for manufacturers to use and attract sweet-toothed consumers to favor their products (whether the consumers know it or not).

The bottom line when it comes to natural sugars versus added sugars? Naturally occurring sugars will come with a balanced diet and provide your brain and body with the sugar they need; there is virtually no situation where you should go out of your way to consume added sugars in the name of health.


What Happens When You Eat Too Much Sugar?

The list of negative effects that stem from eating too much sugar is very long. Diabetes, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, tooth decay, fatty liver disease, chronic inflammation, and heart disease are just a few of the most serious consequences of eating too much sugar. 

The effects on your body get a lot of attention, but how sugar affects your brain doesn’t get mentioned as often. Sugar in neuroscience is complicated. 

When you eat sugar, your brain signals to you that it loves sugar, and it sends signals that you should like sugar too, and eat more and more of it if you can. Why? Because the brain releases a huge surge of dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates your brain’s reward system in the hippocampus and provides you with feelings of pleasure when the receptors are stimulated. These feelings can ultimately provoke intense sugar cravings that push you to higher consumption of sugar.

Overconsuming any type of food will naturally contribute to weight gain over time. But overconsuming sugar is one of the fastest paths to obesity. Added sugar is often part of a recipe for empty calories that provide minimal nutritional value and can cause your body to store more fat. 

Remember that the liver will store excess glucose as glycogen. When the liver reaches its short-term glycogen capacity, the excess glucose is converted into fatty acids called trigylcerides, which are stored in your liver, blood, and adipose tissues.

The additional fat storage can build up quickly in your body and eventually result in obesity. There are a ton of significant physical issues that result from obesity. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic inflammation, and some types of cancer are just a few examples of the physical damage of obesity. 

Unfortunately, obesity can also have a significant effect on your brain, too. 

The link between obesity and depression is well known in the medical community. The shared symptoms of each diagnosis include tendencies to overeat, make poor food choices, and follow a sedentary lifestyle. You can probably see why having one will put you at a much higher risk of developing the other. 

Depression severely impacts your short-term and long-term mental health, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. You’ll slowly lose the ability to experience pleasure as you did in the past. You might struggle to maintain social relationships and withdraw from your friends and family. 

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, depression has recently been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Recent studies have shown that 5.7% of people with depression developed Alzheimer's compared to just 2.6% of people who were not depressed.

All in all, excess sugar consumption can contribute to a slew of metabolic, cardiovascular, and system-wide issues because of the negative whole-body effects that can result from the body trying to find places to store all of this extra fuel.


How Much Sugar Should I Eat Each Day?

Recommendations from the American Heart Association state that men should aim to consume less than nine teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar each day. Women should stay under six teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) daily. This is based on the standard that women consume fewer calories per day than men at about 2,000 calories per day, compared to about 2,500 calories per day for men.

Most dietary recommendations suggest a minimum amount you need to meet each day. Sugar is the opposite of that. Instead, you need to focus on staying underneath a certain threshold

The easiest way to achieve this goal is to review the nutritional information of every food you eat. With this, we don’t mean you need to Google how many sugars are in the apple you brought to work. Instead, pay attention to the amount of added sugars in your coffee creamer, the dressing you use for your salad, or even in the protein bar you eat right after your workout. 

Added sugar hides in unexpected places, so ensure you thoroughly review the nutrition label of everything you eat. 


The Bottom Line: Your Brain Doesn’t Need Added Sugars

One of the best ways to keep your brain sharp is to limit the added sugar you eat — added sugars almost always mean excess sugar, and sugar in excess can contribute to inflammation, brain fog, blood vessel shrinkage, and so much more.

The good news is that there are plenty of options for healthy food that doesn’t contain added sugar. You just have to know where to look. 

An easy place to start? Right here at MOSH. We like to think of ourselves as the Brain Brand — we have a mission in Alzheimer’s research and a goal to help everyone do better for their brains by making small, intentional decisions in their day-to-day lives, and that can be as simple as choosing the right protein bar. 

With that, MOSH protein bars not only exclude added sugars, but intentionally include brain-fueling nutrients like vitamins D and B12, ashwagandha, lion’s mane, and omega-3s, all while still offering delicious options like Cookie Dough Crunch and Peanut Butter Chocolate Crunch for the perfect match between indulgence and self-care. 

So what are you waiting for? Get started with your MOSH trial pack here, or explore MOSH’s mission toward better brain health here



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