Public Enemy #1: Sugar

Sugar, those little white grains that pack a powerful punch of quick energy, taste so sweet and make our brains beg for more. We love it, we hate it. We still want it even though we know that we will hate ourselves for indulging in it. So wonderful and so bad at the same time!

This this the truth about sugar: it is addictive just like alcohol and cigarettes. It can be a hard habit to get rid of, just like any other addiction. I want to share with you some facts about sugar and what it does in your body and mind. I believe that education and knowledge is power, so I want to share some of this power with you in hopes of helping you kick the sugar habit.

So, let’s just start with how sugar affects the brain. We allow ourselves a little treat, but the next thing you know, you just want more, and then more. This is because our brains are actually wired to want sugar. I love the use the cave man analogy for teaching about sugar because while we have grown in knowledge and achievement, the human body still works the same as it did eons ago.

Imagine that you are Mother Nature for a bit. You have these primitive people that you need to take care of. They need to eat right but finding food can be quite hard for them. They can hunt for meat, which makes them feel satisfied with a full belly. They can scavenger for edible plants that grow low to the ground and are easy to obtain. These provide fiber, vitamins and minerals, and a little carbohydrate for energy. But your people also need vitamin C, A, and Bs to be healthy. They work hard to hunt and gather. Life for them is physically demanding, so how do you get them to seek out and possibly have to climb a tree to get the fruit they need? Eureka! You make it taste irresistibly good and design their brain to want the sweetness that only fruit offers. That’s it, now your caveman will want to work harder to get to the fruit which holds so many essential vitamins and they will stay healthy.

When I say that sugar is addictive, this is a true statement. It can act like a drug or any other addiction in the brain’s reward center. The brain does use glucose (sugar) for energy, so this trigger to the brain’s reward center was helpful because it led primitive man to eat fruit. Today’s problem with sugar is that it is in everything – and the amounts of added sugars in our food has increased dramatically in the recent decades. This is where the problem comes in: too much sugar is actually bad for the brain. It causes us to lose cognitive abilities (think slower thinking process, brain fog, lack of concentration). Exposure to consistent high levels of blood sugar also causes brain shrinkage. Lose of brain mass is what happens to us as we age, causing slower recall and thought processing. You don’t want to bring on these changes earlier than nature is going to anyway!

Additionally, like with other addictions, when we eat something high in sugar, it triggers the brain to produce a chemical called dopamine – this is what leads to cravings. As time goes on, the amount of sugar needed to make the brain release dopamine and feel satisfied increases. This leads to wanting more and more sugar…. And just like that – you are a junk food junky!

Due to everything I have already told you about “sugar on the brain,” people who eat too much processed sugar find that they have mood swings – feeling great right after a sugary sweat, but then dropping quickly as the sugar burns out. Sugar has been associated with increased depression, anxiety and irritability. This happens both when sugar levels are too high, and when they drop.

If that isn’t enough to get you to motivated to reduce the amount of processed sugar you eat, let me talk a bit about what sugar does to the rest of your body.

Excess sugar can wreak havoc on the body as well. We all know that too much sugar leads to weight gain. A sugar addiction will cause weight gain in all parts of the body, but you will notice it around the waist first. Coincidentally, this is also one of the hardest places to get rid of extra fat: double whammy there!

Aside from weight gain, there are other dangers to be found when it comes to sugar. The possibility of insulin resistance is one of the most important ones. Insulin resistance is what leads to Type II Sugar Diabetes (Diabetes Myelitis type II).  How this works is a bit tricky: first, you need insulin to bind with sugar in your blood to make it available to your cells for energy. The cells have a clever barrier that can control what come in and out of them, and insulin is the “key” that gets sugar in the door. However, when the cell has too much sugar in it, the door gets dead-bolted and insulin does not open that door. This keeps the level of sugar high in the blood, so more insulin is produced. Now, the cell gets bombarded with insulin bound sugar trying to get in. At first, some will break into the cell, but as time does by, the cell will put up more and more barriers and this is what we call “insulin resistance.” The cells become resistant to insulin and the excess sugar in the blood has nowhere good to go.

Why is this so bad you ask? All this extra sugar that is now stuck in the blood stream has negative effects on the blood vessels, nerves and organs. This is why diabetes causes horrible side effects such as neuropathy (nerve damage, which leads to chronic pain), kidney damage, joint pain, loss of eyesight, and poor circulation.

High sugar levels can lead to increases inflammation in the body. It is associated with rheumatoid arthritis because of this. When the joints become inflamed, this triggers the body to want to “fix it.” So, the immune system is sent out to find the offender and irradiate it. If inflammation in the joints, vessels, or any other tissue is coming from a cause other than infection, this attack of the immune system become harmful to the effected body part.

By-the-way, this is a vicious cycle. Remember when I said that increased sugar can lead to mood swings and anxiety? Well, those can also trigger the inflammatory response as well – see where I’m going with this? It’s one big pit-fall!

Excess sugar in the blood also effects the blood vessels. It causes the walks of vessels to grow thicker and become less pliable (hardening of the arteries.) Too much fat and cholesterol contribute to this too, but sugar plays a role. In some studies, reduced sugar intake was associated with lower blood pressure, which helps to prevent heart disease. While we are on this topic, let me just go back to diabetes for 1 moment. Diabetics are more likely to die from a heart attack. This is due to damage vessels and nerves. Increased blood sugar causes damage to nerves, including those around the heart. This means that a heart attack might not trigger the same panic to get to the ER in someone with this type of nerve damage, leading to worse outcomes (including death) for diabetics. Damage to the blood vessels caused by high sugar is also a factor in this.

So now let’s talk about a couple of your favorite organs: the kidneys and the pancreas. Of course, high levels of sugar are not good for these guys. The kidney’s job is to filter out what you don’t need from the blood. When your blood sugar levels are too high, the kidney’s come to rescue by letting out the extra sugar. What you need to know here is that the kidneys are filters. This allows the blood to pass through them filtering out the bad and keeping the good. As a general rule, the filter has pretty small holes, just enough to let out waist, which has been broken down into small molecules by the body. However, sugar is larger molecule, the kidneys have to open the filter wider to let out extra sugar. If this goes on too long, then the kidney’s filter stays open, causing damage, and letting out other larger molecules that you needed to keep – like potassium and magnesium.

Likewise, in the pancreas, over work caused by sugar leads to damage. The job of the pancreas is to make insulin. When the blood sugar levels are too high, the pancreas must make more and more insulin. Over time, it simply get’s overworked and like any other machine, it will start to have problems. This means that insulin production goes down. Now, you have two problems – your cells are resistant to insulin and your pancreas can’t make enough anyway.

Unfortunately, this is only the top of the heap when it comes to the dangers of sugar addiction, but I didn’t set out to write a book. I hope that this is enough to help you put mind over matter when it comes to sugar. The best way to prevent all of these things to sternly limit the amount of processed sugar in your diet. And the best way to do this is to limit your “sweets” intake to fruits and berries. The natural sugars found in these foods do not affect the brain like the high levels of processed sugar in non-natural foods. For one thing, the sugar is not concentrated, but also, it doesn’t have the same dopamine causing effect that processed sugar does. Lastly, when you eat healthy fruits instead of candy or snack cakes, you get the added value of the nutrients found in fruits, which your body will thank you for.