How Sugar is Affecting Your Brain & Gut
Sugar is delicious- I get it. I absolutely have a sweet tooth, and I will never tell you that a piece of fruit is going to satisfy you the same way ice cream will, but these days sugar gets added to all sorts of foods, even not traditionally sweet ones, and we're consuming way more of it than ever, often without knowing it.
Like anything, sugar is totally fine in moderation, so have that birthday cake, enjoy those girl scout cookies and share that pint of ice cream when the craving hits. The problem with sugar is that when consumed in excess, it can start to have negative effects on both your biome and mental health.
How Sugar Affects Gut Health
One of the primary ways sugar affects gut health is by promoting the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. I want to be clear, normally, with a balanced diet, and moderate intake of sugar, this is not a problem. However, when consumed in excess, or when the body is otherwise under stress, harmful bacteria feed on sugar and can quickly multiply, leading to an overgrowth of unhelpful microorganisms in the gut.
An overgrowth of that bacteria in the gut can lead to some not-so-fun things including:
Increased inflammation: An overgrowth of harmful bacteria can lead to increased inflammation in the gut. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a range of health problems, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Digestive problems: An overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut can lead to digestive problems, including bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
Weakened immune system: The gut plays a crucial role in supporting a healthy immune system. An overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut can weaken the immune system and make it more difficult for the body to fight off infections and illnesses.
The mind and your biome are connected via the gut-brain axis, a bidirectional communication system where signals travel in both directions through a complex network of neurons, hormones, and immune system molecules. Basically, they talk to eachother. Ever been stressed or worried and had your stomach get 'butterflies' or some nervous indigestion? Then you've experienced this in action. The health and function of our gut can have a significant impact on our mental health, and vice versa.
Research has shown that imbalances in the gut microbiome can lead to a range of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, while stress and other emotional states can also affect gut health. An increase in sugar consumption will affect the brain indirectly via this axis, and also directly which I'll explain a bit further.
The Link Between Sugar and Mental Health
When we consume sugar, especially when not in the presence of fat and protein, it can cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. This rapid spike in blood sugar can lead to feelings of euphoria and increased energy, commonly referred to as a "sugar high." However, this feeling is often short-lived, and the subsequent crash in blood sugar levels can lead to negative effects on our mental health, not to mention feeling sluggish and just, crappy.
Here are some of the ways that too much sugar can impact mental health:
Depression and Anxiety: Studies have found that a high-sugar diet may increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety. One study found that men who consumed a diet high in sugar were more likely to develop anxiety than those who consumed less sugar.
Cognitive Function: Sugar has also been found to impact cognitive function. One study found that consuming a high-sugar diet was linked to impaired memory and reduced attention span.
Addiction: Sugar can also trigger the reward center of our brain, leading to a potential addiction to sugar. This can lead to cravings and overconsumption of sugar, continuing to perpetuate this cycle.
Again, I want to stress that an otherwise healthy person without any gut or mental health issues, who enjoys sweets from time to time, is going to be completely fine. There is room for balance and chocolate in any diet. I'm talking about a diet in which most of the foods are heavily processed, both food and beverages contain a lot of added sugars and additionally, there are a lot of sugar-laden foods consumed.
So, what can you do to limit added sugars?
Read Food Labels: Food labels can be an excellent tool for identifying sources of added sugar in your diet. Manufacturers are now required to list 'added' sugar under sugar. Look for products that are low in added sugar or sugar-free.
Choose Whole Foods: This is an obvious one, but whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are naturally low in added sugar and high in nutrients. Also, research has shown that the sugar in fruits and vegetables is packed with fiber which can help slow down the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream.
Avoid Overly Processed Foods: Processed foods, such as candy, baked goods, and processed snacks, are often high in added sugar. Replace these foods with healthier options, such as fresh fruit, nuts, or seeds.
Use Natural Sweeteners: Natural sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup, or stevia, can be used in moderation as a healthier alternative to processed sugar.
Practice Mindful Eating: Mindful eating involves paying attention to the sensations and emotions associated with eating. This can help you become more aware of your sugar intake and make healthier choices.
Reducing added sugar intake can have a positive impact on your total well-being, especially gut & mental health. By making small changes to your diet, you can reduce your sugar intake without losing your mind and start to notice you crave it a lot less. You can even re-train your palate and will begin to notice how sweet things like fruit and even some vegetables like tomatoes can be.
Remember, living your life the nourished way is all about balance and finding what supports you, and your wellness. By scaling back some of the added sugars we consume regularly, you'll also find more joy in those special moments and treats. If you're interested in a reset- check out my 21-day no-added sugar plant-based program here! Cheers!