Over the Easter weekend, we may indulge in a little more sugar than normal. We know Easter eggs are bad for our waistline but oh they taste so good! The sugar debate is a big one, so much so, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is under great pressure to halve its current recommendation, currently 10% or 12 teaspoons, of the amount of an individual's daily calories should come from sugar.
Whilst much of the focus has been on the impact of sugar on our physical health, we would like to explore today the impact of too much of the white stuff on our brains and mental wellbeing.
The effect of sugar on our brain
Sugar has crept into all parts of our diet, and researchers are only now beginning to understand its effect on brain health. Overeating, poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression -- all have been linked in recent research to the over-consumption of sugar.
How diet and mental health are linked
Way back in 2002, a study of overall sugar consumption per person in six different countries (Canada, France, Germany, Korea, New Zealand, and the United States) implicated sugar as a factor in higher rates of major depression. Since then, several other research teams have investigated the effect of diet on mental health. For example, consumption of processed and fast food - including hamburgers, pizza, and fried foods - was found to be higher in both youngsters and adults with increased rates of depression.
The science of sugar
Sugars are simple carbohydrate molecules. While being essential for cell and organ functioning, our bodies have sophisticated machinery to break complex carbohydrate molecules into simple sugars. Sugar, therefore, does not need to be added to the diet and whilst a healthy diet would contain a significant amount of naturally occurring sugar (in fruits for example), the problem is that we're chronically consuming much more added sugar in processed foods.
We intuitively know that sugar and obesity are linked, but the exact reason why hasn’t been well understood until recently. Research has shown that chronic consumption of added sugar dulls the brain’s mechanism for telling you to stop eating. To examine the hold sugar can have over us, substance-abuse researchers have performed brain scans on subjects eating something sweet. What they've seen resembles the mind of a drug addict: When tasting sugar, the brain lights up in the same regions as it would in an alcoholic with a bottle of gin. Dopamine—the so-called reward chemical—spikes and reinforces the desire to have more. (Sugar also fuels the calming hormone serotonin.)
Sugar, our Brain and our Wellbeing
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is responsible for the development of new brain tissue. If you didn’t have this chemical in your brain, your brain wouldn’t develop properly and you would die very soon after birth. BDNF helps to create new neurons (nerve tissue), and, therefore new memories. You want as much BDNF around as possible if you want to learn, grow, and have normal brain functioning.
Research has shown that high sugar diets (along with high fat diets and lack of essential fatty acids) decrease a BDNF. Low amounts of BDNF actually leads to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and even diabetes. This means that high sugar in the blood leads to low BDNF, and then low BDNF leads to a worsening of blood sugar control, which leads to high blood sugar, which leads to worse blood sugar control… and the cycle continues.
Low BDNF is no small thing as it has also been associated with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Huntington’s disease, Rett syndrome, and schizophrenia. More research is being conducted on this subject, but what seems clear in any case is that a reduced level of BDNF is bad news for our brains, and chronic sugar consumption is one of the worst inhibitory culprits.
What you eat and drink can make dramatic differences in how you think, feel and behave.
Jung Shim recipes
Here at Jung Shim we support our clients with finding a better balance in their lives. We have some delicious recipes that will fix that sugar craving, reduce your sugar intake and feed your brain - in fact you won't even know your missing it.
Take a look at our healthier chocolate-fix recipes which are lower in sugar: