Picture warm cookies, cranchi candies, velvety cakes, waffle cones piled high with ice cream… Is your mouth watering? Are you craving dessert? Why? What happens in the brain that makes sugary food so hard to resist?
Sugar – is a general term used to describe a class of molecules called carbohydrates and it’s found in a wide variety of food and drinks. Just check the label on sweet products you buy.
Glucose, Fructose, Sucrose, Maltose, Lactose, Dextrose and Starch are all, forms of sugar. So is high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar and honey.
And sugar isn’t just in candies and desserts, it’s also added to tomato sauce, yoghurt, dried fruit, flavoured water, musli bars, etc..
Since sugar is everywhere, it’s important to understand how it affects the brain. What happens when sugar hits your tongue? Does eating a little bit of sugar make you crave more?
You take a bite of cereals, the sugar that contains activate the sweet taste receptors part of the tastebuds on the tongue. These receptors send a signal up to the brainstem and from there it forks off into many areas of the forebrain, one of which is the cerebral cortex.
Different sections of the cerebral cortex processes different taste: bitter, salty, umami and in our case, sweet. (umami – a category of taste in food, besides sweet, sour, salt and bitter, corresponding to the flavor of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamate).
From here, the signal activates the brain reward system. This reward system is a series of electrical and chemical pathways across several different regions of the brain. It’s a complicated network but it helps answer a single subconscious question. Shoud I do that again?
That worm fuzzy feeling you get when you taste your grandma’s chocolate cake… that’s your reward system saying: “Mmm, yes”. And it’s not just activated by food.
Socialising, social behaviour and drugs are just a few examples of things and experiences that also activates the reward system.
But, over-activating this reward system unleash a series of unfortunate events: loss of control, craving and increased tolerance to sugar.
Let’s get back to our bite of cereals. It “travels” down into your stomach and eventually into your gut. And guess what? There are sugar receptors here too, they’re not taste buds but they do send signals telling your brain that you’re full, or that your body should produce more insulin to deal with the extra sugar you’re eating.
The major currency of our reward system is dopamine, an important chemical or a neurotransmitter. There are many dopamine receptors in the forebrain but they’re not evenly distributed.
Certain areas contrain dense clusters of receptors and these dopamine hotspots are a part of our reward system.
Drugs like alcohol, nicotine or heroin send dopamine into overdrive, leading some people to constantly seek that high. In other words, to be addicted.
Sugar also causes dopamine to be released, though not as violently as drugs. And sugar is rare among dopamine inducing foods.
Broccoli, for example, has no effect, which probably explains why it’s so hard to get kids to eat their veggies.
Speaking about healthy food, let’s say you’re hungry and decide to eat a balanced meal. You do, and dopamine level spike in the reward system hotspots. But if you eat the same dish many days in a row, dopamine level will spike less and less, eventually leveling out.
That’s because when it comes to food, the brain is involved to pay special attention to new or different tastes. Why?
Two reasons: first, to detect spoiled food and second, because the more variety we have in our diet, the more likely we are to get all the nutrients we need.
To keep that variety up, we need to be able to recognize a new food and more importantly, we need to want to keep eating new foods. And that’s why the dopamine levels off when the food becomes boring.
Now back to that meal. What happens if in place of the healthy balanced dish, you eat sugar rich food instead?
If you rarely take sugar, or don’t eat much at a time, the effect is similar to that of the balanced meal. But if you eat too much, the dopamine response does not level out. In other words, eating lots of sugar will continue to feel rewarding.
In this way sugar behaves a little bit like a drug. It’s one reason people seems to be hooked on sugary foods.
So think that to all those different kinds of sugar, each one is unique. But every time any sugar is consumed it kicks start a domino effect in the brain that sparks a rewarding feeling. Too much, too often, and thinks can go into overdrive.
So yes, overconsumption of sugar can have addictive effects on the brain, but a small amount of cake once in a while won’t hurt you.
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