Sugar, diet, life, wellness, wellbeing, science, nutrition

The more sugar you have, the less sweet life becomes….

Sugar is an essential part of life. It is not bad. Is it delish and it is essential to live. A sugar is a Carbohydrate and there are many simple sugars (monosaccharides), such as your Glucose, Maltose, Fructose, Sucrose and Lactose (milk sugar) and complex polysaccharides like Starch (in plants) and Glycogen (in animals and humans). We need sugar for all living processes. Without sugar you cannot respire and as respiration is the process that combines sugars with oxygen to make energy for movement, growth, reproduction, excretion, nutrition, thinking and everything we do; without it, we die. Sugar makes us happy, it stimulates the reward centre of the brain and gives us a “sugar high.” However with every high comes a low and sugar lows cause fluctuations in emotional regulation and mood, causing anxiety and depression. Balancing your sugar levels and, as my dad says “keeping your own super batteries charged” and your energy levels stable, is thus essential for mental health.

Sugar is everywhere. It is in fruit (an average apple contains 19g of sugar) and veg, milk, bread, cereals and everything. Only pure molecules, like oils (pure fat) or water (only H2O) have no carbohydrate content. It is there because we need it to stay alive. However, excess sugar has a role in mood fluctuation, scattered concentration, scattered attention and focus, diabetes, damages red blood cells and causes cell ageing (advanced glycated end products or AGE’s literally age you!) and contributes to atherosclerosis (when fatty deposits or atheroma plaques bind to damaged blood vessels and cause a thinning or blockage of the heart) contributing to angina, heart attacks and strokes. High blood sugar (a blood sugar level outside the fasting range 4-5.4 mmol/L) and diabetes can have terrible effects. It makes you feel emotional and as it triggers Dopamine, the reward brain neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, which is highly addictive, sugar is also highly addictive. It is as addictive as cocaine (see here) The more you have, the more you need. The more you have, the less of a Dopamine reward you get and therefore the more sugar you have to have to get that same pleasure reward. The more you have the more you want. The more you want the more you crave and it goes on and on, stimulating your brain to crave and beg for more. If you then go back to a normal sugar level, the brain adapts to the higher level of sugar and so you get less pleasure from it. You cannot recognise the joy you originally got from something sweet. Therefore sugar changes our brain chemistry and actually blunts our sense of pleasure. The more sugar you have the less sweet life is. Our taste buds also adapt to higher levels of sugar. It therefore plays an essential role in depression and anxiety in neuroscience and psychology. A sugar high may make you happy but like any high it comes with a low and too many highs and you crash.

Sugar is not the devil. It is necessary for energy for fuelling life and it tastes delicious. It adds joy and pleasure to life and so should not be avoided. It makes life better and is in no way bad for us. If you act moody and irritable, it is most likely because you are having a sugar low and need to eat something! Hangry (hungry anger) is something seen often after exercise or a long day and is why dieters are often very unhappy people! The best thing is to balance your blood sugar levels by never skipping meals and having a snack (not a day long graze) of something sugary if you need it.

Sugar hid in “healthy” food

At the moment the government recommends adults have approximately 70g sugar in their diet a day. This varies based on activity level but is simple. When you have a food, check the label and aim for it to have under 13g sugar in it, then you know you aren’t having too much. It is hard to do this I know, especially as “healthy” products often have more sugar in them then you think. A Cadbury’s choc bar has 10g sugar in it, but a “healthy” greek yog with honey (low fat products often replace the fat with sugar or vice versa to maintain the flavour) can have up to 20g sugar in it. Sugar is everywhere. There is 9g in beetroot, 11g in figs and dairy alternatives such as almond and coconut milks can have up to 10g in a 400ml serving. What is important is you don’t focus on the small stuff, but you are aware and don’t deny yourself anything because of sugar content as sometimes there is sugar in the most unexpected places. Sugar makes you hyper and so plays a role in anxiety as it gives your brain energy making you overthink and sweetners are the worst at this. Sweetners are “sugar free” as they are not technically chemically sugars, but they do mimic sugars in the brain and so do still play a vital role in focus, attention and sugar addiction. Aspartame is the most dangerous in anxiety. It is 1000x sweeter then sugar and therefore acts like a stimulant, stimulating your brain as if you have had 1000x sugar and giving you the same sugar hyperactivity, sugar lows and emotional imbalances as sugar. It also stimulates Dopamine in the same way sugar does, and so is equally addictive. Sweeteners are no magic panacea, allowing you to eat whatever you want. They are highly addictive chemicals which actually increase your craving for sugary carbohydrates, actually making you desire sugary food more and feel hungrier and more likely to overeat carbohydrates and sugars. The more you have the more you crave more. Sweetners may be low fat but they are making people fat! Just look at America, for years the USA nutritional focus has been on fat free, sweetner high products and all it has done is worsen the obesity and mental health crisis. As food is so linked to emotion and people using food to feed low moments and stressful days, sugar lows play a real role in obesity and depression.

So what do we do about it? Well the trick is to not avoid sugar. Avoid it and you die as you need it to live. Avoid it and you miss out as it adds pleasure and joy to life! It tastes delicious! Don’t have too much of it either and be careful on sweetners and processed foods as it is addictive. Be aware of it but not afraid of it and treat it like a treat so it you don’t have to have more to get the same pleasurable Dopamine sensation. Treat sugar like a treat and it stays a treat!