How Does Sugar Affect The Body?
If you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth, well welcome to the club. Sugar tends to have a bad reputation, but it’s a lot more complex of a topic than many people realize.
Sugar is all around us. In our foods, drinks, medicine, and more. But what effect does that delicious fresh-baked cookie have on our energy levels? What about the banana you had before your workout? What’s that doing to your brain? Sugar you elusive, delicious thing, we’re going to get to the bottom of just how you affect the human body.
Why We Love Sugar
Why do we love sugar so much? You might be thinking “Because it’s delicious!” We absolutely agree, but what’s going on below the surface?
Before the industrialization of food, it makes sense why we would turn towards foods naturally high in sugar, like fruit. Simply put, sugar gives us quick energy. If food is a source of energy, it makes sense that we would turn toward the things that give us the most bang for our buck. Not to mention that sweetness also typically means that food is ripe and not going to make us sick.
Well, evolution doesn’t work that fast, and the factors that drove our ancestors towards sugary foods are still at play. But with sugar so readily available, we need to be aware of the ways that it affects different parts of the body, and how we can have a healthy relationship with it.
Different Types of Sugar
There’s a lot of confusion about different types of sugar and how they might affect us differently. So what’s the deal?
There are four different types of sugar:
- Glucose: Sugar found in your blood.
- Fructose: Sugar found in fruit.
- Sucrose: Table sugar that’s added to foods to enhance color, texture, flavor, and shelf life. Sucrose adds calories without boosting nutritional value.
- Lactose: Sugar found in dairy.
Another thing to pay attention to is added sugar versus naturally occurring sugars. Added sugar can be your standard table sugar but can also come from maple syrup, honey, corn syrup, and other sources. Natural sugars occur naturally in foods like fruit and milk. While the sugar itself might not add much nutritional value, these foods also tend to be high in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Sugar and Your Brain
The term “sugar high” doesn’t come out of nowhere. Consuming sweet foods activates the brain’s reward system, releasing the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine also happens to be related to addiction. You see where we’re going with this.
Excessive sugar consumption reinforces the neural pathways linked with the reward center and compulsive behavior, creating a tolerance to it much like what happens in drug addiction. Some experts believe that sugar could be just as addictive as many street drugs.
Eating too much sugar can also affect your blood sugar levels, even if you’re not diabetic. Dysregulated blood sugar can throw a lot of things off in your body, especially when it comes to your brain. Too much sugar can affect cognitive functions including memory, thinking, and learning. It may also be impacting your mental health by triggering disorders like anxiety and depression.
Sugar and Your Hormones
Sugar consumption is directly linked to hormone health. Your hormones are critical for all sorts of physiological functions from fertility to metabolism to managing stress. Too much of it can impact your thyroid health, leading to fatigue, weight gain, and brain fog. Do you see how all these things are related?
When we think of hormone health, we tend to think of periods and fertility. So how does sugar impact your reproductive health? High sugar consumption has been lined with an increase in PCOS symptoms, and may significantly impact fertility.
Drinking one soft drink high in sugar a day may decrease conception rates in females by a quarter. This could be in part due to sugar’s ability to impact egg quality.
Sugar and Your Skin
We know how frustrating it can be to deal with skin issues like rashes and acne, well sugar may be partially to blame.
A diet high in sugar from refined carbs added sugar, and other sources may increase your risk of developing acne. Part of this goes back to blood sugar and insulin levels which can spike with sugar consumption. This creates a cycle of increased oil production and inflammation, which can trigger acne.
There’s nothing wrong with aging, it’s a part of being on this planet. That being said, we understand wanting to slow down the visible parts of getting older like wrinkles. A diet high in sugar may damage collagen and elastin, causing the skin to age faster.
Other Ways Sugar Can Affect The Body
Eating too much sugar can affect a lot more than your brain, hormones, and skin. It also can cause you to gain excess weight which may increase your risk of developing other issues.
Here are some other ways your candy habit may be affecting you:
- Potentially increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increasing your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes
- Draining your energy levels
Your Relationship to Sugar
Although most forms of sugar don’t necessarily have any health benefits, it is enjoyable. So unless you have an underlying health disorder where you have to greatly reduce your sugar intake, it’s important to live your life and enjoy the things you enjoy – in moderation.
Be mindful of added sugar and the sneaky ways it makes its way into food. But also – eat the cookie, put that maple syrup in your coffee, ask for chocolate sauce on top, and enjoy!
Natasha (she/her) is a full-spectrum doula and health+wellness copywriter. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, health, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more education and empowerment. You can connect with Natasha on IG @natasha.s.weiss.