Ah, sweet, delicious sugar. From dumping a spoonful into your morning coffee to that perfectly crystallized donut coating, we’re a society raised on sugar. But tantalizing treats aside, is it really all it has cracked up to be? The evidence suggests not. The correlation between sugar and poor health outcomes has gone mainstream, but what about its effects on your nervous system?
If you’re looking to ease mood disorders, skin complaints, chronic pain, or just want better overall health, understanding sugar’s effect on your nervous system could be a big step toward achieving your goals. In this article, we’ll dive into the addictive nature of sugar, its side effects, and how it affects your autonomic nervous system response. By the end, you’ll be armed with valuable insights and making a hard pass on the Twinkies.
The Sweet Seduction: Why is Sugar So Addictive?
Sugar: the sweet temptress that hijacks our taste buds and leaves us wanting more. But have you ever wondered why we find sugar so addictive? It turns out, there’s science behind the allure. When we consume sugar, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This release creates a temporary feeling of euphoria, urging us to seek more sugar to experience that blissful buzz again. This is the reason you can’t just eat one Oreo. And don’t think those less-than-wholesome manufacturers aren’t aware of this fact. Our food supply is engineered to keep us in this state of addiction by making food and drinks ‘hyper-palatable’.
What Are The Potential Side Effects of Consuming Sugar?
While sugar may provide momentary satisfaction and, let’s face it, outright deliciousness, its long-term effects on your health can be alarming. Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to multiple health issues, including:
- Weight gain
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Metabolic syndrome
While the link between sugar consumption and some of these conditions may be obvious (and commonly reported), what about sugar and nervous system dysregulation?
How Does Sugar Affect the Nervous System?
Ready for today’s biology lesson?
The autonomic nervous system is split into three branches: the enteric, sympathetic, and parasympathetic:
- The enteric nervous system is in charge of gastrointestinal function
- The sympathetic response is responsible for the fight-or-flight instinct
- The parasympathetic response promotes relaxation and digestion
When you consume sugar in excess, it can activate the sympathetic nervous system and cause rapid spikes in blood sugar, creating heightened anxiety, restlessness, irritability, and a general feeling of yuckiness. On the other hand, it can hinder the parasympathetic branch, interfere with your ‘rest and digest’ response and leave you feeling sluggish.[*][*]
When it comes to the central nervous system, sugar can wreak havoc there too by messing with the ‘gut-brain axis’ – the communication pathway between the central and enteric nervous systems. Over-consumption of sugar can throw the enteric nervous system and microbiome entirely, resulting in issues such as:
- Poor nutrient absorption
- Altered gut function
- Gut permeability[*]
- Visceral hypersensitivity[*]
Bottom line: if you are already struggling with a dysregulated nervous system, sugar can exacerbate the situation. And in moments when you’re not feeling particularly triggered, excess sugar has the potential to nudge you into a dysregulated state.
The Usual Suspects: Identifying Common Sugar Offenders
Sugar lurks in many unsuspecting foods and drinks (yes, it’s even in your mayo), which can make reducing consumption a bit tricky. Be mindful of the obvious culprits such as sodas, energy drinks, processed snacks and desserts, but also pay attention to seemingly healthy foods like flavored yogurts, dressings and granola bars.
The best place to start? Adopt a whole-food diet free from processed nasties, and you won’t have to worry about reading labels.
To Quit or Not to Quit: The Sugar Dilemma
Now you understand the effect of sugar on the nervous system, you may be wondering if it’s necessary to quit it entirely. While going cold turkey isn’t a magic pill, reducing your sugar intake significantly may do wonders for a dysregulated nervous system and improve your overall well-being. Gradually replacing processed sugars with healthier alternatives can help you maintain a balanced lifestyle without feeling deprived. So, let’s explore some healthier options.
Embrace Nature’s Sweetness: Healthy Sources of Sugar
Mother Nature has kindly provided some nutritious options for satisfying your sweet tooth, with fruits, honey and vegetables providing a delicious source of natural sugars. Indulge in a colorful variety of:
- Stone fruits
- Tropical fruits
- Sweet vegetables like winter squash
These whole foods not only provide essential nutrients but also fiber, aiding in digestion and ensuring a slow release of natural sugars into your system.
But what About Dessert?!
Don’t worry. We didn’t forget the treats. Looking to replace sugar in homemade baked goods? In general, our preference is to adopt Paleo-approved sweeteners. Try natural options such as:
- Maple syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Monk fruit
Be sure to do your research though – these cannot be substituted at a one-to-one ratio with sugar. And remember, these are still sugars. Moderation is key.
Managing the Transition: Side Effects of Quitting Sugar
If you decide to reduce or quit sugar, you may experience some temporary side effects. These may include:
- Mood swings
- Low energy
Don’t worry, though! It’s no different from any other break-up. These symptoms are typically short-lived and a sign that your body is adjusting to a healthier state. To manage these side effects, make sure you:
- Stay hydrated
- Get plenty of rest
- Engage in regular exercise
- Consume foods rich in healthy fats[*] and protein[*]
And hey, don’t push yourself too hard. You don’t have to go cold turkey. Start gradually, and give yourself time to adjust. You can always ease the transition with some homemade sugar-free versions of your favorite treats!
Top Ten Ways to Limit and Reduce Sugar Consumption
Reducing your sugar consumption doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Here are ten practical strategies to help you support a sensitive nervous system while still enjoying life’s little pleasures:
- Opt for a whole-food diet and minimize processed snacks.
- Read food labels and be aware of hidden sugars.
- Choose unsweetened beverages like fruit-infused water or herbal tea.
- Explore natural sugar substitutes like stevia, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar or monk fruit.
- Prepare homemade meals to control the sugar content.
- Incorporate protein and healthy fats at every meal to help stabilize blood sugar levels.
- Experiment with flavorful herbs and spices to enhance your meals. You can even use cinnamon and vanilla extracts to add natural sweetness.
- Practice mindful eating to savor and appreciate your food.
- Engage in regular physical activity to curb sugar cravings.
- Seek support from friends, family, or online communities on your sugar-reducing journey.
Remember, this journey is about progress, not perfection. With a mindful approach and a willingness to make small, sustainable changes, you can reduce your sugar consumption and take another step towards a regulated nervous system.