How Sugar Affects The Brain

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How Sugar Affects The Brain
How Sugar Affects The Brain Graphic © Background image: Pixabay (PD)

From refined sugars in confectionery to naturally occurring sugars in honey or fruits, sugar comes in many different forms—and it’s everywhere. But while your body needs sugar (glucose, to be precise) to run, you might want to rethink your decision the next time you reach out for a treat to satisfy your sweet tooth.

According to Dr. Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist specializing in nutrition and addiction, you should enjoy sweets and treats in moderation. Why? Because too much sugar may adversely affect your brain. She suggests that the impact of sugar on the brain can be likened to how our bodies respond to addictive substances.

Here’s more on how sugar affects the brain:

Your Brain on Sugar – A Bitter-Sweet Relationship

When you drink soda, take a bite of your favorite chocolate, or consume anything sugary, sweet-taste receptors on your tongue are activated. This sends a signal to a region of your brain responsible for processing sensory information. The stimulus also triggers your brain’s reward system.

As the name implies, the “reward response” is activated in response to stimuli like sex, food, or addictive substances. When you consume sugar, dopamine—a neurotransmitter that influences your pleasure-seeking incentives—is released to potentially reinforce the behavior by answering the question, “Should I do that again?”

Some researchers believe that the release of the “feel-good chemical” dopamine in response to sweet taste is an evolutionary adaptation. [1] Seeking high-energy foods prevented starvation and helped our ancestors meet their energy needs at a time when sugar was rare.

Dr. Avena notes that sugar’s influence on the brain’s reward system differs from other foods. Typically, dopamine is only released in response to new foods (i.e., tasting something for the first time). This helps you pay attention to a varied diet. The dopamine response goes away the next time you taste the “new” food. However, the response is different when sugar is involved.

Dopamine is released every time you eat sugar—not just the first time. As a result, you continue craving more sugar since you’re feeling the reward with each bite of dessert and every slurp of juice.

Coincidentally, this dopamine response is similar to what happens to your brain when you take addictive drugs.

The relentless attraction to sugar due to how it affects the brain explains why people get hooked on sweet treats and sugary foods. While this trait may have given our ancestors an evolutionary leg-up, sugar is not rare today. It’s readily available in many foods—from obvious sources like candy to sneaky ones like peanut butter and sauces. And considering our mental hardwiring to reward sugar intake, the availability of sugar may lead to overconsumption.

What Happens When You Eat Too Much Sugar?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), our total daily intake of added sugars should not exceed 10 teaspoons. [2] Yet, statistics estimate that Americans average around 19 teaspoons. This begs the question: “How does excessive sugar consumption affect the brain?”

Overeating can alter the brain’s reward system and create tolerance, whereby you need greater amounts of a substance to achieve the same level of reward. [3] As a result, excessive sugar intake has been linked to a form of addiction. [4] One study published in PloS One even suggested that the reward from the intense sweetness of sugar-rich diets may surpass that of cocaine. [5] The researchers concluded that stimulation from too much sugar “would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”

Research also points to a strong relationship between high sugar consumption and an increased risk of mental health problems and disruptions in memory function. [6][7] According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, too much sugar may also cause inflammation, which is linked to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. [8] Additional research suggests that consuming a diet high in added sugars hinders the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). [9] BDNF is a brain chemical that plays an important role in learning and the formation of new memory.

But while too much sugar can have negative effects on your brain, the opposite is also true. Too little glucose can impair your brain’s function, including cognitive processes, memory, and learning. This is because glucose (metabolized from sugar and carbs) is your brain’s primary source of energy. According to an article appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the brain accounts for 20% of your energy expenditure despite being only 2% of your body weight. [10]

Learn To Tame Your Sweet Tooth!

Research shows that while glucose from sugar is key to the proper functioning of the brain, too much of it can be harmful. Therefore, the takeaway is to consume sugar in moderation. Be mindful of sugar consumption and replace sugar-laden treats with healthier alternatives.



[1] West Texas A&M University:

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

[3] Alonso-Alonso, M., Woods, S. C., Pelchat, M., Grigson, P. S., Stice, E., Farooqi, S., … & Beauchamp, G. K. (2015). Food reward system: current perspectives and future research needs. Nutrition reviews, 73(5), 296-307:

[4] Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20-39:

[5] Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin, L., & Ahmed, S. H. (2007). Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PloS one, 2(8), e698:

[6] Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific reports, 7(1), 1-10:

[7] Noble, E. E., Olson, C. A., Davis, E., Tsan, L., Chen, Y. W., Schade, R., … & Kanoski, S. E. (2021). Gut microbial taxa elevated by dietary sugar disrupt memory function. Translational psychiatry, 11(1), 1-16:

[8] Crane, P. K., Walker, R., Hubbard, R. A., Li, G., Nathan, D. M., Zheng, H., … & Larson, E. B. (2013). Glucose levels and risk of dementia. New England Journal of Medicine, 369(6), 540-548:

[9] Molteni, R., Barnard, R. J., Ying, Z., Roberts, C. K., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2002). A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience, 112(4), 803-814:

[10] Raichle, M. E., & Gusnard, D. A. (2002). Appraising the brain’s energy budget. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(16), 10237-10239:

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