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A neuroscientist explains the shocking impact too much sugar has on the brain

Ever wondered what sugar does to the brain?

Sugar sure gets a lot of negative attention these days, but is it really that bad for the brain?

Most of us have sugar every day, but seem to be functioning fine.

Yet, according to neuroscientist Nicole Avena, sugar might be having more of a negative effect on our brains than we think.

Watch this brilliant video created by the TED team and neuroscientist Nicole Avena to find out exactly what sugar does to your brain. Prepared to be shocked!


For those of you who can’t watch the video animation above, here it is in text:

What is it about sugar that makes it so hard to resist?

Nicole Avena says that once you take a bite of sugar, it activates the sweet taste receptors on the tongue.

These receptors send a signal up to the brain and cerebral cortex.

Once in the cerebral cortex, sugar activates the brain’s reward system.

This system is crucial in answering this question: Should I do that again?

That warm fuzzy feeling you get from sugar tells you that, ‘Yes you should do that again!’

It’s not just sugar that activates this reward system: Socializing, sex and drugs do as well.

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However, over-activating this system can result in a few unfortunate events, such as craving, loss of control, and increased tolerance.

Dopamine is a huge part of our reward system. Drugs can affect this dopamine hit so much that some people can’t help themselves to constantly seek that high (addiction).

Sugar also causes the dopamine system to be released, though not as violently as drugs.

The problem is that sugar continues to feel rewarding, even after you’ve had too much.


It behaves a bit like a drug, which explains why so many people can’t get enough of sugary foods.

Overconsumption of sugar can have hugely addictive affects on the brain.

Sugar can exert a powerful influence over behaviour, making cutting it out of our diets very difficult. And quitting eating a high sugar diet “cold turkey” leads to withdrawal effects.

So, should you quit sugar?

Cutting sugar from your diet may not be easy, as so many processed or convenience foods have added sugars hidden in their ingredients.

Switching from sugar to a sweetener (Stevia, aspartame, sucralose) can cut down on calories, but it is still feeding the sweet addiction.


Similarly, sugar “replacements” like agave, rice syrup, honey and fructose are just sugar in disguise, and activate the brain’s reward system just as readily as sucrose.

Physically, quitting sugar in your diet can help with weight loss, may reduce acne, improve sleep and moods, and could stop those 3pm slumps at work and school.

And if you do reduce sugar consumption, sugary foods that were previously eaten to excess can taste overpoweringly sweet due to a recalibration of your sweetness sensation, enough to discourage over-consumption!


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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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