The COVID-19 pandemic is an interesting frame from which to talk about the effects of sugar on the brain. While a small percentage of the country is likely to use this unprecedented time to really focus on holistic health for oneself (creating balance, spiritual nutrition, learning/growing, health, fitness, meditation, self care, cooking at home, etc.), it’s likely that a bigger majority will be watching more TV and eating more comfort foods (which are most often not so healthy). It will be interesting to see the health challenges that are coming down the road.
Most of you are aware that refined and processed sugars are not good for the body. They feed infections, cause sleep issues, increase inflammation, lead to brain fog, memory issues, skin trouble, excess weight and low energy, to name a few. Sugar is hard on your brain, liver, pancreas, gallbladder and digestive tract. But eating sugar, just like many other drugs can help to release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine makes you feel happy!
One of the most significant challenges to achieving optimal holistic health brought about by the effects of processed sugars on the brain is its addictive quality coupled with the false benefits that you receive when you consume it. I say “false benefits” because, although you do indeed feel good when you get the rush of dopamine, you’re almost always left with a crash that leaves you feeling worse than when you started. The brain is always trying to help you survive. When this crash comes, more often than not, your brain will send signals creating a strong urge to self-medicate with another hit of sugar which continues to feed the cycle. One author accurately called addictions, “a banquet in the grave,” (accurately stated for sure).
A mentor of mine used to say that people who commonly crave sugar may lack sweetness in their life. Perhaps so. Consider that dopamine makes you feel happy (and thus, a lack of dopamine could have the opposite effect). Doing things that make you feel happy (non-food things such as exercise, hobbies, things that make you laugh, sex, dancing, etc.), can be helpful when you are wanting to come off sugar.
Many health experts, both holistic and medical will say that “a bit of cake or other processed sugar once in a while won’t hurt you.” It sounds reasonable enough. However, I would contest that it really depends on the person and perhaps their personality type. This gets more into the psychological aspects a bit, but for many… 1 piece of chocolate or 1 bite of pie or 1 drink of wine quickly spirals into an out-of-control binge and a start to a painful journey of created addictions that you have to continually bail out of. For those people, total abstinence from high sugar substances may be the best route to take. It’s important to know yourself and how you can handle certain foods (or drinks). If you know that one bite will lead to a binge that will make you feel heavy, sick and full of regret, just don’t do it!
Sugar is a liar. It promises you much more than it will ever deliver on! Don’t be deceived. You’re smarter than that!
So during those crazy times of life when you are tired, frustrated, stressed or just feeling lost, what can you do? Here are a few simple healthy lifestyle tips to focus on:
1. Sleep– Be sure to do everything you can to get good quality sleep for at least 7-8 hours/night (you may need more during extra stressful times).
2. Add sweetness to your LIFE– Have fun. Exercise. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Climb a mountain. Have sex. Enjoy your hobbies. These things release dopamine without making you feel sick and full of regret after the fact.
3. EAT CARBS! Do you love me again? I’m serious. Carbohydrates are NOT the problem. The problem is processed and refined sugars. Adding more fresh fruit and whole food starches to your diet will make you feel so much more satisfied! Eat lots of starches such as beans, rice, sweet potatoes, squash, oats, quinoa and lentils.
4. Get more minerals. One of the BEST sources of minerals is from dark leafy greens (always organic if possible). The easiest way to get this in is in a delicious green smoothie!
When you break the addiction to sugar, there’s SO much satisfaction and freedom that rises up. You can do this! As your practitioner of naturopathic health care here in Kalamazoo MI I want to remind you to keep a close eye on your health during these challenging times.