​Refined sugar in our diets has profound influence on many basic communication functions between nerve cells in our body. Our brains handle the bulk of this, and as we will discuss in this blog, diets ​that greatly increase sugar in the brain have a way of “overloading” these communication pathways.


​Sugar in the Brain and Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain. Neurotransmitters are a type of chemical “messenger” that enables communication from one nerve cell to another. In a certain part of the brain, called the rewards center, dopamine receptors become active when exposed to an excitability toxin.

Cocaine is an excitability toxin everyone is familiar with. But Refined Sugar also activates dopamine receptors. This area of the brain also “lights up” when we are happy, or something good happens to us. This is why it is called the REWARD center. When this section responds to stimuli, it is our body's way of saying, "that made me happy...do it again."

Not all the neurons in the Reward Center release dopamine. Other neurotransmitters that respond to negative stimuli, such as pain, are located in this region. This region should really be labeled the Consequences and Rewards section of the brain, as it is used to remind our bodies of what made us feel good and what made us feel bad.

Sugar in the brain, like a recreational drug, excites the dopamine receptors. This makes us feel happy. If this happens once in a while it’s not a big deal. Neurons can only produce a certain number of neurotransmitters at a time. Consuming a large amount of sugar causes a rush of dopamine. This rush or “high” soon depletes the supply of dopamine. We then feel tired or depressed, which will naturally make us crave what made us feel so good. This is where addiction begins.

When we are constantly consuming sugar, causing an almost constant stimulation of dopamine receptors, our nerve cells eventually produce less and less dopamine (they simply can’t keep up with the demand. This leads to an increase in sugar cravings and harder swings from happy to depression. When our levels of Dopamine are weakened, the effects of the negative stimuli on neurotransmitters becomes more pronounced, such as our pain responses.

The Effects of Refined Sugar on Natural Opioids

Opioids are the body's natural pain killers. They are produced in response to pain stimulation in neurons. When you cut yourself, and damage nerves, substance P (pain) is produced. This substance P travels to the brain to signal there is a problem. The brain then produces opioids to make the pain manageable.

Opioids also excite Dopamine. This is a coping mechanism for times of acute pain. If there is constant stimulation of the natural opioid pathways, just like dopamine, they begin to run out—causing an increase in pain perception.

Increased sugar in the brain stimulates the production of natural Opioids, just like Dopamine. You get a sugar high, literally, from it. Like dopamine, there is only so much natural opioid that can be produced at one time. When there is constant stimuli, the body's natural ability to cope with pain diminishes, as there is not enough opioids produced to treat the body's pain.

Another effect is that with constant stimulation of the opioid receptors on the nerves, they become desensitized to opioids. This is referred to as “down regulating”. It means you will need more opioids to get the same decrease in pain perception. We see this same thing in opioid medication and drug use. You need more to get your high. The same scenario occurs when you regularly consume large amounts of sugar, which stimulates Opioid production. This becomes even more important when you are taking pain medication that works on opioid receptors.

The Effects of Refined Sugar on Acetylcholine Production

Acetylcholine is found not only in the brain, but also neurons in the muscles. It is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in motor function, attention and arousal. It is also the cholinergic pathway affected in diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. In the muscles, Acetylcholine works as a neurotransmitter to send signals between nerves and muscle cells. For example: your brain says to move your right finger. These signals travel to the neuromuscular junctions (where the nerve and muscle fiber come together), and acetylcholine transmits the signal.

Acetylcholine rises naturally at the end of meal. Glucose in a meal increases the production of Aceytlcholine in the brain, stimulating an increase in muscle energy and brain function. When excessive amounts of sugars, particularly glucose, are consumed in a meal, there is a hyper-excitability of acetylcholine production—like with the other neurotransmitters we’ve discussed. And just like other neurotransmitters, over production depletes the amount of available acetylcholine.

The Effects of Refined Sugar on GABA Production in the Pancreas

GABA is a neurotransmitter protein that works to reduce excitability in the brain, and body. It's the “downer” of the neurotransmitter bunch. Its job is to keep the effects of Dopamine in check. It acts as a regulator.

In the Pancreas, GABA is produced in response to Glucose stimulation in the B cells (the same cells that produce insulin). When we eat a modest amount of sugar, GABA is released to reduce the excitability effects mentioned above. In excess sugar amounts, GABA production decreases (by 40% in one study) allowing an increase in excitability effects. There is a direct correlation between insulin resistance and a decrease in GABA production.

When GABA is decrease from too much sugar in the brain, we see the “hyper” effects of mental excitability. This can cause the symptoms of depression and fatigue (while the neurons rebuild their dopamine supplies). Sleep is also negatively affected because GABA is responsible for regulating Melatonin activity.

Detoxing from a Sugar Addiction

If you have been on a long term high sugar diet, you are likely suffering from neurotransmitter imbalances. Symptoms of addiction to sugar are:

  • ​Crave sugar to the point of mood changes
  • ​Binge eating on sugar
  • ​Can no longer taste the sugar is sweet fruits (they don't seem sweet to you.)
  • ​You hide your sweets
  • ​You make excuses to eat sugar
  • ​You get depressed and fatigued after consuming sugars

I am not going to lie. Removing excess sugars from your diet when you are addicted is not easy. Just like with recreational drugs, you can experience withdrawal symptoms. For some, symptoms will be worse for a little while until your body begins to adjust to regulating its own neurotransmitters again.

There is an inverse affect between Acetylcholine and Dopamine in the brain. During drug or sugar withdrawal, there is a hyper production of acetylcholine and a decrease in the production of Dopamine, causing withdrawal symptoms until neurotransmitters are balanced. Symptoms of withdrawal are:

  • ​Mood changes: anger, depression, anxiety
  • ​Appetite changes, increased cravings for sugar
  • ​Headaches and dizziness
  • ​Flu like symptoms
  • ​Insomnia
  • ​Muscle aches, twitches and spasms

The good news is that these symptoms usually do not last too long. The severity will depend on how much sugar you consume and how often. Once you have cleared your body of the negative neurotransmitter effect of sugar in the brain, your body will start to normalize. The level of general inflammation in your body will also go down, helping you to avoid many of the metabolic diet-related diseases many people today are suffering with.

Below is a good video that generally explains how your brain reacts to sugar:

About the Author

Jaydra Hymer is a family consultant and child behavior expert. She is the current director of Brain Zone in South Jordan, Utah.

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