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How Learning and Mental Health is Affected by Sugar

Written by Christian A. Dickinson
Updated January 2023

How can processed sugar affect our children's learning and mental health?

A high sugar intake fosters at least eight (8) unintended responses and consequences: lack of focus, mood crashes and changes, memory impairment, high stress levels, personality changes, addiction, childhood obesity, and immune system suppression.

Processed sugar is addicting!

Most sugar comes from sugar cane or white sugar beets. The natural sap from a sugar cane actually has some nutrition: soluble fiber, antioxidant phenols, vitamins and minerals.  Sugar cane in its raw state is low glycemic. The sugar found in sugar cane is mostly sucrose. Of the two in the raw, sugar cane actually has more nutritional value than sugar beets.

However, ALL, yes ALL, of the nutritional values during the multiple stages of processing sugar cane and sugar beets, are extracted and stripped of fibers, vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants, and then bleached leaving 99.99% pure white sugar.

When you take all the nutritional value out of sugar cane and sugar beets, you have basically created a drug!  We would all agree that drugs should be regulated, but the sugar industry will never let that happen.  In fact, they know it is so addictive, they incentivize it.  Try to find any processed food without added refined sugar--trust me, we look at every label.  Even when sugar is listed as an ingredient, it doesn't always state the amount of added sugar.

Refined sugar is not the same as sugar found in natural food sources. 

When we eat processed sugar, the brain produces huge surges of dopamine. The brain reacts to a surge in sugar the same way it reacts to heroin and cocaine. Brain scientists agree this is because our bodies have adapted to choose foods that are high in calories.

The emotional lift processed sugar provides is short-lived. Post-spike crashes lead to sluggishness, lack of motivation, and lack of concentration because of the changes in our dopamine levels.  Refined sugar interrupts and confuses certain neurotransmitters.


How does refined sugar affect dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain. It communicates messages between nerve endings. In part of the brain, called the rewards center, dopamine receptors become active when exposed to an excitability toxin, such as cocaine and refined sugar. Watch the two minute video below for a visual explanation of the brain's reward system:

So how does refined sugar disrupt our brain?

Sugar or any drug, stimulates the dopamine receptors which produces a euphoric or exciting feeling. Neurons produce neurotransmitters over a cycle of time. When concentrated amounts of refined sugar are consumed, a huge rush of dopamine floods the brain. This depletes the neurons of the neurotransmitter which causes the high and low of the refined sugar rush. We develop one or more of the eight unintended consequences of ingesting refined sugar, and then we crave more to experience the euphoric or exciting feeling--the addition begins. When we are constantly consuming refined sugar, we are causing over stimulation of our dopamine receptors.  Over time, they eventually produce less and less dopamine at a time causing an increase in sugar cravings and harder swings from high to low.  We can see our balance has been disrupted.

The effect sugar has on dopamine and dopamine receptors make it addictive.  This is why it is so difficult to cut refined sugar out of our diets.  It is also extremely difficult to eat or buy processed foods without added sugar.  Pick up the labels and look for the number of “added sugars."