What Does Sugar Do to Your Brain?

No one really thinks of sugar as a health food, do they? Most of us are quite aware that it plays a role in weight management, tooth decay and the development of Type 2 diabetes. For the last forty years, we have been sold the myth that a calorie is a calorie and that sugar is pretty harmless, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Dietary fat has been demonized and sugar was supposed to be our salvation. Coca-cola, amongst other processed food companies, markets its products as part of an “active, healthy lifestyle.”

Perhaps there has never been a better time to remember the saying: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” The illusory truth effect is the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure. In this day and age of social media and “alternative facts,” I cringe at times at the information that circulates, especially in the area of nutrition. 

Mortality rates in the developed world are not affected like they once were, by infection and lack of sanitation.  Today’s health woes are instead conditions that are chronic, degenerative and metabolic in nature. One of the biggest underlying factors is the change in our dietary intake, most notably with regards to sugar consumption.

Glucose – a type of sugar – is the main energy source for every cell in the body, the brain is no exception.  Studies show the brain accounts for 60% of the body’s glucose utilization. Thinking, memory and learning are all dependent on the amount of glucose available for brain function. Although the brain needs glucose, it wreaks havoc when available in excess.

To gain a better idea of amounts, the average Canadian aged 19 and older consumes 85 grams of added sugar per day. What is more remarkable is that it is less than the 100-115 g/day in children under the age of 8! The World Health Organization’s recommends a daily maximum or no more than 50 grams, and encourages an intake of only of 25 grams for added health benefits.2

Let’s examine some of key ways that sugar impacts your brain.

  1. Addiction and overeating. Science tells us sugar is more addictive than cocaine. When we eat sugar, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released. Not only does dopamine make us feel good, it also controls mood, behavior, learning, and memory. Consuming excess sugar long term influences both the gene expression and availability of dopamine receptors and dopamine transporter proteins. 3,4 That means it takes more and more of the substance to create the same dopamine release. In situations where sugar is not available, people experience the same withdrawal symptoms as seen in other addictions, such as nervous tremors, teeth chattering and anxiety. Additionally, chronic sugar consumption blunts the brain’s ability to trigger feelings of satiety, which leads to overeating. 5
  2. Cognitive learning and memory. A diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein produced by nerve cells that is needed by our brains to learn and create new memories. This critically vital protein is lower in people with already impaired glucose metabolism (diabetics and pre-diabetics) and the more it declines, the more sugar metabolism deteriorates, causing insulin resistance. 6 Insulin resistance is like the boy who cried wolf – your body’s receptors no longer respond to the presence of insulin, because it is always in the bloodstream. Insulin resistance is the first step to a whole host of other serious health problems. A reduction in BDNF levels are seen after only two months of adopting a high fat, high sugar diet. 7
  3. Depression and anxiety. Sugar consumption contributes to feelings of depression in numerous ways. Firstly, it affects what intestinal microbes grow, where 90% of your serotonin is produced. Secondly, it competes for B vitamins and folic acid, both of which are needed to produce serotonin. Thirdly, it reduces the production of BDNF, which can result in depressive mood, increased anxiety, cognitive deficiencies as well as accelerated brain aging. 8
  4. Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s has been recently described as a side effect of the Western high sugar diet. 9 In one study that tracked over 5000 people over ten years conclusively showed that they had a greater rate of cognitive decline than their normal blood sugar counterparts. 10 A person with Type 2 Diabetes is twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s. 11 Another study that investigated dietary intake of more than 1000 people. Those with the highest carbohydrate intake has 80% greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s. 12,13 Diabetes also weakens blood vessels, which can lead to multiple ministrokes in the brain, resulting in dementia. There are currently around 50 million people in the world with Alzheimer’s disease and the figure is predicted to rise to more than 125 million by 2050. 14

Sugar is bad news for brain health, period. When you do eat sugar, choose to do so, consciously and (very) occasionally. The rest of the time, reach for an apple instead a candy bar. Your brain (and the rest of your body) will thank you for it.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_truth_effect
  2. https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/
  3. Siresha Bathina and Undurti N. Das. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications.Arch Med Sci.2015 Dec 10; 11(6): 1164–1178.
  4. Spangler R, Wittkowski KM, Goddard NL, Avena NM, Hoebel BG, Leibowitz SF. Opiate-like effects of sugar on gene expression in reward areas of the rat brain. Brain Res Mol Brain Res. 2004 May 19;124(2):134-42.
  5. Anaya Mitra,Blake A. Gosnell, Helgi B. Schiöth, Martha K. Grace, Anica Klockars, Pawel K. Olszewski, and Allen S. Levine  Chronic sugar intake dampens feeding-related activity of neurons synthesizing a satiety mediator, oxytocin. Peptides. 2010 Jul; 31(7): 1346–1352.
  6. Krabbe KS, Nielsen AR, Krogh-Madsen R, Plomgaard P, Rasmussen P, Erikstrup C, Fischer CP, Lindegaard B, Petersen AM, Taudorf S, Secher NH, Pilegaard H, Bruunsgaard H, Pedersen BK. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and type 2 diabetes. Diabetologia. 2007 Feb;50(2):431-8. Epub 2006 Dec 7.
  7. Neuroscience. 2002;112(4):803-14.
  8.  Molteni R, Barnard RJ, Ying Z, Roberts CK, Gómez-Pinilla F.A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience. 2002;112(4):803-14.
  9. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/01/the-startling-link-between-sugar-and-alzheimers/551528/?utm_source=feed
  10. Fanfan Zheng, Li Yan, Zhenchun Yang, Baoliang Zhong, Wuxiang Xie. HbA1c, diabetes and cognitive decline: the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Diabetologia April 2018, Volume 61, Issue 4, pp 839–848
  11. https://www.cnn.com/2011/09/19/health/diabetes-doubles-alzheimers/index.html
  12. T. Ohara, Y. Doi, T. Ninomiya, Y. Hirakawa, J. Hata, T. Iwaki, S. Kanba, Y. Kiyohara. Glucose tolerance status and risk of dementia in the community: The Hisayama Study. Neurology, 2011; 77 (12): 1126
  13. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/higher-brain-glucose-levels-may-mean-more-severe-alzheimers
  14. 14. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/02/23/alzheimers-could-caused-excess-sugar-new-study-finds-molecular/

The Scoop on CBD


Since its recent legalization in Canada, the use of marijuana and related products has exploded, to the point where government-approved dispensaries are out of product three days out of seven.  Marijuana and its constituents have been used medicinally over decades and now with increased access, people of all walks of life are turning to the marijuana plant for a number of potential health benefits.

What is CBD?  Cannabis contains over 100 chemicals known as cannabinoids, of which cannabidiol (CBD) is one.  The two most well-known compounds are CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the component responsible for creating the “high” one experiences when using marijuana, whereas CBD does not. CBD can be extracted from the flowers and the buds of either marijuana (high THC content) or hemp (low THC content).  

 How does CBD work?  Our bodies naturally make substances that have a similar structure to cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids.  The human nervous system and many other tissues in the body have receptors that bind with these endocannabinoids (referred to as the endocannabinoid system, or ECS), as well as cannabinoids.  While THC directly binds with both CB1 and CB2 receptors, CBD works by preventing the reuptake body’s own endocannibinoids, thereby increasing their concentration.

The legal status of the marijuana plant, until recently, prevented it being studied for its medicinal effects. Yet, there are numerous health benefits of CBD, which is validated by ongoing new scientific research.  Here are five areas where it shows promising therapeutic potential.

1.Anxiety.  CBD has been shown to decrease anxiety at a dose of around 300 mg per day. ¹, ²  It is important to note that doses higher or lower than 300 mg have been shown to have no effect, or even worse, increase anxiety.³  Some people have experienced an exacerbation at any dose.  It works by regulating the receptors involved in the fear response and anxiety related behaviours.

2. Cancer. Medical marijuana has often been used to alleviate the nausea and pain caused by conventional cancer treatments. For some, the effects of THC are not tolerated or desired. Fortunately, CBD on its own, offers similar relief as well as affects the underlying disease process. CBD has been shown to decrease cell division, increases the process by which the body cleans out cellular debris and damaged cells (autophagy) as well augmenting the effects of chemotherapy.,⁵,

3. Pain and inflammation. Chronic pain can be notoriously difficult to treat. Fortunately, CBD appears to be have an effective role in pain management. Based on the research, not only does it act as an analgesic, but also blunts the perception of pain, making it more tolerable. , The different types of pain studied include osteoarthritis , ¹⁰ nerve pain, and post-surgical pain. ¹¹, ¹²,¹³

4. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Post-traumatic stress disorder affects approximately 10% of people at some point in their life. It manifests differently in different people – symptoms include sleep disturbances, mood changes, changes in emotion, reduced social skills and changes in cognition (reliving the trauma). Emerging research indicates that CBD oil exhibits effective treatment option for this condition, with its considerably fewer side effects than its pharmacological counterparts. ¹⁴

5. Seizures It has long been known in the scientific community that the ECS is involved in seizures. Consequently, there has been extensive research of the therapeutic applications of cannabinoids for seizures disorders. ¹⁵

One study gave 214 people with severe epilepsy 0.9–2.3 grams of CBD oil per pound (2–5 g/kg) of body weight. Their seizures reduced by a median of 36.5%. ¹⁶

Another study found that CBD oil significantly reduced seizure activity in children with Dravet syndrome, a complex childhood epilepsy disorder, compared to a placebo. ¹⁷

In 2018, the FDA approved the use of Epidiolex (a plant-based formulation of CBD) to treat seizures for people 2 years of age and older with Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS). ¹⁸, ¹⁹

CBD potentially inhibits seizures and is generally regarded as causing fewer adverse effects than traditional anti-epileptic drugs.

Due to its increasing popularity, CBD products are popping up all over the marketplace. However, despite the fact that CBD induces no psychoactive effects, it is still strictly regulated in Canada. Only licensed producers may make it, and only registered retailers may sell it. It is subject to the same regulations as its marijuana counterpart – the official legalization of marijuana on October 17, 2018 did not change its status. ²⁰ Unregulated CBD products on the market can range in quality and may not even contain the compound in the concentration stated, if at all. All licensed producers are required to meet standards for quality and consistency.

Though there is still much to be investigated regarding its efficacy and safety, the results of recent studies suggest that CBD may offer many beneficial effects for a number of health conditions. If you are considering using CBD therapeutically, inform your health care provider to ensure there are no interactions with your current medications and only use products that are regulated to contain the dosage you need.

5 Brain Fuel Hacks

Every September is the beginning of a new academic year – an opportunity to create new habits and routines, after all of the summer festivities. With the new school year, it is a great time to refocus on eating well for best mental and cognitive health for every member of the family. Not only does improved nutrition enhance learning, it also decreases the number of absences due to sickness and improves overall behaviour, in children and adults alike. Refuel your brain with these five tips for best brain health:

1. Balance your meals.

Stable blood sugar levels are critically important for brain functions such as thinking, memory and learning.  The brain depends on glucose, as its main fuel source.  If there is not enough glucose available, the brain’s ability to produce neurotransmitters, the brain’s signalling chemicals, decreases. Low levels of glucose can also lead to a loss of energy for proper brain function, resulting in poor attention and cognition.

Ensuring meals contain relatively equal proportions of complex carbohydrates, protein and fats allows for balanced blood sugars for hours at a time (which also reduces the need for snacking).  We need to stop eating dessert for breakfast! Most “breakfast foods” like cereal, toast, muffins and waffles are rich in simple carbohydrates, which usually results in chasing your blood sugar all day long.  Better breakfast options include protein shakes made with plain yogurt/protein powder(for the protein), fruit (1/2 cup) and coconut milk or avocado (for the fats), veggie omelette, toast with almond butter and berries, oatmeal with berries (with a Tbsp or two of nut butter or nuts/seeds added in), or chia seed pudding.

2. Ditch the sugars.

Probably the worst food you could eat for your mental and physical health is sugar. It is shocking to learn that in North America, the average child under age 12 eats about 49 pounds of sugar annually in addition to 32 pounds of high fructose corn syrup, only 3 pounds less of each than the average adult (compared to 8 pounds of average broccoli consumption).

Sugar has many effects on a child’s learning ability.  It decreases attention span and memory. Eating sugar at an early age has been shown to impair memory function long-term as well as increase inflammation in parts of the brain. Other effects of sugar consumption an increased incidence of depression, anxiety, addiction and dementia.  All good reasons to cut back, if not eliminate it entirely from your diet.  I recommend using stevia glycerite to sweeten food & drink, which gives the sweetness without the compromise.

3. Add more fish.

We can’t make omega 3 fatty acids, so we have to get it through dietary sources such as wild salmon, flaxseed and walnuts.  When it comes to memory and brain health, most of the research indicates that is is specific to the effects of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  It is not only neuroprotective but is a major structural component of brain tissue.¹

Though there is no upper limit, a little can go a long way.  According to one study in Rotterdam indicated that even one meal per week consisting of fatty fish could reduce cognitive decline by up to 60%.²

People with Alzheimer’s have been shown in several studies to have severely low levels of DHA in key parts of the brain needed for memory formation.³,⁴

So not only is it important not only to increase DHA intake, but also drastically reduce intake of omega 6 fatty acids commonly found in vegetable oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, and other common polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s). Historically, the human diet consisted of omega 3 intake in a ratio of 1:1 to omega 6 fatty acids.  With processed foods this has shifted upwards to a ratio of about 1:16 to 1:36. ⁵

DHA has also shown to benefit cognition in both older and younger rats in the absence of neurodegenerative disease. DHA is good for both the young and the old, and the sick and the healthy.⁶,⁷

4. Take a multivitamin/mineral.

Once you have the major macronutrients covered (though eating a balanced plant-based diet will usually suffice), ensure that your micronutrients aren’t lacking. Iron deficiency, for example, even in early stages can decrease dopamine (one of the four main brain neurotransmitters) transmission, thereby decreasing cognition.  Cognition and mental concentration are also shown to be affected by deficiencies in B vitamins (especially thiamine), vitamin E, iodine and zinc.⁸,⁹,¹⁰

5. Hydrate adequately.

Most North Americans are chronically dehydrated and mistake thirst signals for hunger signals. Even the most minimally dehydrated brain is 15% less efficient than a hydrated one.

The best choice for drinking for people of all ages is pure, filtered water.  Ideally, about 50% of your body weight in ounces everyday.  While plain water might get tedious, there are plenty of sugar-free flavoured water options now available, which makes it easier to change things up.  With autumn around the corner, other good choices include bone broth and herbal teas.


(1) Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, et al. Consumption of fish and omega-3 fatty acids and risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Arch Neurol. 2003 Jul;60(7):940-6.

(2) Kalmijn S, Launer LJ, Ott A, Witteman JC, Hofman A, Breteler MM. Dietary fat intake and the risk of incident dementia in the Rotterdam Study. Ann Neurol. 1997 Nov;42(5):776-82.

(3) Soderberg M, Edlund C, Kristensson K, Dallner G. Fatty acid composition of brain phospholipids in aging and in Alzheimer’s disease. Lipids. 1991 Jun;26(6):421-5.

(4)  Prasad MR, Lovell MA, Yatin M, Dhillon H, Markesbery WR. Regional membrane phospholipid alterations in Alzheimer’s disease. Neurochem Res. 1998 Jan;23(1):81-8.

(5) Kris-Etherton PM, Taylor DS, Yu-Poth S, et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the food chain in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):179S-88S.

(6) Morris MC, Evans DA, Tangney CC, Bienias JL, Wilson RS. Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study. Arch Neurol.2005 Dec;62(12):1849-53.

(7) Gamoh S, Hashimoto M, Sugioka K, et al. Chronic administration of docosahexaenoic acid improves reference memory-related learning ability in young rats. Neuroscience. 1999;93(1):237-41.

(8) Pollitt E. (1993). Iron deficiency and cognitive function. Annual Review of Nutrition, 13, 521–537.

(9) Chenoweth, W. (2007). Vitamin B complex deficiency and excess. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Greenbaum, L. (2007a). Vitamin E deficiency. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Greenbaum, L. (2007b). Micronutrient mineral deficiencies. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Bryan, J., Osendarp, S., Hughes, D., Calvaresi, E., Baghurst, K. & van Klinken, J. (2004). Nutrients for cognitive development in school-aged children. Nutrition Reviews, 62(8), 295–306.

Delange, F. (2000) The role of iodine in brain development. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 59, 75–79. Sandstead, H. (2000). Causes of iron and zinc deficiencies and their effects on brain. Journal of Nutrition, 130, 347–349.

(10) Lieberman, H. (2003). Nutrition, brain function, and cognitive performance. Appetite, 40, 245–254.

Frisvold, D. (2012). Nutrition and cognitive achievement: An evaluation of the school breakfast program. Working Paper, Emory University.


5 Ways to Boost your Brainpower

It was once thought that brain decline happened due to brain cell (neuron) death or cease of function.  Recent research now shows that the neurotransmitter dopamine can trigger the formation of new neurons in adult brains. Not only do neurons regenerate, they are also able to reorganize themselves and form new neural connections (called neuroplasticity).  With our current knowledge, not only can we slow down cognitive decline,  but we can prevent it outright.  Try the following dietary and lifestyle tweaks to boost your brainpower, prolong your mental health and ultimately,  make yourself smarter.

1. Exercise

The brain is only 2% of our body mass but it consumes 20% of our oxygen and nutrients.Aerobic exercise improves blood flow and increases oxygen levels, which increase neuron growth. Exercise also increases the volume of white and grey matter in the brain. A minimum of 30 minutes three times a week is recommended.

2. Eat dark chocolate and other brain foods.

The brain is comprised of 70% fat. Healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, MCT oil, fatty fish (like salmon and tuna) and/or supplement with a high quality fish oil. Foods like cocoa, blueberries, red wine and grapes contain compounds that have been shown to be beneficial for brain health.  The polyphenols in green tea have been shown to improve memory.  Egg yolks are a rich source of choline which is needed to make one of your brain’s main neurotransmitters.  Eating for best brain health also includes eating balanced meals (meals that include roughly equal amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fats – this is especially important at breakfast).  Avoid food additives like aspartame and food dyes, which have been shown to damage neurons.  Eliminate, or ideally, avoid consuming sugar due to its affect on blood sugars which is a known risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s (some researchers now call it Type III Diabetes).  

2. Sleep.

Sleep is needed not only to regenerate cells, but also helps strength synaptic connections. How many of us wake from a good night’s sleep with a new solution to an old problem?  That is because sleep allows your brain to analyze problems from a different perspective.  Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep for adults and 8.5 – 9.25 hours for teens.

3. Try something new.

Challenge your mind by continuing to learn.  Activities that use both sides of your brain – like learning a new language, painting, dancing or playing an instrument are all particularly beneficial for brain growth.  Listening to music and reading fiction are also proven ways to enhance cognitive function.  Travel and engaging in social activity have also proved beneficial.  Doing puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku are also useful in keeping your neurons active.  Using the internet has also been shown to activate regions of the decision-making and complex reasoning parts of your brain, making it a much better choice than passively watching TV.

5. Fast

According to the Society for Neuroscience, there are many benefits to calorie restriction/intermittent fasting, such as increased synaptic plasticity,  neuron growth, decreased risk of neurodegenerative diseases, and improved cognitive function.  Some popular methods of intermittent fasting include fasting for 24 hours (only drink water) once per week, the 16:2 model in which eating is restricted to an 8 window every day (thereby “fasting” for 16 hours/day), or restricting your calories to 500 (for a woman) – 600 (for a man) calories per day 1-2x/week with five days of regular dietary intake.

With knowledge comes power, so I hope these tips inspire you to make changes that will improve not only your mental health, but ultimately your overall health, for years to come.  Hopefully, this article has already left you just a little bit smarter.