Every week, there is a new piece of research telling us what we shouldn’t be doing or eating, and the large volume of studies can leave our heads reeling sometimes. The latest research about sugar, however, has merely compounded some of the more alarming warnings we have heard in recent times.
According to researchers in Australia, a high-sugar diet can be as damaging to our brains as extreme stress or even abuse.
The study, carried out by a team at the University of New South Wales, has sent shockwaves around the world since its publication this week in the Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience journal.
As part of the study, the team looked at the impact of early life stress and abuse on the brain, and found that exposure to events like bereavement, sexual or emotional abuse, or violence can boost production of ‘the stress hormone’ cortisol. They then explored whether sugar could have the same impact on the brain.
In the experiment, the team analysed data from groups of laboratory rats. They placed some newborn litters in an environment of limited nesting material, and then put them back to a normal environment until they were weaned.
Analysis showed that a lack of sufficient bedding increased the rats’ anxiety levels. All groups were then given unlimited access to both a water-based drink and a 25% sugar solution. All were examined at 15 weeks.
The experiment showed that high sugar consumption in the ‘non-stressed’ group actually produced similarly damaging effects to those in the brains of the ‘stressed’ rats who had not consumed any sugar.
From this, the team determined that early life stress or sugar consumption leads to similar complications with the receptor that binds cortisol, essentially making it more difficult for animals to recover after a stressful ordeal.
Sharing their thoughts on this highly significant finding, research authors wrote: “The fact that drinking sugar or exposure to early life stress reduced the expression of genes critical for brain development and growth is of great concern.”
“While it is impossible to perform such studies in humans, the brain circuits controlling stress responses and feeding are conserved across species,” they added.