How Does Sugar Impact Brain Health?

by | Blog


The brain must have a constant supply of sugar at all times to function optimally. On top of being an essential fuel source, sugar and insulin have significant impacts on how building blocks for neurotransmitters (amino acids) are transported into the brain through a barrier called the Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB).

There are several ways the brain can impact blood sugar control and vice versa. When circulating blood sugar is low, a part of the hypothalamus does things like stimulate hunger, and release a hormone called CRH to tell the adrenals to secrete adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol to raise blood sugar levels from stored forms of sugar called glycogen, and to make sugar from other sources such as amino acids, fatty acids, lactate, and pyruvate.

Every person needs to balance blood sugars through lifestyle and dietary strategies, but people suffering from blood sugar imbalances due to brain dysfunction also need to focus on what can be driving the blood sugar imbalances.

Think of neurons like muscles; they can get weaker or stronger depending on fuel to grow and proper stimulation. If a neuron isn’t healthy it may be too “weak” to send a signal, so it calls for help to send the signal and activates other neurons for support. This increases the demand for sugar for the brain dramatically, which can contribute to hypoglycemia. These people often complain of extreme crashes without physical activity, but after a stressor or problem solving is required. Unfortunately, it can become a vicious cycle where everyday activities such as driving can become problematic.

With advanced degeneration such as Alzheimer’s or traumatic brain injury, the cerebral cortex is sometimes no longer able to regulate blood sugar. This mechanism is easier to identify after a brain injury because the onset of symptoms correlates with the date of injury, but with a slow, progressive loss of brain function, it can be more difficult to identify.

There is a part of the brain responsible for coordination called the cerebellum. The cerebellum also acts a brake for a part of the brain responsible for activating the sympathetic – or fight or flight – part of the nervous system. If the sympathetics don’t have the brake applied it can lead to increase heart rate, anxiety, and increased metabolic activity. This can cause an increase in the demand for blood sugar and can lead to hypoglycemia. Typically people will complain of things like vertigo or motion sickness as well as low blood sugar.

With that being said, the biggest culprit of blood sugar imbalances is diet and lifestyle. People with chronic low blood sugar have habits of skipping breakfast, missing snacks, using caffeine or nicotine to reduce appetite and eating sugary meals. Their symptoms are typically light-headed and irritable if meals are missed, they get shaky between meals, crave sweets, depend on coffee, and eating relieves fatigue. These people usually adopt this lifestyle for years before they start to notice symptoms of adrenal fatigue because the adrenals can no longer keep raising blood sugar on a constant basis. It is important to remember that cortisol also promotes peripheral insulin resistance. It does this because the sugar in the blood must be preserved for the brain because the brain can’t store sugar like muscles or the liver.

A person with chronically high blood sugars typically has reduced physical activity, overeating, and eating high starch and high sugar meals. These people typically get tired after meals, crave sweets after meals, and eating sweets doesn’t receive the cravings for sugary foods. It is important to remember that inflammation anywhere in the body can contribute to insulin resistance. These lifestyle habits must be addressed first before other interventions would have any hope of long-term success.

The outcome of these lifestyle patterns can contribute to fatigue, depression, mood instability, infertility, hormone imbalances, insomnia, and so on. Also, Alzheimer’s is sometimes referred to as type 3 diabetes because the same issues that destroy the rest of the body destroy the brain as well.

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