We've all experienced it… the high that comes after a candy splurge. The Sugar Rush! …followed by the inevitable and dreaded… Sugar Crash.

Unfortunately, the side effects of sugar are not just about elevated energy levels. There's more going on inside that I hope to explain in a way that helps you understand the process (and make a more informed decision about the sugar you consume) just a little bit better!

I recently heard Dr. Mark Hyman speak on the topic of sugar and he jokingly (but not so jokingly) said “Sugar is a recreational drug.”… I think there is So much truth in that! I know many who justify eating sugar by saying “everything in moderation”… my question is, what does that even mean?! How does refined sugar (devoid of any nutritional value) “in moderation” benefit the body? The truth is, it doesn't.

I think we've done ourselves (and our children) a disservice by allowing this kind of mindset to persevere. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the concept of eating things in moderation, and I certainly would not suggest that you cut out any certain food group… but “sugar” in it's refined & de-nutritionalized form is not a food group.

Knowledge is power, and when we know what effect sugar actually has on our bodies, I hope that we'll be able to make choices that are beneficial for our health now and in the long run. Trust me when I say, I've been there… I'm certainly not here to judge or lecture! Just want to give you a simple peek into the science behind the matter, and I'll let you do with it what you will. 😉

Just FYI… for the purpose of keeping this post simple, when speaking of “sugar” I'm referring to processed, refined sugars like the ones found in candies, sweets, syrups, refined carbohydrates, and practically Every processed food on the market right now.

Although I think there is absolutely no cause justifying the consumption of this kind of “sugar”, I do think that other sugars, including whole, raw, organic fruit <not fruit juices>, raw honey, sucanat, sprouted whole grains, and other unrefined, naturally-occuring sugars can certainly be included as a small portion of the diet, and can actually be beneficial when consumed… wait for it… in moderation. 😉

What happens to your body during a Sugar Rush and Sugar Crash?

Anatomy of a “Sugar Rush” (the serious side effects of sugar)

Side effects of sugar on the mouth

Digestion begins in the mouth, where salivary enzymes begin to break down sugar molecules for absorption. Depending on what kind of sugar is being consumed, some of these molecules will be directly absorbed into the blood stream from the mouth, setting off a rapid reaction.

Effects of sugar on the GI tract

Sugars that are not broken down in the mouth will continue their journey through the GI tract… where more enzymes await, and will continue the breakdown process for blood stream absorption. Since refined sugars have been stripped of all nutrients that might help them be utilized in the body… vitamins & minerals like calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, & B vitamins are taken from parts of the body (primarily the teeth and bones) to bind to the sugar molecules in order for the body to be able to utilize it. These minerals are not replaced.

Side effects of sugar liver & pancreas

The shock of rapid sugar in the blood (hyperglycemia), signals the pancreas to produce increased amounts of insulin to carry the sugar molecules into parts of the body for use. Sugar is transported through the blood stream to the liver for processing and to make it available for cell synthesis.

brain & nervous system (this is your brain… this is your brain on sugar.)

High levels of sugar in the blood stream can cause an altered mental status resulting in erratic behavior and emotional outbursts (sound familiar?). Studies have shown that the chemical composition of sugar (being very similar to that of cocaine) can cause a habit forming addiction, in similar fashion to habit-forming narcotic use. When sugar is consumed it triggers the production of dopamine, one of your brain's natural opioids or “feel good” hormones, which gives the “high” (here's an interesting article on that, if you want to learn more).

(Total side note… and it may be completely far-fetched, but I also have speculated (TOTALLY not researched this whatsoever)… whether or not increased inflammation in the brain  caused by sugar consumption and by-products can also contribute to behavioral issues as well. Studies of the science behind inflammation causing brain chemical alterations, which we are beginning to discover may have a link to a number of psychiatric disorders, has led me to wonder about there being a similar connection between sugar consumption and brain inflammation.)

Sugar decreases your immune system

A small study done in 1973 (yes, I know that was a long time ago!) showed that after consumption of sugar, participants' white blood cells were far  less effective at fighting off infection compared to the group who had not consumed the refined carbs. This crippling effect on the immune system lasted for at least 5 hours, suggesting that sugar consumption can lead to a weakened ability to fight infection… not so good, especially in the thick of cold & flu season!

And, of course, I would be remiss if I talked about the anatomy of a sugar rush, without following it with an explanation of the inevitable, and even more dreaded… Sugar CRASH… which really is much more telling of the health toll sugar consumption takes on the body.

Anatomy of a “Sugar Crash” (AKA… “the meltdown”)

mouth (sugar effect on teeth and enamel)

Let's start where we began… the mouth. Not all sugar will be absorbed into the blood stream or carried into the GI tract… some of that goodness gets left behind on the teeth. When the healthy bacteria covering  the teeth begin to feed on these sugars, they produce an acidic by-product that breaks down enamel, leaving teeth vulnerable to cavities, infections, and other dental complications.

GI tract, increased sugar intake can cause mineral & bacterial imbalances

Sugars that make it to the GI tract will be absorbed into the blood… and similarly to what happens in the mouth, excess sugar availability will feed some of the (usually healthy) organisms in the gut, that once well-fed and overly-produced basically hijack your gut (and brain <–seriously!) and can cause all kinds of further complications and issues, including a serious sugar addiction, mental fog, depression, anxiety, and recurring infections, just to name a few (Read more about the problem with candida here).

The minerals that were taken from the body (magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium, B vitamins, and more) used to make the sugars processable are not replaced, leaving the body at further disadvantage. A body stripped of these minerals will be at an increased risk for cavities, osteoporosis, electrolyte imbalances resulting in cardiac complications, and of course, the general yucky feeling that comes with a body depleted of such vital minerals and vitamins!

Liver & pancreas during a sugar crash (Excessive sugar intake can lead to fatty liver, diabetes, & obesity)

Excess sugar being processed through the liver can leave deposits in the liver itself (excess sugars, not used are converted to fat in the body), contributing to something called “fatty liver” (learn more about causes and complications of a fatty liver and ways you can decrease your risk here).

The spike in insulin, as a result of rapid increase in blood sugar, leads to a dramatic drop in blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) and a general feeling of “tiredness”. Just a note… when the balance of glucose & insulin levels in the blood are consistently challenged in this irregular way, the body's sensitivity to insulin is reduced, increasing your risk of developing diabetes.

Actually, I wasn't going to mention this, but I think it's too important not to… Leptin, a hormone released by fat cells which signals the brain to say “hey, I've had enough!” and to let the brain know how much energy you've got ready on standby, can go through a similar process as insulin with excess sugar consumption. It's unclear exactly how the mechanism works, but when sugar is consumed, leptin is produced in an effort to signal the body to stop eating. Unfortunately, the “feel good” hormones going on in the body are much stronger, and essentially override the stop signs, resulting in your body working even harder to put on the brakes. In similar fashion to what happens with an over-production of insulin, the body begins to build a tolerance to the signals sent by leptin. Studies have shown that obese men & women have high levels of leptin in their bloodstream, suggesting that leptin-resistance contributes to obesity.

Sugar side effect on stress hormones cortisol, regulated by the adrenal gland

A sudden drop in blood sugar level also triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol & adrenaline to initiate the release of stored sugar supplies. These stress hormones leave you feeling shaky & weak, and can cause heart racing & palpitations.

Brain & nervous system during a sugar crash

The brain just got a “yeah, this feels goooood!” dose of dopamine… and when those levels start to drop, you better bet it's gonna want some more! Neuro-receptors in the brain will be begging for more of the sweet stuff, and could send you or your little one looking for another hit. When a body doesn't get the hit it's looking for, it can result in a “low” or melancholy mental and emotional state, with a decreased ability to control emotional outbursts of sadness and aggression.

The only other “side effect” I haven't mentioned yet is that of the link between excess sugar intake and an elevation in uric acid. It seems that as a result of a rapid inflammatory process (essentially an explosion of sugar) in the blood stream, there is a byproduct produced from cell “shock” and “die off”. This byproduct is called uric acid, and it is becoming more evident that elevations in uric acid have a connection to some serious complications… including kidney stone formation, elevated blood pressure, gout, & cardiac disease. Just something else to be mindful of!

Want to know more? Here are a few more articles I recommend:

I know it can be challenging, especially if you've got a little candy-fiend on your hands (and I'm not just talking about your kiddos! 😉 ), but after seeing the side effects a sugar rush (and sugar crash) happening inside the body… and the extreme damage that can be done over continual assault… will you consider making an effort towards decreasing sugar intake for yourself and/or your families?