TRICK OR TREAT: Keeping tricks out of the treats
Halloween is a tradition for many families all over the world. With the hint of fall dancing in the air, things like costumes and decorations, corn mazes, and haunted houses begin popping up all around. But the season wouldn’t be complete without little goblins and ghouls running from house to house asking the age of question: trick or treat.
While no one can deny the joy of the occasional treat, filling bags with these sweet delights can lead to sugar overload. It’s important to understand how sugar impacts the brain so we can participate in the delicious revelry while still taking care of our body and mind.
Sugar and the brain
One source of energy our body is designed to run on is glucose. It’s a form of sugar, easily absorbed by the body that fuels our body’s cells. There are three types of sugar––sucrose, fructose, and glucose––and all three should be ingested in moderation. We get sugar from a wide variety of natural foods, such as fruit. And it’s an important energy source for the brain. Functionality such as learning, memory, and thinking are all dependent on sugar levels. But more importantly, they’re dependent on how efficiently the brain uses it.
While the brain is dependent on sugar as a main fuel source, too much can be damaging. Too little sugar and we can experience poor attention spans and limited cognitive functionality. But if we eat too much, we can experience problems with memory and cognitive deficiencies. The key then is to understand how much is too much, and what type of sugar is best.
As we mentioned, one of the natural sources of glucose comes from sugar levels in fruit. However, we are also inundated with non-natural sugar sources in the forms of processed sugars in candies and packaged foods. When we eat sugar in any form, it activates the mesolimbic pathway, the first major dopamine pathway in our reward system. This releases powerful chemicals in the brain, triggering not just a feel-good response, but linking that response with motivational cognition. This means our brain knows sugar makes us feel good and wants us to find more.
In our early days, this mechanism was invaluable to help us stay focused and motivated towards survival. Sugar equals energy, and our ancestors needed all the energy they could get to survive. However, today we’re surrounded by easy sugar sources and an abundance of food. This can lead to overconsumption of sugar, which can be damaging to both our body and brain.
The good news is indulging in sugary treats for Halloween isn’t likely to lead to long-term damage. Our brain’s capability to heal itself, also known as neuroplasticity, means we can bounce back from eating too much sugar in both long-term and short-term dietary changes. Adding foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can also protect the brain and promote new neural growth.
While there’s no need to go through the Halloween season denying our kids candies and sweets, all sugary treats should be consumed in moderation. Adding plenty of brain-healthy snacks and encouraging lots of exercise to burn off all that energy will also help keep their brains and bodies happy and healthy.