Darla was having a stressful day. She’d gotten into a car accident that morning, and everything seemed to go downhill from there. By the time she got home, she was frazzled, but she had to make dinner for her family, and then get her two young kids to bed.
When things calmed down, she plopped on the couch, and all she could think about was that carton of rocky road ice cream in the refrigerator. She knew she shouldn’t, but it was like her body wasn’t her own. She got up, got a spoon and tore into it.
A few hours later, Darla felt awful. Not only did she feel guilty about polishing off all the ice cream, but she felt downright ill with a stomachache, headache and no energy.
We know that excessive consumption of sugars over time has been linked with a number of health problems, including being overweight and obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, even just one night of a sugar binge can have negative effects on your health.
10 Ways Overindulging Affects You
If you’ve found yourself reaching for that extra piece of cake at a holiday or celebratory dinner or downing several sodas while working toward a deadline, you probably remember that you didn’t feel the greatest afterward. Here’s why.
1. Your Teeth Fall under Attack
Your teeth are the first to suffer from your sugar binge. The bacteria already present in the mouth feeds on sugar, so the excess is like a buffet. The bacteria mix with the sugar to form an acid, which then attacks tooth enamel. This is the hard, outer surface that protects your teeth. That bacteria-sugar acid erodes the enamel, which can cause tooth sensitivity and yellowing. Once the enamel is gone, it cannot be restored and puts your teeth more at risk for decay and cavities.
After you eat sugar, it goes into your stomach and then on to your small intestine. There, the digestive system breaks down the food and absorbs the sugars (glucose) into the bloodstream. Because there’s a lot of sugar, the pancreas has to step it up to release more insulin to process it. Insulin is the hormone that gets the sugar into the cells where it can be used as energy.
Because you ate more sugar than your body needed, it sends the excess to the liver, which then stores it as fat. Here come those additional pounds.
3. The Body Gets Stressed Out
If you find that you don’t feel at ease after binging on sugar, there’s a good explanation for that. Excess sugar stimulates the pancreas to work harder, and it pumps extra insulin into the bloodstream. This sharp rise in insulin is interpreted as a stressful occasion by the body, so it goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure increases and you may even perspire more than normal.
In other words, your body is not happy about this situation. It interprets it as a stressful thing and does its best to cope until all the sugar is processed away.
Your brain, on the other hand, is happy about the excess sugar, at least for a short time. As soon as you take a bite of that piece of chocolate cake or scoop of ice cream, the brain releases dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
Dopamine can work against us, however, during a sugar binge. Extra sugary treats can create a “sugar high” in the brain, making you feel so good that all you can think about is when you might feel that good again. In fact, some scientific studies have found that sugar can be just as addictive as illegal drugs like cocaine.
In a 2008 study, for instance, researchers found that sugar binges and cravings were related to changes in the brain, including changes affecting dopamine, that were similar to changes that occur with addictive drugs. In a 2013 study, scientists found that sugar could not only substitute for addictive drugs like cocaine but could be “even more rewarding and attractive.”
So, it’s clear why your brain wants that sugar, and why it’s hard to resist sometimes. Unfortunately, however, that high you experience will be short-lived.
5. Then Comes the Crash
Your body, in its stressful response to the extra sugar, has one goal — to process all that sugar and get it where it needs to go, quickly. It’s like “Emergency! Too much glucose — get it processed now!”
So, the body does just that with remarkable efficiency, working overtime to do its job. The pancreas releases the insulin, which carries the glucose to the cells where it’s used for energy, or to the liver where it’s converted to fat and, voila! Bye-bye glucose! Before long your blood sugar levels drop and drop dramatically. Hello, fatigue.
6. You Feel Tired and Sluggish
When you eat protein, the body breaks it down slowly, so the blood glucose levels remain stable, and you have the energy you need to go about your day. When you eat a lot of sugar, though, it breaks down fast, so you feel high for a little bit. Then, all of a sudden you’re tired sluggish and longing for a nap. Suddenly, your body is too low on glucose-energy, and you’re suffering because of it.
In one study, researchers studied participants after either eating a candy bar or walking briskly for 10 minutes on 12 different days. Obviously, the walking created more energy than eating the candy bar did, but what was interesting was that 2 hours after the snack, the participants felt even more tired with less energy than they did after the first hour. The researchers concluded that even though we may reach for sugar to increase our energy, ingesting sugar actually increases the “tendency to sleep.”
7. You Get Irritable or Depressed
That drop in blood sugar can not only make you tired. It may also make you feel irritable, down, or depressed. In fact, studies have linked excess sugar consumption with depression. In 2017, researchers found that people who ate the most sugar in the form of sweet foods and beverages were more likely to suffer from mental disorders like depression. In another study in which researchers gathered information on sugar consumption in six different countries, researchers again found that sugar was a factor in higher rates of major depression.
8. You Feel Bloated and Uncomfortable
Along about the time the high goes away, or maybe even before then, you may experience discomfort in the digestive system. Sugar expands in the gut as it’s digested, potentially causing gas and bloating, along with a distended belly, tight feeling, and a stomachache.
9. You May Suffer from a Headache
The drastic drop in blood sugar levels that happens during the sugar crash may cause you to suffer from a headache or even from muscle pain. When you eat all that sugar, your body’s hormones change. Insulin goes up and because the body feels like it’s under stress, so do cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. All these hormones can change the way the blood vessels in the brain operate, leading to a headache and sometimes other forms of pain.
If you have diabetes or if you’re prone to migraines, you may be even more likely to suffer from a sugar-crash headache. Some studies have even linked low-calorie sugar substitutes like sucralose to migraines.
10. Your Immune System May Suffer from a Temporary Slowdown
There is some evidence that eating sugar can temporarily reduce the ability of white blood cells to defend the body against bacteria and viruses. It can also increase inflammation, which is typically associated with negative health outcomes. The effects can last for hours after your sugar binge, which may increase your risk of becoming sick during that time.
If you’re having a stressful day, you didn’t get enough sleep, or you’re celebrating with friends and you are tempted to binge on sugar, first, remember exactly what that sugar will do to your body. In the end, it won’t make you feel better, and it may just make you feel worse. That reminder may be all you need to change your mind.
If you’re still having trouble resisting, try these tips:
- Get some exercise immediately: Go take a walk, run up and down the stairs a few times, jump rope, do some jumping jacks or drop and do 20 push-ups; getting your heart rate up in a healthy way can help you get rid of that sugar craving
- Eat some protein instead: Grab a handful of nuts, a spoonful of low-sugar peanut butter, some low-sugar Greek yogurt, or a hard-boiled egg; the protein will satisfy your hunger and will help stabilize your energy levels
- Drink two glasses of water: Sometimes, the brain misinterprets hunger for thirst; drinking water rehydrates your body and can help you resist that sugary treat
- Reach for some fresh fruit instead: An apple, some berries, a peach or any other type of fruit can help satisfy your longing for sugar without stressing out your body
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