Whether you are struggling with a one-time sugar binge or are regularly eating too much sugar, the effects of sugar overload on your system can leave you feeling more sour than sweet.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with sugar. In fact, the human body uses glucose, a simple type of sugar, as one of its primary sources of fuel. When sugar is eaten in excess, however, it can have negative effects on the body.
Complete Care breaks down why it’s easy to overdo your sugar intake, what happens to your body when you go on a sugar binge, what happens to your body when you start eating too much sugar over long periods of time, and how to curb your sugar cravings.
A sugar state of the union: natural sugar, processed sugar, and added sugar in America
Have you ever wondered, How much sugar is too much in a day? Well, there’s actually an answer for that. The recommended amount of sugar is 200 calories (12 teaspoons) of sugar per day. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the average North American eats about 270 calories (17 teaspoons) of sugars a day. Unfortunately, much of the sugar Americans consume is added sugar.
To understand why added sugar is problematic, we need to back up a little bit and describe the two main categories of sugar: natural sugar and processed sugar. Natural sugar, as its name suggests, occurs naturally in foods. When people think of natural sugar, they typically picture fruits, but natural sugar is also found in vegetables and dairy products.
Then there’s processed/artificial sugar. These sugars do not occur naturally; they have been extracted from another source or modified in some way. Common processed sugars include high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, agave, and maltose.
Added sugar is sugar that is added into a food, and can be sourced from either natural or processed sugar. For example, if you add either honey (a natural sugar) or agave (a processed sugar) to a recipe, both would be considered added sugars.
The problem with added sugar
The problem with added sugar is two-pronged. Firstly, the amount of added sugars found in food is copiously higher than that of natural sugars found in whole foods. Secondly, while natural sugars take longer to break down, evening out the amount of sugar entering your body and giving your energy, added sugar breaks down quickly, entering your bloodstream all at once, resulting in an energy and insulin spikes — and an energy crash.
In other words, not only does added sugar enter your bloodstream at a much quicker rate than normal, but it does so in amounts so high that you’re practically bombing your system with sugar.
The result? Increased rates of health problems that are affected by the consumption of too much sugar, including heart disease and diabetes.
What are the symptoms of sugar overload?
A holiday party, your favorite pie, a rough day at the office — no matter the occasion or reason, an occasional sugar overload happens to the best of us. Unfortunately, once the euphoria of all that dopamine rushing through your body passes, you are left with the negative effects of sugar on the body.
Why does this happen? Well, when you consume sugar, your body reacts by releasing insulin. Insulin helps keep the sugar level in your blood consistent. Unfortunately, once the sugar wears off, your body is left with an overabundance of insulin and not enough glucose to provide you with energy, which in turn causes the dreaded “sugar crash.”
If your body is going through a sugar crash, be on the lookout for the following symptoms:
- Fatigue and difficulty concentrating
- Feeling jittery or anxious
- Feeling shaky or dizzy
When you have diabetes, these crashes are typically more severe and are treated as a condition called hypoglycemia. (There are occasional cases of hypoglycemia in individuals who do not suffer from diabetes.)
So, is sugar overload dangerous? While sugar overload and the subsequent sugar crash can be uncomfortable, it is not typically dangerous in healthy individuals. For those with diabetes, however, even a one-time sugar overload can have more severe effects.
Long term effects of eating too much sugar
The occasional sugar overload is one thing, but eating too much sugar on a regular basis can create long term effects and increase the likelihood that you will have certain conditions.
Health problems caused, in part, by sugar consumption include:
Brain fog and decreased energy
When you regularly consume too much sugar, your body is constantly oscillating between peaks and crashes. These highs and lows can make it extremely difficult to concentrate, and result in “brain fog.” They also drain you of energy, making that trip to the gym much less likely.
Cravings and weight gain
Once your body crashes, it will send out signals to you that it needs more energy… in the form of hunger. Specifically, you will likely start craving foods that provide a large amount of quick energy: sugary foods. Unfortunately, these cravings often lead to a vicious cycle grabbing something high in sugar from the pantry, only to be hungry again a short while later.
Additionally, sugar has been shown to encourage resistance towards the brain hormone, leptin. This hormone helps regulate your hunger by telling you that you’ve had enough to eat, so even if you are full, a diet that’s high in sugar makes it harder for your body to alert you that that’s the case. To make matters worse, eating foods made with added sugars makes naturally sugary foods such as fruits taste “less sweet,” which makes it that much less likely that you’ll reach for an apple instead of a cookie when your sweet tooth is acting up.
Keeping these facts in mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that many have gone so far as to compare sugar cravings and the effects of sugar on the brain to that of drug and alcohol addiction.
Type 2 diabetes
Since eating too much sugar may lead to obesity and insulin resistance — the top two factors for type 2 diabetes — eating too much sugar has strong ties to the onset of diabetes. In turn, diabetes and having too much sugar in your blood can lead to health issues related to your kidneys, liver, and pancreas. Diabetes is one of the most insidious health problems associated with sugar consumption and, unfortunately, its prevalence is on the rise.
When you eat sugary foods late at night, the spike in energy that follows can make it difficult to wind down to sleep. A bad night’s sleep means that you will likely be tired the next day and, again, leads to cravings for high-energy, sugary food, creating another cycle that can be difficult to break.
Heart disease and heart attacks
Eating too much sugar on a regular basis has been shown to increase rates of obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, inflammation, and atherosclerosis. All of these issues are risk factors for heart disease and other heart issues such as heart attacks. To put it bluntly, a high-sugar diet is linked to heart disease, the number one cause of death in North America.
We already know that the energy highs and lows that come with sugar overload can cause irritability and fatigue. Repeat that cycle over and over again, throw in trouble sleeping, chronically decreased energy levels (and less endorphins from working out), potential weight gain, and the other potential negative effects of sugar on your health, and you’ve created the perfect environment for mood disorders such as depression to thrive. To that end, several studies have found that “lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health.”
High-sugar diets have been shown to increase the production of oil and androgens (hormones). They have also been shown to increase the creation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). The former increases the likelihood of acne; the latter speeds up the skin’s aging process and creates wrinkles.
The sugar in sugary foods doesn’t cause tooth decay itself. But when you eat sugary foods, the natural bacteria in your mouth convert it into an acidic substance. As acids tend to do, these acids wear down what’s around them; in this case, the enamel of your teeth, thus weakening your teeth and making them more susceptible to cavities.
Where is sugar hiding in your everyday foods?
We aren’t here to make you feel guilty for eating too much sugar every once in a while, nor are we here to make you feel guilty if you regularly eat too much sugar.
What we are here to do is to provide you with the tools you need to avoid the consumption of too much sugar, if that is your goal. The best ways to do that is to cut down on added sugars, and the best way to do that is to familiarize yourself with the many types of sugar (so that you can find them on food labels) and familiarize yourself with common foods that are high in added sugar.
Common types of sugars
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Agave nectar
- Cane sugar
- Invert sugar
- Maple syrup
- Refiner’s syrup
- Brown sugar
Keep in mind that these are just some of the most common names. In reality, there are over 50 types of sugar.
Common foods high in added sugars
- Sodas/soft drinks
- Fruit juice
- Chocolate milk
- Pre-made sauces
- Sports drinks
- Granola and cereal
- Canned fruit
- Canned soups
- Energy drinks
Note that many of these foods are not actually foods, but drinks. In fact, one of the best things you can do to reduce your intake of added sugars is to drink water in place of other types of popular drinks.
What do you do if you have too much sugar in your body?
As we’ve seen, it can be difficult to reset after eating too much sugar. But there are still certain things you can do to help get you back to feeling normal after a sugar crash. Here are our top recommendations.
- Refrain from guilt trips: Whether you normally eat healthy and had a one-off binge, or this is the thousandth time you’ve eaten poorly after swearing you wouldn’t, the time to stop mentally chastising yourself is now. Beating yourself up is only going to make you stressed, which in turn is only going to make you crave a pick-me-up.
- Drink water: If you’re feeling low on energy, you may be dehydrated as well as experiencing a sugar crash. Staying hydrated is one of the most important things you can do to help your body recover from a sugar overdose and to stay healthy in general.
- Eat whole foods: Whole foods — foods that have not been processed — can help provide your body with a stable, more regulated source of energy.
- Exercise: Have excess energy from a sugar high? Feeling low from a sugar crash? Either way, the endorphins from a good workout can help see you through an upcoming sugar crash or help lift you from the doldrums if you’re already in one.
Complete Care: Supporting a healthy community
Sugar overload isn’t typically a medical emergency, but a lifetime of eating too much sugar can lead to health issues that occasionally turn life-threatening. When that happens, our ER centers are here to provide you with top-notch, patient-centered care without the typical wait of a standard ER.
State-licensed and equipped to handle all of the medical emergencies that an ER attached to a hospital can treat, our Complete Care emergency facilities are here to help you get in, get out, and get on with life.
For emergency medical assistance, simply visit your nearest Complete Care ER location in Texas or Colorado Springs, CO. No appointment needed.