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Sugar Has the Same Effect on Kids’ Brains as Abuse and Trauma

It makes you wonder if giving your baby a Camelbak full of cola might be on par, brain-damage-wise, with a showing of 'Saw IV.'

by Hilary Pollack
Feb 17 2016, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Matthew Kenwrick

We're all pretty aware at this point that stuffing your face with candy day-in and day-out isn't so great for you. Sugar is devoid of any real nutrition, messes with your metabolism, and rots your teeth. But when you're reaching for a third peanut butter cup, you probably think to yourself, How bad could it really be?

Harken back to your childhood memories of polishing off a pillowcase full of what likely amounted to millions of calories in Halloween candy, or thoughtlessly eating an entire box of Entenmann's glazed doughnuts. And you turned out fine! Right? Sort of?

Well…

It's one thing for sugar to be the death of our thigh gaps or pay for our dentist's vacation to the Cayman Islands. It's quite another for it to mess with our brains. After all, when something goes wrong with the ol' bean, it's a lot harder to fix than a cavity.

As you can probably guess, there's a new study with some bad news. This one was published in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, to which you surely already have a subscription. But in the event that your neighbor stole your most recent copy of your mailbox, here's the gist. Researchers from the University of New South Wales Australia and the Indian Council of Medical Research have found that eating a ton of sugar as a little kid can have an effect on your brain similar to that of experiencing serious trauma.

When children—or anyone, really—experiences a great deal of stress, such as from being injured or abused, their bodies produces elevated levels of a hormone called cortisol. This also happens to be true of our favorite pizza-toting rodents: rats.

The researchers studied how large intake of sugary beverages impacts the brain and interplays with or exacerbates the effects of stress in early life. The study only looked at female rats, because, according to researchers, "females are more likely to experience adverse life events." Grim, but true. The US Department of Veterans Affairs reports that women are also more likely to be neglected or abused in childhood or to be victims of domestic violence, or to have a loved one suddenly die, and that women are more than twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than men.

Researchers simulated early life trauma or abuse for half of the newborn rates by denying them nesting material for a week shortly after their births—apparently a very unpleasant thing for rat babies. The rats were then returned to normal bedding until they were weaned.

Half the rats were then given unlimited water and rat kibble, while the other half received kibble, water, and a sugary drink that they could consume at will.

After 15 weeks, the rat's brains were examined. The rats that loaded up on sugar, but who did not undergo early life trauma, showed similar changes in their brains to the rats that were traumatized but were not offered sugar. The rats who were offered the sugar drink also consumed more calories over the course of the experiment.

Basically, chugging sugar-water had the same effect on the rats' brains as experiencing severe stress in the first stages of their lives. It also inhibited the neural receptor that binds cortisol and aids in recovery from stress. The results of the study were pretty worrying considering that the average American drinks 45 gallons of sugar sweetened beverages each year, with consumption particularly high among children.

Sure, they're just rats. But it makes you wonder if giving your baby a Camelbak full of cola might be on par, brain-damage-wise, with a showing of Saw IV.

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