Brain and Body

Sugary Drinks May Cause as Much Brain Damage as Extreme Stress or Abuse, Study Finds

February 18, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Coca cola in a glass
Photo credit: Jon Sullivan/wikimedia

Put down the Coca Cola.

There’s plenty of research that reveals how bad sugary drinks are for our weight, general health, and dental health, but now, a new study sheds light on just how bad drinks like Coca Cola and sugary lemonade are for our brains.

Shockingly, the researchers paralleled the brain damage caused by sugary drinks to the damage caused by extreme early life stress or abuse. These childhood traumas, like domestic violence, sexual and emotional abuse, and frightening accidents, are linked to higher concentrations of cortisol, a major stress hormone.

In addition to the increased chance of poor mental health and psychiatric disorders later in life, evidence has shown that childhood trauma is associated with reduced brain volume.

In an experiment with rats, the researchers decided to explore whether drinking high volumes of sugary drinks had comparably damaging effects on the brain. Since females are more likely to experience adverse life events than males, the scientists studied female Sprague-Dawley rats.

SEE ALSO: Eating Sweets Could Actually Help Control Eating Habits

In order to model early life trauma or abuse, the scientists exposed half of the newborn rats to limited nesting material — this increases anxiety and alters maternal behavior later in life. The rats were then returned to normal bedding until they were weaned, or accustomed to food other than their mother’s milk.

Half the rats were given unlimited access to water and low-fat food, while the other half was given food, water, and a 25 percent sugar solution that they could pick to drink.

The rats carried on with these routines until they were 15 weeks old, and then the researchers examined their brains. Since early life stress can impact mental health and function, the researchers looked at the hippocampus — a brain region that plays an important role in memory and stress.

The scientists studied four groups of rats: the control (no stress), control rats who drank sugary drinks, rats exposed to early life stress, and rats exposed to stress who drank sugar.

The findings revealed that chronic sugar consumption in the rats who weren’t stressed produced similar changes in the hippocampus to those seen in the rats who experienced early life trauma but didn’t consume the sugary drink.

Both early life stress exposure and sugary drinks led to lower expression of the receptor that binds to cortisol, the major stress hormone, and the researchers say this could affect an individual’s ability to recover from the exposure to a stressful situation.

Additionally, the researchers found that Neurod1, a gene that’s important for the growth of nerves, was reduced by both sugar and stress, and just drinking sugar from a young age alone was enough to reduce a number of other genes that play an important role in nerve growth.

At least in this study, combining the early life stress and the high-sugar intake didn’t produce further changes in the hippocampus, but more research will have to be done to determine whether this holds true.

Either way, these findings are nothing short of unsettling given the high consumption of sugary drinks in our society. Both early life stress and sugary drinks played a role in negatively affecting brain development, so hopefully future research will focus on the potential long-term effects of high sugar intake on the brain.

So in case you needed another scientific study to tell you how bad sugary soda and juices are for your health, now you can add potential brain damage to the list.

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