Sugary Drinks Could Be 'As Damaging To The Brain As Extreme Stress Or Abuse'

18/02/2016 10:24 | Updated 23 February 2016

We all know that glugging too much cola and munching sweets is bad for our health. But new research highlights the extent to which it may impact our brains during our formative years.

A study on rats found that sugar could have the same effect on the brain as being exposed to extreme stress or abuse.

Researchers Jayanthi Maniam and Margaret Morris said they wanted to shed some light on "just how much damage sugar drinks can do to our brain".

They found that sugar can have detrimental effects on the part of the brain which controls emotional behaviour and cognitive function - even more so than effects caused by extreme stress during early life.


"It is known that adverse experiences early in life, such as extreme stress or abuse, increase the risk of poor mental health and psychiatric disorders later in life," the researchers explained in a piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

They said that the number of traumatic events a child is exposed to - whether that's an accident, witnessing an injury, bereavement, abuse or domestic violence - is associated with increased concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol.

And now they've discovered that sugar could have the same effect.

The researchers studied female rats and their offspring. To expose them to early life stress, half of the rat litters were exposed to limited nesting material from days two to nine after birth. They then returned to normal bedding until they were weaned.

At weaning, half of the rats were given unlimited access to low-fat food and water. Meanwhile the other half were offered food, water and a 25% sugar solution which they could choose to drink.


There were four groups of rats studied in total - rats with a normal diet and not subjected to stress, rats with no stress and a diet containing sugar solution, rats exposed to stress, and rats exposed to stress who drank sugar.

At 15 weeks old, the rats' brains were examined. Researchers were particularly interested in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is important for memory and stress.

Interestingly, they found that rats who drank sugar and were not stressed produced similar changes in the brain as the rats who were stressed but not drinking sugar.

Researchers believe that early life exposure to stress, or drinking sugar from an early age, can affect the ability to recover from a stressful situation.

A gene important for the growth of nerves was also reduced by sugar and stress.

Maniam and Morris wrote: "The impact of the sugar is worrying as it may affect brain development, although further work is required to test this."

The researchers said the effects of sugar on the brain are of "great concern", particularly as many children aged between nine and 16 years old consume sugary drinks.

"Taken together, these findings suggest future work should consider possible long-term effects of high sugar intake, particularly early in life, on the brain and behaviour," they added.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience. It comes just one month after Public Health England (PHE) revealed that children aged between four and 10 eat around 22kg of sugar every year. That's the average weight of a five-year-old.

For those who are consumed about their children's sugar intake, you can now download a free 'Change4Life' app which lets you scan the barcodes of more than 75,000 products, revealing how much sugar they contain in either grams or cubes.

Common Names For Added Sugar

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