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Nutrition Blog

Sugar and Performance

Madeline Schaefer

by Madeline Stewart Oct. 19th, 2018

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If I could give you just two pieces of advice to improve your health and performance in life and on stage, they would be 1) drink more water and 2) avoid sugar. These are the first two pieces of advice I give all my clients when they come to see me. A lot of the time, these two shifts are all that is needed to resolve what brought them in. Sugar is a touchy subject...and the more we eat, the touchier we feel. New research comes out everyday about the negative health impacts of sugar, and yet, sugar continues to be one of the most common additives to our food and is drastically over consumed. It is added to everyday foods such as bread, coffee, and tomato sauce. Many of us eat way more sugar than we even realize because it isn't always packaged how we expect. It is sneaky and is hidden in 74% of our packaged food.[1] Sugar is a very addictive substance; and the more we eat the more we want. The average American consumes 66lbs of sugar every year! 66lbs![2] This constant consumption leads to addiction, which leads down a path of disease and compromises our ability to participate fully in our lives and careers.

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There are many different kinds of sugar, and not all are bad when eaten in the right quantities. Sugars found in whole fruits and vegetables are life and health supporting. Sugars from these sources come packaged with minerals, vitamins and fiber, making them easy to digest and assimilate in the body. These sugars are not what this post is about. In this post I am talking about sugars that have been over processed and refined. Sugars such as cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, and beet sugar (ps this does not come from the pretty red beats you find in your garden or grocery store). The sugars I am speaking about have been extracted, modified, refined and have no, (yes NO) nutrient value. Not only does this sugar have no nutrient value, it actually depletes the body of vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal health. The first step towards identifying added sugar is to learn the many different names sugar goes by and avoid foods containing it. Added sugars are disguised under more than 60 different names, so you have to become a bit of a detective to spot them. Some of the most common names are:

  • Sucrose

  • Beet sugar

  • Glucose

  • Fructose

  • Dextrose

  • Maltodextrin

  • High fructose corn syrup

  • Maltose

These sugars are added to many of the grocery store items people purchase and eat everyday. Items that are not eaten as dessert. Some of these hidden sources are:

  • Salad Dressings

  • Canned Foods

  • Bread

  • Nut Butters

  • Cured Meats

  • Ketchup, mustard, and Mayonnaise

  • Dried Fruit

  • Packaged snack foods

  • Yogurt

  • Salt

  • Granola

  • Health Bars

The lists go on and on and can be totally disheartening and overwhelming, but I promise there is so much delicious and satisfying food to eat that doesn't contain added sugars. At first, it takes a little extra time planning meals and reading labels, but in the end, it has the potential to make a huge change and difference in your life and your career. The reverse is also true: the consumption of sugar has the potential to have a negative impact on your overall health and performance. There are many different ways in which these negative impacts represent themselves.

Some ways sugar consumption disrupts our heath:

  • Disrupts healthy gut flora balance

  • Is associated with type II diabetes

  • Is associated with heart disease

  • Is associated with hypertension

  • Causes inflammation in the body

  • Destabilizing to hormones like insulin and leptin

  • Negatively impacts cognitive function

  • Linked to mental health conditions

  • Linked to stress and anxiety

  • Weakens the immune system

  • Impairs memory and mental focus

  • Associated with Alzheimer's disease

  • Is damaging to the liver and other detoxification organs

  • Increases risk of cancer

  • Increases risk of depression

I will spare you the textbook of research studies required to flush out all the risks stated above, and instead will focus on the few areas that I think directly relate to and negatively impact a performer's everyday life and ability to perform optimally.

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Memory and Cognitive Performance  

Practicing, rehearsing and performing require an immense amount of mental concentration, and unfortunately, sugar consumption can reduce your ability to maintain focus. Do you ever feel like you have been staring at the same page of music for hours but nothing is happening? Or leave a practice room feeling like you didn't accomplish anything or were unable to memorize what you wanted to? This could be because of the amount of sugar in your diet. Eating a large amount of sugar decreases our ability to store new information (learn new skills, memorize music etc).

A 2012 study on rats, conducted by researchers at UCLA, found that a diet high in sugar impairs cognitive function. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, one of the authors of the study stated that “a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body...because insulin can penetrate the blood–brain barrier, the hormone may signal neurons to trigger reactions that disrupt learning and cause memory loss...Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think [and] eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information.[3]

This means that if you habitually grab a chocolate chip scone or pastry with your vanilla latte on the way to practice or rehearsal, your ability to learn new skills, new material, and to apply it to memory may be impaired. A study performed in 2011 by Francis and Stevenson supported results done on rats and showed that a group of college students who ate diets higher in processed sugars performed worse on hippocampal sensitive memory tasks than their colleagues who did not over-consume sugars.[4] Higher intake of carbohydrates (sugar) leads to decreased cognitive performance. This is huge for you as a musician because your hippocampal function allows you the learn, memorize and retain information. As performing musicians it is vital to improve and maintain cognitive performance whenever possible in order to be as efficient and effective in practice, rehearsal and performance.

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Mental health

A poll published in November of 2016 by Help Musicians UK, found that 71% of musicians revealed they had struggled with panic attacks or high levels of anxiety, and 69% disclosed they had suffered from depression.[5] That is a staggeringly high number! Mental health can be affected by many different factors, but one factor to consider is the overconsumption of sugar. Overconsumption of sugar leads to blood sugar dysregulation. This roller coaster of blood sugar highs followed by crashes can accentuate symptoms of mental health and mood disorders. As many of you have probably experienced, the consumption of sugar provides a temporary high. However, after approximately 20 minutes we crash. This crash leads to feelings of confusion and difficulty focusing. When we eat too much sugar our blood sugar becomes elevated, and in response our body keeps pumping out insulin to process all the sugar. Because our bodies cannot predict how much we are going to eat in a serving we then end up with too much insulin in our bloodstream and as a result our blood sugar crashes. We are left craving more sugar to re-elevate our blood sugar, and the cycle continues. This, on top of the addictiveness of sugar, means that it can be a very hard cycle to break. However, for health reasons it is vital to take steps towards removing it from your diet.

A study of 6 countries done in 2002 showed that the consumption of sugar per capita, per person per day directly correlated to the prevalence of depression in the said country.[6] Previous studies have also shown that the overconsumption of sugar leads to imbalances in brain chemicals, increasing the odds of depression. A 2009 study in London directly related the amount of dietary sugar and processed foods consumed to the odds of being diagnosed with depression.[7] Furthermore, research has correlated high blood sugar levels with inflammation in the brain, and neuroinflammation has been linked as a possible cause of depression.[8] There are many more studies like these that also illustrate and lead to the conclusion that the overconsumption of sugar can contribute to anxiety, mood disorders and depression. I don’t wish all this information to be seen as negative or disheartening, but I wish you to use it for your own well being. This is not to say that you should never eat chocolate cake on your birthday, or enjoy a sweet scone with your coffee. However, if you are or have been a part of the 71% of musicians who have struggled with anxiety or depression, know that removing sugar from your diet can be a support for you. For performing musicians it is a great help to avoid sugar during times of increased stress and pressure, such as auditions, and/or upcoming performances.  

Anxiety and Stress management

Being a professional musician often comes with stressful demands and environments, and when we are stressed we often crave sugar. Unfortunately, if we eat sugar when we are stressed we are diminishing our bodies ability to deal with stress. Sugar consumption causes short-term psychological stress reduction but causes long-term physical stress on the brain and body. This means that we do get a high and feeling of relief right after eating sugar but over the long term sugar consumption makes it harder to manage and cope with stress, and wreaks havoc on the body. A study was done in 2009 that compared rats fed sucrose (sugar) and rats fed high antioxidant honey. The rats fed sucralose were more likely to suffer from anxiety than there counterparts.[9] In a career that lends itself to stress it is so important to manage stress; it is of vital importance to be conscious of its impacts on your body and mind, and to do all you can to mitigate stressors such as sugar whenever possible.

   There is so much that goes into a healthy and well-balanced life and diet, and the avoidance of processed sugars is a large part of that. I recommend you start by simply observing the amount of sugar you consume on a regular basis, and then begin to remove the excess when possible. Eat sugar as a special treat or during times of celebration but not as an everyday food. Unfortunately, sugar alternatives such as sweet and low, splenda, and equal are not all they're cracked up to be. Even though they are zero calorie they still have an impact on out blood sugar. More on that in a later post so just trust me for now. If you can limit your intake, the avoidance of sugar has the potential to leave you with better mental focus, cognitive capacity, elevate your mood and your energy, and alleviate and support you in dealing with the stressors of your everyday life a career.

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[1] Ng, S.W., Slining, M.M., & Popkin, B.M. (2012). Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics , 112(11), 1828-1834.e1821-1826. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3490437/. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2018]

[2] Ervin, R.B., & Ogden, C.L. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). NCHS Data Brief, No. 122: Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults, 2005–2010. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db122.pdf [Accessed 15 Oct. 2018]

[3] Schmidt, E. (2018). This is your brain on sugar: UCLA study shows high-fructose diet sabotages learning, memory. [online] UCLA Newsroom. Retreived from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/this-is-your-brain-on-sugar-ucla-233992 [Accessed 15 Oct. 2018].

[4] Attuquayefio T, Stevenson RJ, Oaten MJ, Francis HM (2017) A four-day Western-style dietary intervention causes reductions in hippocampal-dependent learning and memory and interoceptive sensitivity. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0172645. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172645 [Accessed 15 Oct. 2018]

[5] Helpmusicians.org.uk. (2018). Can Music Make You Sick? - Help Musicians UK. [online] Available at: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/news/latest-news/can-music-make-you-sick [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].

[6]Weeratunga, P., Jayasinghe, S., Perera, Y., Jayasena, G. and Jayasinghe, S. (2018). Per capita sugar consumption and prevalence of diabetes mellitus – global and regional associations. [online] NCBI. Available at: http://Sayumi Jayasinghe,2 Yashasvi Perera,3 Ganga Jayasena,3 and Saroj Jayasinghe4 [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].

[7]Knüppel, A., Shipley, M., Llewellyn, C. and Brunner, E. (2018). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study.[Accessed 15 Oct. 2018]

[8]Amodeo, G., Allegra Trusso, M. and Fagiolini, A. (2018). Depression and Inflammation: Disentangling a Clear Yet Complex and Multifaceted Link.[Accessed 15 Oct. 2018]

[9]Chepulis LM, e. (2018). The effects of long-term honey, sucrose or sugar-free diets on memory and anxiety in rats. - PubMed - NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19296910 [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].