Sugar’s Role in Brain Health and Neurodegenerative Disease
We all know that sugar is unhealthy. But did you know that sugar can negatively impact our mental health?
Ever wonder why when we are feeling down, we reach for a sugary snack to help pick us back up?
Did you know that consuming high amounts of refined sugar can lead to Alzheimer’s disease?
Keep reading to discover how sugar damages our brain and what we can do about it.
Type 3 Diabetes
We have all heard of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but arguably, there is another type of diabetes referred to as “type 3 diabetes.”
Most of you may know it as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Yes, Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative brain disorder, but new research suggests it may be pre-diabetes of the brain, stemming from continually high levels of uncontrolled blood sugar. When blood sugar levels run high, high levels of insulin follows. This insulin creates inflammation which is a major factor in cognitive impairment and mental health.
Sugar is toxic to the brain. It starts the cascade of events that damage nerve cells, robs us of our memories, and destroys the brain’s energy-producing cells. Eventually this can lead to insulin resistance, dementia, and ultimately Alzheimer’s Disease.
Anyone with pre-diabetes or Metabolic Syndrome has an increased risk for developing dementia or mild cognitive impairment. And you don't have to have full blown diabetes to experience the brian damage and memory loss that comes from high levels of blood sugar.
Even slightly raised levels of blood sugar can increase your risk of developing type 3 diabetes. In fact, brain scans have shown that the higher your blood sugar levels, the smaller your brain!
People with high blood sugar levels also have a lower IQ!
Sugar’s Damaging Effects on the Brain
Sugar is our #1 recreational drug of choice. That’s right, I called sugar a drug.
It triggers the reward centre in our brain - the same reward centre triggered when we engage in risky behaviour or use certain drugs like cocaine. Dopamine is released which then lights up certain areas of the brain to get us excited. We feel good and experience a euphoric high. When the level of dopamine drops and its effects wear off, we want them back. To re-experience those same euphoric feelings, we engage in the same activity that lead us there in the first place - wether it was a drug or sugar.
The brain enjoys these euphoric feelings so much, when they fade away, it gets angry and depressed, demanding you do something to light it up again. In this way, sugar keeps us coming back for more.
Ever wonder why when we are feeling down, we reach for sugar? A donut or piece of cake can make us feel temporarily better. That’s true. But when the feelings wear off, we reach for another. This is where we are seeing the toxic effects of sugar in society.
Insulin is needed to trigger the firing of nerves and the communication between them. Without it, our brain would slow down, age faster, become inflamed, and get angry. But chronically high levels of insulin can make the cells in our body and brain immune to its effects. This is called insulin resistance - there is ample insulin circulating, but cells in the body stop responding to it.
What’s most damaging to the brain are processed foods containing loads of sugar. I’m referring here to processed carbs like donuts, cakes, muffins, cookies, and other white-flour products. The sugars contained in these foods have been highly processed and often genetically modified. The foods these sugars come packaged in should be considered non-foods because they are missing essential nutrients and lack any health benefits.
Moreover, processed carbs and sugars are converted to glucose quickly, resulting in a rapid spike in blood sugar levels.
Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners are no better, and may actually be more toxic to the brain. Why? Artificial sweeteners are just that - artificial.
Our bodies were not designed to break them down and are not equipped to deal with them The liver doesn’t know what to do with these foreign substances, so they accumulate in our body and begin to circulate. Once these toxic substances enter circulation, they begin to wreck havoc. They change our DNA and the structure of our cells, and are seen as invaders by the immune system.
The result? The immune system mounts an attack in an effort to destroy these foreign bodies and inflammation is created. After extended periods of time in “attack” mode, the immune system becomes confused and starts to mistake our own body cells as foreign. When this happens, any number of disease states can be created and any number of mental health issues can arise.
We can feel tired, cranky, moody, irritable, angry, and overly emotional. We can have manic cravings and experience neurofatigue. With all of these effects ravaging our body, we can end up having a hard time quieting our minds or getting quality sleep.
Sleep is crucial to both our mental and physical health. When we are deprived of sleep, the usual clean-up crew that sweeps our brian at night to eliminate toxic substances, old debris or damaged cells cannot do its job. Part of the job this nightly clean-up crew is responsible for is to break down and eliminate beta amyloid plaques - the same plaques responsible for Alzheimer's.
An accumulation of toxins and plaques in the brain result. We then experience even more severe mental health issues, have difficulty remembering or staying focused, and have slower reaction times.
If the plaques continue to accumulate, our brain ages faster. We experience more and worsening symptoms and can eventually develop dementia or Alzheimer’s.
The underlying cause of Alzheimer’s begins when there is too much sugar on the brain causing inflammation and brain health problems.
The good news is that we can do something about it.
We can start by better controlling blood sugar levels and following a solid neuronutrition program.
Normal Blood Sugar Management
The best way to manage blood sugar levels is through both what and when we eat.
Following are a few tips to help you balance your blood sugar levels:
Reduce (or eliminate) sugar intake - This is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Sugar not only creates the blood sugar spikes and obesity we want to avoid, but it’s also a neurotoxin. As such, it causes damage to brain cells and severely affects our mental health.
Choose a high-protein breakfast - Protein in the morning will set your body and energy levels up right for the day. It will also slow the absorption of sugar to prevent a rapid blood sugar spike first thing in the morning and cravings later on. In contrast, a high-carbohydrate breakfast will stimulate a larger appetite for dinner and food cravings at bedtime.
Eat 3 small meals each day - Smaller meals are better absorbed and have less of an impact on digestion and blood sugar levels.
Try not to snack - Constantly eating throughout the day keeps insulin levels spiking. This promotes obesity and keeps both blood sugar and insulin levels high. Eventually, insulin resistance and all the problems that comes with it may develop. Eventually diabetes and/or Alzheimer’s may result.
Do not allow yourself to get famished - If you feel weak, jittery, or way too hungry, your cells are not receiving enough fuel to produce energy. Feeling hungry is actually a good thing, but allowing yourself to get famished is a different matter.
Do not eat after dinner - If possible, stop eating 3 hours before bedtime to promote fat burning while you sleep. Certain foods before bed can also cause difficulty sleeping and can wake you up at night. As mentioned earlier, it’s when we sleep that toxins and plaques are removed from the brain to lower our risk of mental health issues and the development of Alzheimer’s.
Swap refined carbohydrates for complex carbs - Refined carbs (white flour, donuts, cakes, and cookies) convert to sugar in the body quickly, creating a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. On the other hand, complex carbs like sweet potatoes, rice and quinoa, are released slowly into the blood and provide sustained energy.
A Brain Healthy Diet: Neuronutrition at its Best
To further help stabilize blood sugar levels and improve your mental health, add the following foods to your plate:
Green leafy vegetables: kale, broccoli, spinach, collards, and lettuces of any kind
Low glycemic fruits: all berries, grapefruit, pears, plums, apples
Omega-3 fatty acids: chia seeds, flaxseeds, wild salmon, sea vegetables, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, coconut, walnuts
Small amounts of lean, organic, free-range animal protein or fish: chicken, wild salmon, tuna, eggs, grass-fed beef
Colourful fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants: bell peppers, blueberries, grapes, carrots
Sulphur-containing foods: garlic, onion, seafood, nuts, organ meat
Seasonings: turmeric, cinnamon, parsley, ginger, nutmeg
What should you eat in a day?
Start with a protein-packed breakfast. Try eggs with sautéed green vegetables and half an avocado. For lunch, opt for a salad with protein (chicken, tuna, salmon, or nuts and seeds). Dress it with avocado or olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Dinner can be a simply cooked 4-6 oz piece of protein served with low-glycemic veggies and or a salad.
Meals do not have to be complicated or take a long time to prepare. If you start with quality ingredients and whole foods, prepare them simply (baking or sautéing meat and lightly steaming or baking veggies), and add any seasonings, spices or herbs you like, meals will be delicious and on the table in under 30 minutes! You can’t beat that!
And if you’d like more meal ideas, sign up to receive my Brain Health Meal Planning service. Complete recipes and shopping lists will be delivered to your inbox each week for as little as $25 per month. It will help you take the guesswork out of what to eat each day and has the added benefit of including foods designed to optimize your brain function.
In summary: Having a higher blood sugar level makes your brain work less effectively. By reducing blood sugar levels and avoiding sugar and processed carbohydrates, you can improve your metabolic health. In so doing, you can significantly delay cognitive decline!
As always, I’d like to hear what you think. Please comment below or drop me a line. And if you are struggling with any type of brain health issue and would like help developing the best neuronutritional plan for you, I’d be happy to support you.
Love your brain. It’s your most valuable asset. Wishing you a happy healthy brain for life!