Your Brain on Sugar

This is the month for haunted houses and scary ghost stories – which we (mostly) know aren’t real, but give us a fright nonetheless. The villain in the story you’re about to read is all too real – which is ultimately, more frightening.

By now, many people have probably heard Alzheimer’s Disease referred to as Type 3 Diabetes or “Brain Diabetes”. If you haven’t, check out the top results on PubMed for Diabetes & Alzheimer’s. There are several literature reviews and other comprehensive studies that make the connection clear: over 70% of people with Type II Diabetes are eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease because both are caused by too much insulin.

Quick Recap on Insulin

The role of insulin in our bodies is very simple. Insulin is a hormone with only one job, to transport glucose from our bloodstream into cells to be used for energy. If you think that sounds like a good thing, you’re right. It is incredibly important for a properly functioning body to have a healthy amount of insulin. We would die without insulin doing its job.

And, this isn’t an eventually pass away kind of thing. In fact, without insulin doing its job, we would die in a matter of hours. Depending on what we eat, it may even be less time than that. Glucose would build up in our bloodstream and with no insulin to remove it, our blood would become toxic and we would die. With Type 1 Diabetes, where the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, insulin must be manually taken in order to ensure glucose does not build up in the blood (aka blood sugar). Insulin’s importance cannot be overemphasized.

Insulin is so important, and your body knows this. That’s why in those of us with a functioning pancreas, our bodies always err on the side of producing more insulin than we need. So much better to have too much than not enough. In the short term, this is great. Long term, overproduction of insulin dysregulates almost everything in our body. Ironically, the act of trying to keep us alive is what leads insulin to overproduce, causing so many problems.

Did I mention how important insulin is? For most of us, though, too much causes all kinds of havoc.

Insulin’s Role in Alzheimer’s

Because the hormone insulin is so paramount to our survival, it takes precedence over other processes. While insulin is being produced, other hormone production is slowed, sometimes even stopped. Your body figures that if you don’t survive, you won’t be needing all those other hormones, so insulin is the first priority. Growth, mood, sleep cycles, immune system, puberty, weight loss, and many, many more body processes either don’t happen when you’re producing insulin, or are at least greatly slowed.

So what does this have to do with sugar and Alzheimer’s? Almost everything.

Dietary sugar requires your body to produce more insulin than anything else you can eat. Over a lifetime, sugar encourages the chronic overproduction of insulin, which can and usually does lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and then ultimately, Alzheimer’s.

The strongest theory for why insulin resistance leads to the plaques in your brain that eventually become Alzheimer’s is that when you’re producing insulin, your immune system processes are slower. Your body can’t clear out damaged cells or buildup of plaques the way someone with a balanced insulin production could do. Over time, the damage outpaces your body’s ability to rebuild and the symptoms of neurological damage start to manifest.

The prospect of Alzheimer’s is likely a long way off for most of us, but here’s the scary part.

Sugar negatively impacts the brain long before it causes Alzheimer’s. Insulin doesn’t just impact your body’s ability to fix damage. The evidence is beginning to show that sugar also impacts your body’s ability to build healthy cells in the first place.

A study published in 2016 followed 1,234 mother/child pairs from pregnancy through mid-childhood (approximately age 8). This study found a huge inverse correlation between both the mother’s sucrose (table sugar) consumption during pregnancy and the child’s intelligence, and the child’s sucrose consumption during early life and their intelligence.

Here’s what the study found: For every 15 grams of sugar the mother ate each day she was pregnant, the child’s intelligence score decreased by 1.5 points. For reference, the average American eats about 77 grams of sugar every day. As for the impact of sugar after the child was born, this study only measured the effects of sugar sweetened beverages, not overall grams of sugar. I’m not sure why this choice was made, but probably because it was easier to measure. Specifics can be difficult when you’re trying to get info out of a 3 year old. Regardless, the findings were just as alarming. For each 8 oz serving of sugar sweetened drink they had on an average day, the children dropped 2.4 points on the intelligence test.

Please remember that this only shows a correlation, and it only measured added sucrose. There may well have been any number of other factors interfering with the development of these children. It’s worth noting that whole fruits, though they contain sugar in the form of fructose, still do seem to correlate with positive outcomes in growing children. This is not always the case for adults.

Another important point is that the study stopped testing the children at mid-childhood. There’s no reason to believe they couldn’t recover lost ground as they got older. Of course this one study isn’t proof that added sugar directly caused the reported outcomes in these children, but it is a strong enough correlation to take into account when thinking about how we personally want to eat and feed our families.

Conclusion of the matter.

Sugar increases insulin production, which leads to an impairment of other important hormones, including growth hormones (immune system) that are important for both growing and healing. This imbalance plays a role in negative outcomes for everyone from the unborn to the elderly.

It’s never too early or too late.

Please don’t wait until you get a pre-diabetes diagnosis or feel serious symptoms to start being aware of how much sugar you consume. It’s never too early or too late to start cutting back. Nothing will improve your long-term health more.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to improve your relationship with the best health advisor around (your body) and learning how to regulate your insulin levels through your nutrition, click this link to come join our growing Reframe Wellness community on Mighty Networks!

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