You’d think that if a food additive has been proven capable of both wrecking your physical health and endangering your brain, we’d all avoid it like it was poison.
But we don’t. It remains one of the most popular foods on earth. We slurp it down in our drinks. It’s added to a staggering number of foods.
Plus, research shows the more sugar you have in your blood, the more your brain may shrink and the more likely you are to suffer memory loss. Keep reading for a few more things you need to know about sugar, “the cocaine of foods…”
Some published estimates say that each of us consumes more than 60 pounds of sugar per year.1 That’s more than a pound every week. I’ve seen other estimates run much higher – over one hundred pounds per person.
And it’s not doing our brains any good.
Research in Australia shows that even when your blood sugar level is “normal” according to a blood test, if you’re on the upper end of the normal range, you’re still at a high risk for having your brain shrink excessively as you get older. That brain shrinkage, say the researchers, makes you more prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
The Australian study looked at the brains of 249 people in their sixties whose blood sugar was in the acceptable range as defined by the World Health Organization. The people in the study had a brain scan at the start of the research and then another scan four years later.
The people whose fasting blood sugar was at the high end of normal, but still below the level that is considered prediabetic, were more likely during the following four years to experience a serious loss of brain tissue in both the hippocampus and the amygdala. These two brain locations are considered essential for memory and intellectual skills.2
“These findings suggest that even for people who do not have diabetes, blood sugar levels could have an impact on brain health,” says researcher Nicolas Cherbuin.
Turns on the Wrong Genes
Though all sugar can damage the brain, high-fructose corn syrup, the type of sugar that most often sweetens soft drinks, may produce some of the most serious harm. Research at UCLA demonstrates that this type of sugar alters the function of more than 900 genes in the hippocampus and the hypothalamus – a brain area that helps regulate metabolism.
The researchers note that these changes may be linked to an increased risk of bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease and other brain illnesses. And the UCLA scientists have also found that fructose hampers communication among brain cells, increases toxins in the brain and, in the long run, can cloud the brain’s ability to learn and retain information.3
Giving up sweet foods isn’t so easy – as many of us can testify. Part of the problem: Eating foods high in sugar alters your brain so that you are more likely to crave foods high in sugar.
Or to put it my way: Sugar is addictive. That’s why I call it the cocaine of foods. If you need confirmation of that, try doing without sugar for a week – completely, making sure you read food labels to see if it’s among the ingredients. If you’re like most people, you’ll find it’s a tough week.
A lab study at the University of Calgary shows that when we eat high sugar foods and fatty foods at the same time, a process in the brain called “endocannabinoid signaling” doesn’t function properly. This signaling process is supposed to make you feel satiated and stop you from eating.
So eating sugar deactivates the body process that lets us know we’ve had enough.
Because of this malfunction, your appetite for sugar surges forward like a car whose brakes have failed.
The malfunction takes place in a part of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is just above your eye sockets.
The OFC is a decision-making center. When you’ve eaten enough food, it normally helps to keep you from eating more. But the Canadian research shows sugar erodes this process, making it more likely you will overeat. Neurons in the OFC known as “pyramidal” neurons stop inhibiting the appetite.
Get Sugar Cravings Under Control
All of this research shows that if you value your brain, you need to reduce your sugar intake. And if you’re like most of us, you need to reduce it a great deal. Never touch a soft drink. Avoid sweet desserts.
Additionally, research scientists have found two items that can help offset the negative brain effects of sugar. . .
- Green tea: Lab tests in Asia show that the EGCG (epigallocatxechin-3-gallate) in green tea can fight off some of the cognitive harm caused by sugar. EGCG limits damage to neurons caused by sugar and improves how brain cells signal each other.4 EGCG is also a potent cancer fighter, so you get two benefits for the price of one.
- Fish oil: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil, helps make beneficial epigenetic changes to brain cells while improving synapse structure and helping neurons communicate efficiently.5
But don’t get the idea that fish oil and green tea are magic bullets to protect you from sugar – or give you a license to eat more. The best move is to eat little or no sugar.
Because of its addictive powers and the cravings it sets off, it may actually be easier to give up sugar completely than to cut back – if you can make it through the first week. The idea that “I’ll just have a little and then stop” requires the willpower of an Olympic athlete.