Even though just about everybody knows cola soft drinks are unhealthy, the focus is usually on weight gain, high blood sugar, and so forth. Few people know about the bad things they can do to your brain. And for once I’m not talking about the effects of the sugar in the drink.
Instead, there’s another ingredient in those bubbly beverages that can lead to harmful disconnects in your brain’s neural networks. This ingredient, also found in many processed foods, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Yet, it’s about time it did.
Research at the Medical University of South Carolina shows that the phosphates added to colas and many processed foods can stimulate the production of a hormone in your body that may hamper communications among the neurons in the brain. The result is poor memory and problem-solving skills, among other brain function problems.
Good Phosphorus vs. Bad Phosphorus
The phosphates in your food are chemicals made from the mineral phosphorous. Food manufacturers use them as emulsifiers added to processed cheese to prevent fats and water from separating. They’re added to soft drinks, French fries and some iced teas for extra coloring. And phosphates dissolved in water are often added to seafood, meat and poultry to keep them from drying out when you cook them.
Of course, you do need phosphorus for the proper function of your bones, kidneys and muscles, but you generally get enough from foods naturally rich in this mineral – for example, meat, eggs, fish and dairy.
Interestingly, when phosphorus occurs naturally in food you only absorb about half of it, but when you eat the inorganic phosphates added to processed food, you absorb about 90 percent of the phosphorous.
So, if you consume a lot of foods with added phosphates, you’ll experience phosphorous overload. It’s hard on your kidneys. In addition, some researchers believe too much phosphorus may make you more vulnerable to heart disease and memory problems of all kinds.
The Evidence that Phosphorus Harms Your Brain
Research in South Carolina shows phosphorus can stimulate the bones to produce more of a hormone called fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23).
Under normal circumstances, FGF23 regulates your levels of phosphorous and calcium. But if you have heart disease risk factors – such as conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes – the hormone interferes with the function of neurons in the brain.
The South Carolina study found that in people with diabetes and/or hypertension, FGF23 raises the level of what the researchers call “modularity” in the brain. “Modularity” means slowing the coordination of neuronal activity in brain tissue.
This neuronal activity is essential for brain cell communication and healthy memory function. Reduced neuronal brain activity is often found in older individuals or those suffering from premature aging.
So, the reality is that consuming high levels of phosphates increases your levels of FGF23. This, in turn, ages your brain faster and compromises brain health. Researchers say FGF23 can compromise your abilities at “problem solving, memory, language, judgment, social behavior and impulse control.” Research also shows FGF23 makes you more susceptible to a severe stroke and makes it harder to recover from a stroke.1
Now, the researchers point out that so far they’ve only found these brain health issues in people who already have cardiovascular issues. But even if you’re able to avoid the cardiovascular problems and memory lapses linked to a diet high in phosphates, as I mentioned earlier, you still may be at higher risk of kidney disease.
Cutting Back on Phosphates
If you want to cut back on phosphates, experts say don’t get hung up on analyzing the amount in your foods. It’s better to just focus on eating fresh, whole foods. Avoid soft drinks– especially colas. Severely limit fast food and processed food. Be especially wary of processed cheeses and processed meat.
That’s why I won’t eat foods that list added ingredients that include the word phosphate. And I avoid anything with preservatives like sodium tripolyphosphate or calcium phosphate.2
You should too!