- Health & Wellness
- Dr. Frischer
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I am fortunate in my professional life: I have the perfect receptionist! She is highly skilled and has been working with me since the beginning of my career. Most importantly, though, when sweets invariably find their way into our office, she’s a milk chocolate fanatic and I much prefer dark. I am not nearly as fortunate at home with my wife and daughters, where we all fight over the dark chocolate.
I’ve addressed the benefits of eating chocolate in earlier columns. I’ve also addressed many aspects of the darker side of refined sugar, and what interests me today is the extensive research available on the effect of sugar on the brain. Overeating, poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression – all have been linked in recent research to the overconsumption of sugar.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes over 150 pounds of sweeteners per year (including some that goes to waste). The math is simple: picture almost a three-pound bag per person every week. Consider that going back to the 1800′s, the average consumption was five pounds per person per year! The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that refined sugar represents nearly one-fourth of the total calories consumed every day.
Our brains are very, very picky. Most of us have experienced the buzz of a sugar high and the low of a sugar crash. While our brain needs sugar to function, it doesn’t need nearly as much as we provide, and it runs best on a steady supply. When our blood sugar level falls, our hypothalamus sends out a distress signal that results in the release of adrenaline to the liver, causing it to turn excess fat into glucose. When the opposite happens and our blood sugar level rises, the pancreas pumps out insulin to remove the sugar from the blood and nudge that extra sugar into our cells. Too much insulin can deplete normal glucose levels, deprive the brain and other organs of energy, depress the immune system, and may lead to kidney disease. Excess insulin also promotes fat storage. Either extreme can leave us feeling woozy, nervous, fatigued, and shaky.
What are the best sources of sugar for the brain? Fruit sugars enter the bloodstream at a steady rate as the fruit digests. Other complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, also take time to break down into glucose. Refined sugar, on the other hand, goes into the blood stream rapidly and causes drastic changes.
Note that artificial sweeteners have similar effects. Refined sugar as well as artificial sweeteners appear to dull the brain’s mechanism that tells us when to stop eating, thereby stimulating further cravings for sugar.
Interestingly, adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet may minimize some of sugar’s harmful effects. A recent UCLA study demonstrated that rats that were fed a diet high in fructose were slower in brain function, hampering memory and learning. Rats that had omega-3 fatty acids added to that high sugar diet navigated a maze much more quickly.
Research also shows that a diet high in refined sugar reduces the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a brain chemical. Without this, we can’t learn because we don’t form new memories. This chemical is found to be low in those who have difficulty metabolizing sugar, such as diabetics. Research has also linked low BDNF levels to depression and dementia.
A healthy diet provides most of our sugar from fruit, grains and other whole foods. Here are just a few concrete suggestions for cutting down on refined sugar and helping our brains to function at their best:
Lay off of the sodas! This is an insidious problem – not only are they high in sugar or artificial sweeteners, but colas also contain salt, which makes us thirsty and want to drink even more soda!
Eat more fiber with your sugar. Complex carbohydrates break down in the liver to form sugar. This takes a while; so complex carbs excel at providing energy for hours. Fiber also helps to curb sugar intake because it alerts the brain that we have consumed calories and don’t need to eat more.
Avoid processed foods. Preparing your food from the raw natural ingredients is the best option. If you do buy prepared foods, check labels for sugar content and check to see whether the grains are “whole.” Use ingredients with fiber, including fruits and vegetables.
If you like sugary desserts, avoid keeping them at home. Make them from scratch, or go out for them. The extra effort makes us think twice.
Like most things, sugar isn’t all that bad in moderation. Pay attention to what you are eating. Enjoy that chocolate, whether light or dark. Your body will thank you, and your brain will thank you.
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
Published: August 09, 2012 – Volume 11 – Issue 17