“You are what you eat.” I first heard this saying many years ago and have reflected on it from time to time, usually as I guiltily ate something that tasted great but I knew was bad for me. My research into cognitive decline has brought real insight into this little homily because I now know without a doubt that some foods, particularly those with added sugar, damage the brain and contribute to cognitive decline.
Sugar seems to be in everything. Food manufacturers put it in all sorts of food because it improves the flavour. It’s even in savoury foods like cans of baked beans. I know this because I now check everything before buying and will not buy anything with added sugar. It’s hard to get off sugar because we are virtually addicted to it and your body does go through kind of withdrawal when you stop. It’s unpleasant but, I can promise you, you are free of it within a couple of weeks and the feeling after that is wonderful.
Why Sugar is Addictive
Because of its simple structure, glucose is quickly taken into the body and used for energy. The brain requires a lot of energy to do its work and can use sugar quickly. Because of this it rewards us for taking in sugar by sending out pleasure chemicals. This is why sugary treats initially make us feel good. Since we live in a stressful world we naturally try to seek out a little pleasure to offset this stress and the ‘sugar hit’ is one of the easiest and simplest ways of doing this. This is probably why people who are under extreme stress tend to overindulge in sugary treats. Overindulgence also becomes a vicious circle in that over use of the ‘sugar reward system’ causes sugar addiction.
What sugar does
Although sugar will fuel the brain it also alters the brain, changes the release and use of neurotransmitters in the brain and causes problems like insulin resistance in the body (1). There is mounting evidence to show that sugar increases the risk of depression and anxiety and it is convincingly linked not only to loss of neuroplasticity but to the development of dementia (2, 3, 4, 5). The link between brain problems and sugar intake is so strong that some scientists refer to dementia as “brain diabetes’.
A study from the UCLA brain institute shows that the things you eat affect how you think (1). In this study rats who ate sugar had impaired synaptic activity and could not remember and could not learn new things. These scientist believe that sugar blocks the way brain cells regulate energy for processes such as thinking and mood regulation. Interestingly, this same study shows that impaired thinking processes can be reversed by stopping sugar intake and increasing DHA, the omega 3 fatty acid that is essential for proper brain function.
There is more good news. When we stop sugar and start eating the food and supplements that promote brain health it is possible to reverse some damage. Also, when we optimise the brain and keep feeding it properly we are able to enhance plasticity and use this to retrain our cognition. On a final note, and perhaps the subject of another blog entry, it’s worth noting that good quality sugar-free chocolate is one of the super foods that can help.