In a much anticipated follow-up to my recent post “Can Type II Diabetes Double Your Risk of Dementia?”, I felt it was important to arm you with the basic knowledge necessary to combat the growing threat of blood sugar handling issues, namely Adult Onset (Type II) Diabetes and pre-diabetes. The staggering statistics revolving around these 21st century societal conditions were outlined in the aforementioned article, as was the substantial risk of developing dementia as a result of sustained elevations in blood sugar; dementia being only one of numerous ramifications related to challenges with blood sugar handling!
The focus of this post will be “Blood Sugar and Your Brain”, with other factors such as exercise and stress management, among others, to be addressed in future articles. Addressing fuel delivery, sugar being one of the two primary fuels for your body and brain (the other being oxygen), is the most basic, and very likely the most important, step in maintaining and elevating your current level of health and diminishing your risk of health problems related to poor blood sugar handling.
First, a bit of understanding is necessary. The brain has been termed the “Greedy Master” due to the exorbitant amount of fuel it consumes relative to its size. Being only a mere 2% (yes two percent) of our body weight, your brain cells consume nearly 2 times more energy/fuel than other body cells – one half of this being used for nerve conduction! To boot, neurons are ALWAYS metabolically active (always using fuel) and they cannot store energy (unlike muscle and other types of cells). Given this insight, you can easily see how the brain requires an adequate, appropriate, and consistent method of fuel delivery. Any disruption in this delivery, either short or long term, can have devastating consequences in our brains and bodies!
At this point in time many view ‘sugar’ as the human race’s quintessential evil nemesis, based largely on misinformation from the food and diet industries over the past 50 years or so (more in the past 10-15 years). I’m here to tell you that sugar is not bad, it is the misunderstanding or general ignorance about the types of sugar available to us that is dangerous! The right types of sugar, in fact, are necessary for our survival and for our level of human performance, or lack thereof.
Complex vs. Simple carbohydrates (sugars). In a nut shell – Complex carbohydrates wear a ‘jacket’ of fiber that slows the breakdown of the carbohydrate and subsequent release of sugar into your blood stream (think ‘metered in’). These are found in natural food sources – think of fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans with edible skins or ‘jackets’. These are the best for your brain and should be your primary source of sugar intake. In sharp contrast, Simple carbohydrates have little to no fiber and require less breakdown; therefore their sugars enter the bloodstream much more rapidly (think ‘explode in’). These are found primarily in processed or refined food sources and many of these sugars will never reach the blood-brain barrier; which supports one of the likely theories of what causes dementia (i.e. inadequate brain fuel). The takeaway here is the more consistent and the longer the delivery of fuel, the more efficiently your brain and body will work. So, what kind of carbs are you eating???
Glycemic Index (GI) is an extremely important concept/application for us to comprehend, even at the most basic of levels. Simply stated – GI is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Given your new understanding of carbohydrates based the simplified explanation of Complex vs. Simple carbs provided above, you will now learn that rapid breakdown of carbohydrates = high glycemic index and slow breakdown of carbohydrates = low glycemic index. Or, in other words (in most cases), high GI = bad, low GI = good. Many charts of common food indices can be found online – click here for one example from Harvard Health Publications.
As we do not have the time here to discuss the individual mechanisms of disease as related to poor blood sugar handling, what you need to understand as related to the topic at hand is that elevated, uncontrolled blood sugar levels lead to damage to small blood vessels within the brain and body. This damage leads to impaired fuel delivery and is at the root of many neurological disorders, including dementia. Processed sugars, which you just learned very often do not reach the blood brain barrier, cause little or no insulin response and are likely responsible for the faulty, ineffective Beta cell insulin responses of the pancreas found in those with Type II Diabetes. Further, there is little suppression of appetite with Simple sugars (unlike the suppression found with Complex carbohydrates) that leads to chronic cravings for this type of ‘fast’ energy (an addiction of sorts).
Label Reading – it is imperative to have a basic understanding of what the food labels on your foods say about what is contained within that package. Even foods bought in some of the more ‘health conscious’ supermarkets can contribute to your risk of developing blood sugar problems. Here are the keys when trying to understand the sugars in your food:
1) We should concern ourselves primarily with quantities of Sugar and Fiber only
2) Sugar relates to ADDED sugar
3) Think lower Sugar, higher Fiber
4) The greater the difference between Total Carbohydrate and Sugar, the better the food (i.e. less added sugar)
5) Other Carbohydrates generally refers to complex starches contained in the food that don’t have much of an impact on GI
6) Sugar goes by many names – begin to educate yourself on the various ‘aliases’ (Click here for examples from Mayo)
As many wise folks in generations prior have told us – “You are what you eat”. If you continue to eat highly volatile, quick energy foods (i.e. simple sugars) on a regular basis, your body and brain will ‘burn out’ long before its ‘expiration date’. On the other hand, if you move towards whole foods (i.e. complex carbohydrates) that ‘meter in’ and ration your energy, you can bank on the fact that you have done a great deal in ensuring a life with a significantly decreased risk of serious brain and body health complications!