Brain on Sugar

This photo is not me having a bad-hair day. It’s how things felt inside my head before I stopped eating sugar and greatly reduced other carbohydrates. I managed to keep functioning and sometimes smiling, but it was hard work. And I’m not sure I fooled everybody, although I tried.

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Within a few months of eating no sugar or grains, I realized my brain was feeling like this…

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…and I began smiling more, even in a Canadian winter.

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I’m not the only one…

A couple weeks ago, I posted about new research showing that Alzheimer’s can be reversed. The success of the program comes from using a whole-system approach to discover the causes of disturbed brain function in each individual. To do this, they look at 36 factors in the areas of diet, environment, toxins, activity, and stress. Sugar is one of those factors.

The effect of sugar on the brain is significant. In a previous post, I gave tips and recipes for reducing sugar in holiday baking. It started with three givens:

  • We are all better off consuming little-to-no sugar.
  • Artificial sweeteners are not an option.
  • Natural sweeteners need to be used judiciously.

Here’s the backstory to those givens, as I promised.

Why bother removing sugar?

Simple answer: Avoid sugar to keep yourself healthy and protect your brain.

We have an internal sugar-management system. It’s job is to protect the brain from excess sugar. So whenever there’s a large sugar influx, the body does what is necessary to bring blood sugar levels down. Eventually, this coping mechanism wears out, and system failure shows up as weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive decline.

This response is triggered by sugars and starches of all kinds, but refined white sugar stresses our coping mechanism the most because sugar is so concentrated. White sugar has no vitamins or minerals to contribute to the sugar-regulating mechanisms, and no protein or fat to level out our blood sugar. That’s what makes sweets like candy and soft drinks so harmful.

Yes, we can all get away with consuming sweets for a while. Some people can for years. But each of us has a breakdown point, depending on our inherent constitution and how we generally feed and move our bodies. It’s like cars—some brands wear out sooner than others because of how they are made, but every brand runs better and lasts longer if you provide the right grade of fuel and don’t put sand in the gas tank.

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Can you side-step the sugar issue by using artificial sweeteners?

No. This is a common misconception that evolved from our fixation on calories. The problem with sugar isn’t the calories—it’s the way sugar causes internal stress by disrupting our metabolism. 

Artificial sweeteners (also known as non-nutritive sweeteners) are stressful too, just in a different way. They are foreign substances that our bodies weren’t made to handle. Going back to the car analogy, it would be like putting some diesel into your tank with the gas. It will gum up the works because it’s a foreign substance.

The stress caused by artificial sweeteners outweighs any hoped-for benefits. Chris Kresser, a recognized leader in functional and integrative medicine, concluded his extensive analysis by saying, “Ultimately, while artificial sweeteners are perhaps not as scary as some might believe, I don’t recommend including them in your diet.”

The first rule of little-to-no sugar…

No artificial sweeteners. This includes aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, NatraTaste Blue), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame K (ACE K, Sunette, Equal Spoonful, Sweet One, Sweet ‘n Safe), and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin).

There is less agreement about the sugar alcohols xylitol and sorbitol. Dr. Josh Axe put them on his list of the 5 Worst Artificial Sweeteners, citing allergic reactions and gut side effects such as diarrhea. Chris Kresser thinks they are a reasonable option for some people. As with all decisions about what to consume, we each need to do some reading and questioning, then decide what we’re willing to experiment with.

And never doubt that consuming artificial foods is an experiment—their safety is not as guaranteed as you might expect. As I’ve mentioned before, food manufacturing is a big industry with an agenda that has nothing to do with our health.

Second rule of little-to-no sugar…

Use natural sweeteners, but sparingly. Honey and maple syrup fall into that category. So do dates, coconut sugar, molasses, corn syrup and rice syrup. These less-processed sweeteners have some vitamins and minerals which help your body deal with the sugar they contain. However, natural sweeteners still deliver a blood sugar punch, and your body springs into action to protect your brain when you consume a lot of them. So use less, even of these more natural sweeteners. 

Stevia is in a category of its own. It’s a natural product and it doesn’t contain sugar. Katie, the Wellness Mama, writes thoughtful articles on food issues. She says, “Personally, I feel safe using stevia in leaf form or tinctures made from leaf form but avoid the white processed and powdered versions.”

For further information on various aspects of the sugar issue:

Coping Strategies

In the business world, policies and procedures are established to avoid having to reinvent the wheel at every decision-point. Likewise, personal policies can simplify your daily life. This strategy streamlines daily action while allowing for flexibility in unexpected situations.

If your policy is to consume little-to-no sugar, here’s what you can do.

  1. Retrain your taste buds. Stop using sugar—gradually or cold turkey, whichever works for you. The good news is that taste buds are trainable. I’m surprised when I try one of my old recipes and think Gosh that’s sweet! Did I actually like that?
  2. Keep refined white sugar out of the house. Hands-down, this is the best way to avoid anything—particularly something as addictive as sugar. The trick is to have other options in place so you have a go-to alternative when your body craves sugar. The good news is that as you eat less sugar, the sugar cravings occur less and less often.
  3. Look at your recipes with a discerning eye. Some are naturally low in sugar—shortbread at Christmas is a better choice than buttertart squares.
  4. Experiment with reducing sugar in your recipes. If you’ve been putting sugar in your salad dressings, see what happens if you leave it out. If it’s too tart, cut back the mount of vinegar or lemon juice instead of adding sugar. But experimenting with baking is another story. Baked goods depend on ingredients to build their structure, so you need to know what you’re doing…or look up recipes that have already been adjusted by someone else. Elana’s Pantry and Wellness Mama are good places to start.
  5. Look for recipes that balance sugars with protein and fat ingredients. Old-fashioned date-walnut balls or cookies made with almond flour come to mind. You’ll find some of my favourites in this post.
  6. Be alert to label trickery. Products often contain several types of sugar, identified by their chemical names. According to SugarScience.org, an organization developed by a team of health scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, “There are at least 61 different names for sugar listed on food labels. These include common names, such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as barley malt, dextrose, maltose and rice syrup, among others.” Manufactures hope that if people do read the label, they won’t know that these are all forms of sugar. Here’s a tip: “ose” at the end of a word tells you it’s the chemical name of a sugar.

Remember why you’re doing this.

Changing habits and practices can sometimes seem onerous. Remember your “why bother.” If you need a refresher, listen to this conversation between Dr. Bredesen and Dr. Perlmutter, two leaders in the field of brain health.

By sticking with a policy of little-to-no sugar, you’ll reduce sugar-stress in your body and protect your brain. That seems like a good reason to persist.

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