This is Your Brain on Sugar

blood sugarThe average American consumes 130 pounds of added sugar per year and before you deny falling into this category, consider the fact that much of the sugar is unwittingly consumed, due to the insidious nature of sugar in our food. This exceptionally high consumption should concern you because some of America’s most respected institutions are now classifying sugar (especially when in the form of fructose) as a toxin, and linking it to the country’s biggest killers — including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. If that weren’t bad enough, a new study conducted at UCLA and published in the Journal of Physiology, has found that sugar, in the form of fructose, may also compromise the health of your brain and reduce your learning and memory capabilities.

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Sugar and Your Brain – What It All Means

For the study, the researchers fed two groups of rats water infused with fructose (which is chemically different than glucose and considered much more harmful to the body). One of the two groups was also fed omega-3 fatty acids which supply DHA, a substance that can help support the synapses of the brain. “DHA is essential for synaptic function — brain cells’ ability to transmit signals to one another,” explains Gomez-Pinilla, a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and Brain Injury Research Center. “This is the mechanism that makes learning and memory possible. Our bodies can’t produce enough DHA, so it must be supplemented through our diet.”

For five days prior to the onset of the experimental diet, the rats were trained to navigate a maze that contained numerous holes but only one real exit. After six weeks on the experimental diet the researchers tested the ability of the rats to remember the route of the maze and to find their way to the exit. The rats that were fed the DHA were able to navigate the maze much more efficiently then the non DHA fed rats. What’s more the rats that were deprived of DHA showed a marked decline in synaptic activity and their brain cells weren’t able to signal to each other properly, resulting in a reduced ability to think clearly and recall the previously learned route.

Fructose and Your Diet


The researchers also found that the fructose only rats had developed a resistance to insulin, which is the hormone that helps to both regulate blood sugar levels and to regulate synaptic functions in the brain. “Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but (because of its ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier) it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning,” says Gomez. The researchers believe that sugar in the form of fructose could block the ability of insulin to regulate how brain cells use and store sugar for the energy that is needed in order for the brain to process emotions and thoughts. “Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think… (and) that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. This is something new.”

According to Gomez and his associates, if you want to maintain optimum brain function, you should keep your intake of fructose (which is found in table sugar, high fructose corn syrup and all food products which contain these ingredients) to a minimum. Unfortunately, avoiding fructose is harder than you may think, for it is added to a wide variety of commonly consumed products including condiments, soft drinks and even baby food. Although fructose is also found in fruit, the antioxidants and fiber found in fruit is thought to offset the damaging effects of fructose.

If you plan to consume fructose in spite of these findings you may be able to curtail some of the damage that it causes by also consuming omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods such as cold-water fish, walnuts and flaxseeds. Alternatively, you can take an omega-3 supplements, and Gomez recommends consuming a dose that will supply 1000 mg of DHA, daily. “Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects,” says Gomez-Pinilla. “It’s like saving money in the bank.”