Your Brain on SugarOctober 2013
Keeping your brain fueled in today’s high-carb culture can be tricky. If you’re following conventional guidelines and eating plenty of grains, you’re probably eating more carbohydrates than is healthy for your brain.
Supplying brain energy is a delicate balancing act. Give it too little fuel, and you feel lightheaded, spacey, and irritable. Give it too much, and you feel lethargic and drowsy. To maintain a steady flow of energy to your brain you need to eat brain-friendly foods, avoid overeating or undereating, and watch the carbs—the bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, corn, grains, beans, sweets, and sodas.
Since your body rapidly breaks down carbohydrates to simple sugars, eating a diet that’s carb-rich, especially one that contains little protein, fat, and fiber, sends your blood sugar soaring. In response, your pancreas goes into overdrive pumping out insulin to ferry that excess sugar from your bloodstream into your cells and converting the excess into fat. The more often you eat meals and snacks in which these foods predominate, the greater your risk of developing insulin resistance, a situation in which the cells becomes resistant to insulin. As a result, insulin can’t usher glucose into cells, depriving them of energy, and there is too much glucose in your bloodstream.
Too Much of a Good Thing
One of the many disastrous effects of insulin resistance is that the excess sugar and insulin in your blood throws your neurotransmitters off balance. (Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers produced by nerve cells that allow them to communicate with one another.)
Take the “happy and joyful” neurotransmitter serotonin, for example. Carb-rich foods stimulate serotonin production—why starchy foods are known as comfort foods. Keep up the high-carb life, however, and the constant over-activity in the serotonin pathways eventually depletes your serotonin supply. Insulin resistance and it’s evil twin hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) also interfere with serotonin activity and can contribute to symptoms of depression.
Another neurotransmitter that is thrown off balance by insulin resistance is dopamine, the “pleasure and reward” neurotransmitter. This is the neurotransmitter that motivates you but also gives you that pleasurable boost when you engage in something addictive. High-carb foods can become addictive by stimulating the same pleasure centers in the brain drugs do. Also, when you eat too many carbs, serotonin production edges out dopamine. As a result, you may feel symptoms of low dopamine activity: hopeless, worthless, unmotivated, and short-tempered.
Eating for a Balanced Brain
Forget eating what you please, unhealthy temptations surround us. If you have insulin resistance or are in danger of developing it, the worst things you can do are to overeat and/or eat a lot of carbohydrates. Here are seven steps to set you on the road to a healthy, balanced supply of energy to your brain:
1. Eat high-quality protein and fat for breakfast. You’ve just been fasting for eight to 12 hours and if you don’t eat your adrenal fight-or-flight hormones will kick in to keep blood sugar up. But these hormones also stress out your brain. A healthy, robust breakfast sets the stage for an even supply of calming energy.
2. Find your carb tolerance and stick to it. If you feel sleepy or crave sugar after you eat, you’ve had too many. If you feel sleepy or crave sugar after a low-carb meal, try eating smaller meals more often.
3. Do not go too long without eating. Many people find eating a small amount every two to three hours helps stabilize their blood sugar. Skipping breakfast and going too long between meals can send blood sugar plummeting and engage the stress response; the release of cortisol. As your blood sugar becomes more stable you can extend time between eating.
4. When you do eat high-carb foods—grains; legumes; starchy vegetables like potatoes and peas; and sweets—have some fiber, fat, or protein foods along with these starches which delays the emptying of your stomach and slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
5. Avoid all fruit juices and carrot juice. You wouldn’t be able to eat 20 carrots or 20 oranges in one sitting; so drinking a big glass of juice would be the equivalent.
6. Take nutrients that help cells regain insulin sensitivity: These include a whole foods B complex, chromium, alpha lipoic acid, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), magnesium, zinc, and CoQ10.
7. Choose foods that are brain-friendly. This means a whole foods, vegetable-based diet, high in omega 3s, and with sufficient protein and fat. Avoid inflammatory foods. You may need to try an elimination diet to find out which foods are inflammatory for you.