Can Your Sweet Tooth Be a Precursor to Alzheimer’s?

by Stacy Facko


Be honest. Did you overdo it on the Halloween candy?

If you’ve got a sweet tooth like me, Halloween seems to signify the start of the eating season heightened by sweets in all forms – candy, baked goods, sweetened hot and cold drinks, even glazed meats and candied yams (way to kill the nutritional goodness of an otherwise healthy vegetable).

From Halloween to New Year’s the festivities are heavy on the food and fun and it’s easy to overindulge and surpass your body’s regular need of calories and essential nutrients. And we all know that sustaining this way of eating can take a toll on your waistline. 

But would you guess that this kind of activity could affect your memory?

Mounting research is pointing to an association between elevated blood sugar and increased risk for dementia. 

By 2013, an estimated 5.2 million Americas had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a severe form of dementia. The disease is so prevalent that it ranks as one of the top causes of death in America.

That’s a pretty scary statistic when you take into account that the Western diet is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. Even if you don’t reach for something that is easily recognized as a sweet, hidden sugar is so prevalent to be on par with our palate. To appease our desire for less fattening foods, healthy fats have been replaced with – you guessed it – more sugar. So if you eat a lot of processed foods, you can easily consume enough sugar to upset your blood sugar homeostasis. Do this regularly and you could find yourself becoming insulin resistant (type 2 diabetes), which comes with a lot of destructive baggage, including the loss of brain function.

The overly sugared brain concept was first revealed in 2005 when researchers discovered that the brain was capable of producing insulin for brain cell survival. The buildup of toxic proteins (amyloid beta protein) seems to remove the insulin receptors from nerve cells, making the neurons insulin resistant – a phenomenon penned as “type 3 diabetes.” The accumulation of these proteins is believed to trigger the deterioration of the memory.

While prior research had shown increased risk of diabetics developing Alzheimer’s disease, more current studies are once again raising concern over the role of insulin resistance and dementia. A study published in JAMA Neurology suggests that when insulin in the brain is unable to facilitate the proper use of sugar (glucose) as cellular fuel, there is a progressive decline in complex neurological activity, such as forming memories.

If that’s not enough to make you think twice before you satisfy your sweet tooth, here’s another – insulin resistance also increases your risk of heart disease.

Are you scared into prevention mode yet? Since there is currently no known cure and few effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, it’s vastly important to take preventative measures. There are things you can do now to stave off the stages of dementia down the road:

Stop eating processed food. They may be convenient and tasty, but they’re notorious for containing all sorts of ingredients that are harmful to the brain, including pesticides and refined sugars and grains. Choose real, minimally processed foods, ideally ones that are organic.

Optimize your intestinal flora. Maintain a healthy population of good bacteria in the gut. This delicate ecosystem is disrupted by processed foods, antibiotics, and fluoridated and chlorinated water. Dr. David Perlmutter makes the connection between microflora and neurological diseases in his book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain for Life. Support the good bacteria by eating fermented and cultured foods, or with probiotic supplements.

Get a daily mental workout. Regular brain stimulation is associated with a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, as it helps to inhibit amyloid plaque buildup. Good mental exercises include learning a new language, doing a puzzle, or even playing video games. 

Don’t forget healthy fats. Not too long ago weight consciousness scared us away from dietary fats. But a push toward healthy fats has taken over. Avoid the harmful trans and hydrogenated fats, but make sure you’re getting your omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, which are critical to brain health.

Sleep well. We know sleep is important to repair and recharge the body, but studies have also added brain detoxification to the benefits of restful sleep. During sleep the brain’s waste removal system kicks in, pumping in cerebral spinal fluid and flushing waste (including amyloid beta protein) out into the circulatory system to be eliminated. But naps and light sleeping won’t reap the benefits of this cleansing cycle. Deep sleep for several hours is when it works best. Aim for 7 to 9 hours each night.

My fellow sugar fiends, it’s a tough habit to break, but the payoff seems totally worth the struggle. It’s never too early to start taking care of yourself now in preparation for a healthy future.

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