10 Reasons Why Sugary Drinks Are Bad For the Brain
This month I’m sending out a challenge to the Brain Health Kitchen community: Let’s give up drinks with added sugar and artificial sweeteners. It’s part of our year-long Dementia-Proof Your Brain program to cultivate our very best brains in 2018. So why did we pick on sugary drinks first? And what’s wrong with artificial sweeteners? Many of you have told me that cutting out excess sugar is a priority this year. The best/easiest/most painless way to do so? Ditching the sugary drinks. (And the ones that trick you into thinking you need more sugar.)
Sugar consumption linked to increased Alzheimer’s disease
Sugar has been in the nutritional doghouse for a long time for its known association with diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular diseases, dental caries and gout. Now Alzheimer’s researchers are pointing the finger at sugar for a different reason — studies linking it to increased dementia and stroke. We know diabetics are twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, especially if their blood sugars are poorly controlled. Diabetics who require a lot of insulin to control their disease are at even higher risk. Now a recent study in the journal Diabetolgia showed participants with mildly elevated blood sugars have a faster rate of cognitive decline, even though they technically don’t have diabetes.
Alzheimer’s: Diabetes Type 3?
No one really knows what causes Alzheimer’s, exactly, but insulin resistance is a common thread in those with the disease. In fact, the link between insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s have led some researchers to call it Diabetes of the Brain (or Diabetes Type 3.) When the body is constantly bombarded with excess sugar, often in the form of simple carbohydrates, the pancreas cranks out more insulin to keep up. But if your insulin levels are chronically high (because there’s too much glucose coming in) the cells stop responding. They become “insulin resistant.” This is bad news for your brain cells: When neurons no longer respond to insulin fluctuations, they die off before their time.
How excess sugar leads to brain damaging AGE’s
Early brain cell death is certainly not good, but that’s not the only problem caused by too much sugar in the diet. When too many glucose molecules are floating around in the brain, they end up latching onto other molecules, changing them with a process called “glycation,” resulting in unstable AGE’s (Advanced Glycation End Products) that tear through the brain wreaking metabolic havoc. Because they look foreign to the body, they trigger an inflammatory response. They form free radicals which go on to damage cell membranes and DNA. And some think they disrupt the blood brain barrier, causing leakage of other substances that contribute to the cascade of inflammation and early cell death.
Alzheimer’s experts are urging us to reduce the AGE’s in our foods as much as possible.
All of this from a can of soda? Or an innocent Mojito on a hot summer’s night? Not exactly. But the data is starting to gel in support of this concept:
Chronically consuming too much sugar, especially in a rapidly-absorbed liquid form, leads to insulin resistance and contributes to Alzheimer’s disease in ways we are just starting to understand.
Artificial sweeteners — No better than sugar.
The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin (Sweet N’Low), acesulfame (Equal Spoonful), aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet), sucralose (Splenda), and neotame (a high potency sweetener made by Nutrasweet.) It has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. Although these non-nutritive sweeteners, as they are also called, have been cleared by the FDA for causing cancer, there are mounting concerns about how they impact health in other ways.
This paper, published in the journal Stroke in April 2017, looked at almost 5,000 study participants over 10 years. They weren’t able to find a correlation between drinking two sugary drinks per day with stroke or dementia. But they did find that just one diet soda per day increased the risk of stroke threefold in those over age 45, and dementia by threefold if over 65.
Other studies have found associations between artificially sweetened drinks and diabetes type 2, metabolic syndrome, and atherosclerosis — the hardening of the arteries that leads to heart attacks, strokes, and some types of dementia.
Papers like these certainly don’t prove a cause and effect relationship between artificial sweeteners and cognitive decline, stroke and dementia. But the problem with artificial sweeteners may be in how they change how we taste food. Because they are sweeter than foods found in nature, artificial sweeteners flood our sugar receptors making us more tolerant to sweets. People on weight reduction diets who drink diet sodas have repeatedly been found to gain more weight. Researchers postulate that diet soda drinkers may stop associating sweetness with caloric intake. And they find naturally sweetened and unsweetened foods, like fruit and vegetables, unpalatable.
Whose ready to rid our diets of these too sweet and artificially sweet drinks?
10 Reasons Why We Are Giving Up Sugary and Artificially Sweetened Drinks
- Sugary drinks are associated with elevated blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.
- People who chronically consume sugary drinks have shortened telomers, a marker for accelerated aging.
- Sugary drinks reduce Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor in the hippocampus region of the brain. BDNF is like “Miracle Gro” for brain cells, enabling neurons to form many connections to other cells.
- Mice who consume sugary drinks were found to have twice as much amyloid plaque in their brains as mice who drank water instead.
- Consumption of soda is associated with weight gain and diabetes in men; both are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
- Adding sugar to coffee negates some of its positive effect on mood.
- Framingham Heart Study researchers found that those who consume excess sugar in the form of fructose (found in most sodas and fruit juices) had poorer memory, smaller overall brain volume, and a significantly smaller hippocampus — the part of the brain first attacked by Alzheimer’s. Two sugary drinks per day were akin to accelerating brain age by 11 years.
- Diet sodas are associated with a threefold increased risk in dementia and stroke.
- Artificial sweeteners may upset our gut bacteria — the microbiome — in ways we are just starting to understand. The microbiome is a network of bacteria that live in our gust and produce neurotransmitters that have an impact on brain health.
- Artificial sweeteners interfere with our ability to appreciate the natural sugars in foods.
What To Drink Instead
Now that we’re saying adios to sodas, diet drinks, energy drinks, and most juices, what are we supposed to drink? To quote Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution:
Drink coffee for breakfast, tea in the afternoon, wine at 5 p.m., and water all day. Never drink soda pop, including diet soda.
Coming up next: I’ll share how I became a black coffee drinker after decades of being a cream and sugar girl. And my favorite naturally sweet teas.
Thanks for participating in the Dementia-Proof Your Brain challenge! Be sure to check in for daily inspiration and conversations on Instagram @BrainHealthKitchen and Facebook @BrainHealthKitchen. By the end of the month your pancreas, your waistline, and your brain will thank you for ditching the excess sugar.
Have you already given up sugary drinks and artificial sweeteners? Please share any tricks, tweaks and adjustments you made to your diet that helped you succeed.