This past week I read a fascinating article in The New York Times titled “Is Alzheimer’s Type 3 Diabetes?” by Mark Bittman (see full article here). As Alzheimer’s has affected my life personally, I knew immediately that I needed to share this little tidbit of knowledge with you all.
Today, 5.4 million Americans currently suffer from this disease, with many more suffering from other dementias, and it is expected to cost around $200 billion dollars this year alone. More than 115 million people throughout the world are expected to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the next 40 years. I can’t even fathom how much that will cost. As the article discusses, research as shown a strong link between diet, insulin levels, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Basically, it all comes down to diet and insulin. Let me break it down for you.
We all need insulin. It is produced and released by our pancreas to help our cells absorb the blood sugar (aka glucose) they need for energy. But, as we’ve all heard before, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Our cells can only take in so much glucose and when they’re all filled up, the excess is stored as fat. So how do we get too much blood sugar into our system? The main culprit is from consuming excess sugar and simple carbohydrates, the standard fare in the American diet.
Type 1 diabetes is the kind people are born with where the immune system destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes, the disease affecting so many Americans today, young and old, is brought about by a combination of factors, including diet, environment and lifestyle. In this disease, cells fail to retrieve glucose from the blood. This is caused by either the pancreas not producing enough insulin or cells in the body becoming insulin resistant.
Insulin resistance develops when cells are called upon to absorb glucose from the blood too often (i.e when we consume too much sugar too often, as I described above). This can be easily explained using the analogy of the childhood story of the boy who cried wolf. He cried wolf so many times when nothing happened that eventually no one listened to him when the wolf actually came. With our cells, they get pounded with the message to absorb glucose so often that they start to ignore it and resist the call of the insulin. Insulin then becomes even more insistent and more insulin is released to try to get our cells to cooperate. Elevated levels of insulin is bad for our blood vessels. Enter Type 2 diabetes.
So how does this all impact our brain? Well, insulin keeps the blood vessels that supply the brain healthy and encourages brain cells and neurons to absorb glucose, allowing them to grow and become stronger. Low levels of insulin lead to reduced brain function but, as I described above, too much insulin damages the blood vessels that supply nutrients to our brain. In addition, just like the rest of the cells in our body, our brain cells can become insulin resistant from a steady diet of too much sugar and processed junk. When this happens, our brain cells stop absorbing the levels of glucose they need to thrive and grow, resulting in decreased brain function, loss of memory and disorientation.
Putting all of these pieces together, you can see the connection between Alzheimer’s and low levels of insulin in the brain, which researchers today are calling Type 3 diabetes (note that this isn’t an official name, just a concept). While having Type 2 diabetes does not cause Alzheimer’s, the two diseases have the same root: the overconsumption of processed and sugary foods that disrupt our insulin levels.
So what can we do to keep our brains happy, healthy and thriving? Below are 5 things you can do today that are beneficial for your brain:
- Get your ZZZZ’s. When we sleep our bodies go into repair mode. This includes our brains. It is the only time of the day when our brain gets to shut down and take a break. I don’t know about you, but I like to take a break every once in a while… Adults are encouraged to get at least 7-8 hours a night. Young children should get even more than that.
- Eat fresh, whole foods grown from the earth and minimize processed food, simple carbohydrates (flour-based products such as white bread, pasta, etc.) and sugar. Craving something sweet? How about eating an apple or some fresh berries? Craving something salty? How about some olives or a handful of raw nuts?
- Manage your stress level. We’ve all heard that chronic stress is not healthy for the body. Stress is an inevitable part of life, but if you find yourself worried or stressed on a regular basis, take some time to really think about the triggers in your life that bring about stress. Is there a way they can be changed? Breathing is also a great way to alleviate stress. When we are stressed we tend to hunch over and our shoulders creep up closer to our ears. In this position our breathing naturally becomes shallow. When we sit back and relax our shoulders, our body naturally calms and our breathing becomes deeper.
- Get up and move. Exercise gets our blood pumping, bringing fresh nutrients and oxygen to our cells, including those in our brains. Exercise also releases endorphins, which are uplifting for our moods. A happy body equals a happy brain. It doesn’t need to be anything crazy, just getting outside and walking in the fresh spring air for 20 minutes a day is better than sitting on the couch.
- Maintain a healthy weight. I learned recently that when our weight goes up, the size of our brains goes down. I don’t know about you, but that scares me. I want my brain to be as big as it needs to be to keep ticking until my body gives out.
~Peace, love and healthy brains~