Your Brain on Pumpkin Pie

You take a slow bite of the pumpkin pie, a hint of cinnamon behind the rich pumpkin flavor. With a crumbly crust and thick whipped cream, you’re settling into autumn the way you should be.

Or should you?

With refined sugars everywhere, even added to foods that are supposed to be “healthy”, like fruit juice boxes and baby food, it’s difficult to swear off sugar without swearing off many of the things you probably eat.

And with the propensity of many of us to go to Starbucks, where even a tall hot chai latte is gorged on 32g of sugar, we inadvertently consume far more of those white granules than we should be.

But is sugar really that bad for you, besides expanding your waistline? Research says yes—even if your waistline doesn’t suffer the consequences of sugar, your brain will.

A rapid growth in neuroscience literature is verifying claims that insulin resistance (implicated in diabetes) may be a mediator in Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) neurodegeneration.

Because of this surge in the literature, Alzheimer’s Disease is being labeled as “type 3 diabetes”, which reflects the data that AD is a form of diabetes that affects the brain and has biochemical features that are also implicated in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

So, what gives? Is Alzheimer’s disease preventable? Research says—yes!

Type 2 diabetes used to be considered adult-onset diabetes—until children started developing it, too. With an increase in fatty and sugary diets, especially among Americans, the rate of type 2 diabetes has steadily increased.

But what are insulin resistance and diabetes, anyway?

Insulin in a non-diabetic body helps cells take in glucose (blood sugar) to use for energy. Each cell can only hold so much energy, and so excess glucose is first stored as glycogen, and excess beyond even that is stored as fat.

Insulin also helps neurons to absorb glucose, as well as develop stronger connections. Therefore, in a non-diabetic body, low insulin could betray reduced brain function.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the immune system destroying pancreatic insulin-producing cells. Type 2 diabetes, however, is partly environmental: your bad diet could lead to this type of diabetes.

When cells are bombarded by glucose too often, they become resistant to it. Because of this, insulin levels increase, trying to get your cells to take in the glucose. This is insulin resistance. Increased insulin levels wreak havoc on blood vessels, and diabetes itself can cause heart disease.

When neurons become resistant to insulin, you start to lose your memory, even your personality. You develop Alzheimer’s.

Over a century ago, Alois Alzheimer, a neuropathologist, noticed that in certain brains, a morphed protein was taking over brain cells. The morphed protein, called beta amyloid plaques, gets in the way of neuronal communication. Though an exact understanding of how and why these plaques form isn’t known, it is becoming increasingly clear that insulin resistance plays a role in their formation.

One recent study involved blocking insulin in rat brains. What the researchers found was that the neurons deteriorated and the rats showed signs of Alzheimer’s. Another study injected a blood sugar-stabilizing medication into rats with type 2 diabetes. Rats that had their diabetes stabilized with the medication showed a reversal of brain abnormalities.

This doesn’t mean that diabetes causes Alzheimer’s. It does mean that both diabetes and AD share metabolic dysfunction, i.e. insulin resistance, which is largely preventable with proper nutrition and exercise.

You don’t have to suffer Alzheimer’s; by eating healthy, avoiding processed foods, limiting sugar intake, and exercising, you can prevent dementia from ever taking hold of your brain and your life.

So put down that pumpkin pie and eat some real pumpkin this autumn.

– Rania Hanna

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