Feed mice sugar and fat, and give humans alcohol, and the end result is just the same: dementia. Translate the mouse study into the human realm and there is now mounting evidence that the same two nutrients, when consumed in excess, are toxic to human brains.
How has it transpired that two of our favourite national pastimes have become so detrimental to our health that behaviours traditionally associated with enjoyment are now threatening our future survival?
If we need sugar to fuel our mental function, how is it that an excess is so harmful? Doesn’t alcohol contain antioxidants and a beneficial substance called resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes? Why then should this much-treasured national pastime now be deemed deleterious? Here’s the rationale.
We use sugar, or glucose, derived from carbohydrate-rich foods like grains, fruits and vegetables to provide us with energy. We also store glucose in the liver in the form of glycogen to deliver a ready supply of fuel. Glycogen is also deposited in the muscles so that we can fire up these vital structures when we need to engage in battle or hastily retreat from the enemy. But there is only so much space to accumulate glycogen, and once this is exceeded, glucose is turned into fat. And fat can be hoarded without any constraints. The more glucose we eat, the more fat we stockpile. This fat not only amasses on the outside of our bodies, it also swells up in the liver and the pancreas, forming a toxic mound of sludge that gums up the smooth functioning of these life-sustaining organs.
Undermine the liver, our body’s prime remover of metabolic waste, and sully the pancreas where insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose activity, is manufactured and a ravaging tide of biochemical devastation begins germinating which isn’t easy to quell. The problem is that in its early stages, this raging tsunami is a slow growing wave of activity that doesn’t lead to any obviously detectable disturbances. It is possible to have a liver that is not functioning optimally and blood glucose levels that are marginally elevated without feeling physically compromised in any way. Even doctors aren’t unduly alarmed when they cast a rather dismissive eye over blood tests which reveal elevated liver enzymes or a scan which shows that the bearer has what is called a fatty liver.
But, this problem has to be dealt with early before a metabolic catastrophe, which often signifies that brain degeneration is smouldering, takes place. Aside from overseeing glucose utilisation, our primary source of energy, insulin also orchestrates a number of principle brain activities like appetite regulation, cognitive function and the production of chemicals which lead to healthy and stable emotional states. Once insulin becomes dysfunctional these processes start to unravel, paving the way for the progressive decimation of brain cells. Initially this takes place in a gradual and insidious fashion, so that by the time serious memory loss manifests, it’s way too late to reverse the destruction that has already occurred.
A fasting blood glucose test which is greater than 5.5mmol/L or an elevated triglyceride level, an associate of cholesterol and a signpost for the unbridled build-up of fat, indicate that too much sugar and fat are being consumed and need to be curbed. The fat that we have accumulated is preventing insulin from doing its job and the only way we can rectify this is to jettison all the mounds of blubber that are getting in the way.
The problem with changing our behaviour is that fat and sugar zero in on the pleasure centres in our brain, cementing the kind of eating response which is difficult to flip. Resisting the temptation to take one more mouthful requires a massive act of self-control which needs to be summoned repeatedly.
Furthermore, the news is rather disconcerting when it comes to the national beverage. It’s official; alcohol is unreservedly bad for our brains, period, without any exception. We might now need a black box warning and a change in the way alcohol is packaged similar to that of cigarettes.
During ad breaks the radiant glow of television suggests alcohol can make us warm, homey and communal. New research suggests this may be a camouflage for incipient dementia with recent evidence indicating that moderate drinking ‒ the consumption of just two alcoholic beverages daily or 11 to 16 standard drinks a week, for an extended period of time ‒ shrinks the hippocampus, the brain’s memory centre.
By damaging that part of the brain, scientists in Britain who followed the drinking habits of a large cohort of people from the ages of 40-70, found this pattern led to an increased dementia risk. For those who think that even light drinking (up to seven units a week) might be beneficial, this behaviour resulted in no tangible upside, while heavy drinking (more than 30 units a week) led to the most damage by not only destroying the hippocampus but also having destructive effects on brain ‘white matter’, the brain’s thinking and decision-making zone.
As we are a culture with a strong tradition of alcohol consumption, this message is likely to fall on deaf ears. This means we are heading for a cataclysmic future, which might not be that bad because when we get there, we might not have enough white matter to comprehend our predicament!
The question is how do we morph from a nation with clearly destructive overindulgent habits to one of abstainers?
There were times when scarcity mandated that we lived temperate lives. Now, in times of abundance, our future demands much more disciplined restraint.
Dr Michael Elstein is an author and physician at The Eternal Health Medical Centre specialising in anti-ageing medicine, nutrition and dietary therapy. Contact www.eternalhealth.org