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Does Sugar Cause Mental Illness?

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A new study has found a clear link between high sugar intake and Alzheimer's risk. Find out more below:

Even though today’s medical industry is better than ever, with a solution to nearly every medical issue and health problem, Americans still continue to die off at an alarming rate.

According to the CDC, one in every three deaths each year is related to heart disease, a fully preventable disease. 10 percent of the population suffers from type 2 diabetes, another preventable disease.

And as of 2013, 5.2 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which some health researchers believe may also be preventable. One in three elderly persons who die also suffer from a dementia-related disease.

A 2015 report from CNN found that by 2015, the number of elderly persons with Alzheimer’s or dementia is expected to triple. That means up to 15 million people will be diagnosed with the disease by 2015. So, what is causing the massive amounts of disease and death in the United States?

Shouldn’t fewer people be dying of deadly and preventable diseases each year, rather than more? What is causing the rates of these diseases to skyrocket? According to new research, it just might be too much sugar.

Is Alzheimer’s Preventable?

According to some researchers, Alzheimer’s is not preventable. For a while, there was some evidence that suggested that too much exposure to aluminum could influence a person’s chances of getting Alzheimer’s, but recent research has suggested that the issue is far more complicated than that. Researchers still do not understand precisely what causes Alzheimer’s to develop, but according to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, lifestyle changes in relation to Alzheimer’s and other cognitive processing disorders, “look more promising than the drug studies so far.”

So far, researchers have employed the use of robots, blood tests, and eye scans to help identify Alzheimer’s risk before the damage has gone too far. Until these methods are perfected (and even when they are), you can do your part to minimize your risk by making small, healthy lifestyle changes.

How Sugar Affects Alzheimer’s Risk

Since the rate of people with Alzheimer’s disease is rising, clearly there is some correlation to the increase in disease and the modern lifestyle. It is difficult to find the exact cause, as multiple factors are likely behind the increase, but recent studies have indicated that a diet high in sugar may be one large contributing factor.

According to a 2015 study published in JAMA Neurology, the combination of low-fat (from healthy sources) and high-sugar in the diet is a major contributing factor for Alzheimer’s risk. As part of the normal healing response, your body creates brain-specific insulin that protects it from the damaging effects of sugar. However, over time, just like in the rest of your body, your brain can become insulin-resistant. When this happens, your brain and memory cease to function at optimal levels. The longer this continues, the more brain damage will occur.

In this particular study, the researchers examined 150 seniors who were at-risk for Alzheimer’s disease but did not have any symptoms. Using brain scans, the researchers found that insulin resistance led to a lack of energy reaching brain cells, contributing to memory loss. In short, too much sugar causes and over-active brain response that starves memory sectors of the brain. Less brain sugar equals a less active brain, which equals mental decline.

Blood Sugar Spikes Increase Alzheimer’s Risk

According to a study from 2013 published in the New England Journal of Medicine, blood sugar spikes can be an indicator of later dementia risk. According to the study authors, any elevation to between 105 and 110 can increase a person’s risk for memory problems. Ideally, resting blood sugar levels should be about 75 to 85, and anything higher than that can indicate a risk for both diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

How to Reduce Your Risk

If you are addicted to sugar, you may be pretty worried about your mental health and memory. Luckily, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing memory problems if you employ these strategies suggested by the Alzheimer’s Association:

Eat Less Sugar

The easiest (and possibly the hardest) suggestion on this list is to eat less sugar. It is a paradox, but even though your brain needs sugar to operate, too much sugar kills it rapidly. The ideal balance is to eat natural sugars from fruits and vegetables and your body will take care of the rest. If sugar consumption is reduced enough, the body will turn to converting fat into glucose.

This is generally healthy if you are continuing to consume enough healthy fats and sugars from natural sources. It is bad if you neglect to feed your body at all, which will soon cause problems throughout your entire body. So eat less sugar, but continue to give your body energy from nutritious food.

Sleep Well

According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, sleep apnea is directly tied to an increased risk for developing early memory issues and mild cognitive impairment, which makes it more likely you will get Alzheimer's. Another study cited by the Foundation stated that individuals with sleep apnea have higher levels of amyloid proteins which are commonly high in Alzheimer’s patients.

Use Your Noodle

Using your brain often is just like exercise- it can protect your brain from further damage. Thinking activities like chess, music lessons, crossword puzzles, and even video games can help keep the brain active and your memory sharp. A study from Sweden found that children who received better grades in school were less likely to have memory problems later in life. Other lifestyle choices that reduced risk was a job with numbers, teaching, or researching.

Avoid Stress

Stress can be a trigger for deteriorating brain matter. Stress may also lead to depression, which can increase the risk of cognitive decline. Activities like prolonged anxiety or replaying traumatic events causes the brain to suffer longer. The Alzheimer’s Foundation reports that seniors who have poor coping skills for stress and anxiety are more likely to have cognitive impairment.

Keep Active

Movement benefits all areas of the body, but it also directly affects brain health. Exercise boosts helpful chemical levels in the brain and also increases blood flow to the brain. The Foundation reports that adults who are least active during their young adult years are more likely to have memory problems later in life.

What to Eat to Protect Memory

Eat these foods to ensure you protect your brain from unnecessary damage.

Healthy Fats: Healthy fats are necessary to keep the brain healthy. Without fat, the brain cannot function at optimal levels. There is a reason why the body often craves sugar and fats to eat- they are the easiest and best fuel. The trouble comes in when the diet is excessively high in these substances.

Healthy Fats to Eat
  • Avocado
  • Omega-3 fats
  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Raw dairy
  • Butter
  • Nuts (in their natural state)

Vegetables and Fruit: Eat as many vegetables as you possibly can stand, and eat fruit in moderation. If you are watching your blood sugar, you need to keep a close eye on fruit consumption as even natural fruit can cause blood sugar levels to spike too high. If you do not have problems with blood sugar, feel free to eat a small amount of fruit with every meal as long as you also eat a lot of vegetables.

Balance Nutrient Intake

Certain nutrients are essential for brain health. Some of the most important minerals for brain health include calcium, zinc, magnesium, potassium, manganese, and phosphorous. Other memory-boosting nutrients also include vitamin B12, vitamin B1, iodine, and choline.

If you are not eating foods rich in these nutrients, consider supplementing with them to ensure you are reducing your risk of memory loss as much as possible.

Avoid Memory Blockers

Too many carbs, simple sugars, and bad fats are unhealthy and will eventually cause your memory to fade. Although a bad diet isn’t entirely responsible for Alzheimer’s risk, you are not helping your brain at all by feeding it materials it cannot use. As long as you avoid unhealthy fats (mainly trans fats and large quantities of vegetable oils) and eat no more than 6-9 teaspoons of sugar a day (it sounds like a lot but with so much sugar added to foods you can reach this amount before breakfast is over), then you will be a lot further along in protecting your health. If you are sensitive to gluten, you may also want to reduce gluten intake. Grain products should be seen as a side item and should be the smallest thing you eat at meals.

Sugar Can Damage Your Brain

It is a slow process, but the more sugar you eat the more damage you do in your brain. The trouble with diseases like Alzheimer’s is that once memory loss sets in, it is nearly impossible (with current knowledge and treatment) to reverse the damage. That is why early intervention is so important for dementia and memory diseases. The link between sugar and dementia suggests that by reducing sugar intake, you are actively working to protect your mental health as you age. So, before you reach for that next donut, consider this: is it worth the lifelong damage it could be doing to your memory? In all but a few cases, the answer will probably be “no.”





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