SAVING DAD’S BRAIN (PT 3)
SUGAR & ITS DISCONTENTS
ad was terrified of going the same way he’d watched his own mother go.
Grandma had all her teeth pulled in her mid-thirties. She’d suffered all her life from a terrible sweet tooth and had grown tired of all the dental maintenance.
Grandma also lost all of her once-brilliant mind by the time she was in her mid-eighties. She didn’t recognize her own children. She’d escape the convalescent home where she was living and go wandering around the small city where she lived until one of the local cops recognized her and brought her home.
Dad was very worried about following in her footsteps. But not so worried that he was ready to give up his one last guilty pleasure: ice cream.
Which was too bad. Because high sugar and fat foods, as good as they taste, are one of the worst combinations possible if one wants to maintain one’s brain. If we want to lose our minds at a relatively young age, eat ice cream frequently. Several simultaneous dynamics explain this:
- Sugar feeds the worst elements of the microbial community that thrives in our guts: fungi and gram-negative bacteria. Fat picks up highly inflammatory microbial debris from these critters when they die (Lipopolysaccharides or LPS) and carries it though the gut wall. And these microbes are constantly dying with new ones being born, just like all the rest of us.
- Sugar raises insulin levels and that insulin drives all that fat into our cells. This is a very efficient way to put on weight. And those fat cells then turn around and start secreting even more pro-inflammatory chemical messengers, called cytokines.)
- All that sugar also combines chemically (glycates) with proteins and fats. Not only does this impair the function of whichever cells are so corroded but the immune system also notices this and starts generating the oxidative stress (inflammation when there’s enough of it) immunity uses to attack and destroy anything it perceives to be an enemy.
So you can imagine the gyrations my gut would go through when I’d walk into Dad’s assisted living dining room toward the end of dinner to be treated to the vision of dozens of drugged-out seniors being treated to … ice cream.
Eventually God granted me the serenity to accept what I could not change.
Thanks for the overtime, Boss.
Sugar had nearly been my own downfall.
This is a frequent early challenge common to autistics. Part of the neuroendocrine dynamic driving the syndrome appears to be an unhealthy microbiome with too many of the wrong kinds of fungi and bacteria sending signals to the brain that make autistics crave the foods that keep those disease-driving microbes fed.
Like many of us who need to be dragged kicking and screaming away from our food addictions, I’d been a miserable kid. But in my early twenties I’d been struck by a bolt-from-the-blue. A co-worker at a funky dead-end job had noticed me making beelines to the vending machines every hour or so. She asked me if I’d ever heard of hypoglycemia. I hadn’t.
It would be a few more years before I fully understood the incredibly destructive effect rollercoaster blood sugar levels had had on me and how easy it actually is to cure a sweet tooth. I could look back and clearly see just how close sugar had come to doing me in.
Getting off it was really the beginning of my life.
Sugar is one of the most addictive substances known to man. It’s right up there with nicotine, heroin and cocaine. And for much the same reason.
When blood sugar levels rise they trigger a dopamine surge.
The faster they rise and the higher they go, the more dopamine.
Dopamine rewards us. It motivates us and makes us feel great. What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you? Now sit for a moment with that feeling.
Dopamine rewires our brains to repeat whatever gave us a dopamine surge. That’s one of the reasons sugar tastes so good.
Sugar floods the bloodsteam when stress hormones mobilize our metabolism to outfight, outrun or outwit our enemies. So stress itself can become addictive (as wearing as that can be.) Some folks just love chasing thrills and others seem to love creating endless drama and chaos around themselves.
That’s a form of Attention-Deficit-Disorder (ADD and ADHD, which can’t pay attention or sit still.) Some research suggests that sugar is one of the things that creates ADHD when it overloads dopamine receptors and forces them to shut down to prevent being overstimulated. But then it takes even more stimulation to feel the pleasure dopamine brings. Any lover who’s fallen so hard and fast for someone that they drive the other away with excessive demands for attention has lived that one.
Love creates dopamine. When it flares too fast we can burn through it quickly.
This is also how we can fall in love with and end up addicted to foods that inflame us. But the foods are more loyal. Or so it seems at first.
When allergic proteins or fragments penetrate through inflamed gut tissue into the bloodstream they encounter our innate immune system, the oldest part of our defense system.
Innate immune cells are designed to detect whatever’s not us and destroy it, but it sacrifices aim for speed. Innate cells respond immediately when they encounter something they think isn’t us. If they find enough of the invader they get all riled up, go into attack mode and word gets around that there’s an invader on the loose. Inflammation is the result.
The body decides this is an emergency. It releases stress hormones to raise blood sugar and dopamine. That’s why the foods that inflame us taste so good. It’s the same neuroendocrine payoff as jumping out of an airplane with a few pounds of fabric stapped to our backs. It’s why some of us like to keep our families, friends, coworkers and/or subordinates arguing.
Remember the unhealthy microbes sugar feeds? Fungi and gram-negative bacteria?
Just one of the ways those bad bugs force us to keep feeding them is to do a kind of kamikazee ritual of dying off after a few days or weeks. Microbes tend not to live very long anyways.
As they die soft clouds of microbial debris infiltrate inflamed and leaky guts as the microbes disintegate. Some of that debris is LPS (for LipoPolySaccharides, literally: “a fat stuck together with several sugars.”)
LPS makes it to the brain and stirs up innate immune cells there. They inflame and sometimes even start attacking our brain cells. That makes us moody, like we’re always on the verge of coming down with an emotional form of flu. Life becomes bleak. We stop communicating and trusting.
And of course, when we get lonely, frustrated or stressed … there’s always … ice cream!
In Dad’s assisted living world, they could have ice cream at lunch and at dinner.
The staff had learned that it kept the elders happy and sedated. Lots of ice-cream eating seniors at lunch meant lots of happy napping seniors in the afternoon.
They hadn’t yet learned to connect it with the disruptive behavior some of those same seniors would display a few hours later. Or to their cognitive declines and worsening memories.
Insulin turns sugar into fat. It drives fat cells. That’s one of the ways we gain weight.
Sugar turns into fat which turns into cholesterol and starts clogging our arteries when they get inflamed and pitted. (Inflammation after all is all about tearing things apart. If you can’t break it down … just poke holes in it.) Sugar creates low-density lipoproteins. This is LDL, the sticky stuff every cardiologist tells us we want to avoid.
Some of those arteries feed the brain. You see where we’re going here.
So ice cream is not only one of the most effective ways to gain weight but it’s also a great way to create one form of dementia. Clog the heart’s arteries with cholesterol and we get a heart attack. Clog the brain’s arteries and if a large enough artery becomes blocked we get a stroke. It’s far more common though for the small arteries to slowly become blocked. This starves the neurons those arteries feed of fuel while leaving them drowning in their own wastes.
We can lose memory. We can slowly lose our minds.
So the same chronic inflammation that can start with toxic exposures, leaky guts and allergic foods or chronic infections can reach into our arterial walls. Those walls stiffen and start to develop little holes and pits. And cholesterol is used to patch the pits.
The problems come when inflammation continues over long periods of time and plaques made from LDL, cholesterol and other repair molecules accumulate. Fat and sugar in combination do the job real well. They pack a one-two-three punch: not only do peaking levels of sugar and fat in the blood create inflammation, stiffening and pitting the inside of our arterial walls … the sugar also glycates those stiffening walls and attracts the attention of innate immunity, inflaming them further.
Cholesterol and stickly LDL and fibrin patches attempt a quick repair of the damage. At first this just creates turbulence in blood flow. If they keep growing eventually they can block blood flow altogether.
This doesn’t have to manifest as a catastrophic heart attack or stroke (although it certainly can.) Circulation degrades gradually over decades like an air filter that’s never replaced, gradually impairing whole brain regions. By the time things progress to a point where the symptoms can no longer be ignored we’ve officially lost our minds.
But the pathogenic fungi and bacteria in our guts are doing just fine.
It’s a nice little arrangement. The fluctuating blood sugar levels and inflammation ruin our moods and turns ice-cream time into the one time of day when we can reliably look forward to a little guilty pleasure.
Those seniors sure did look happy eating their ice cream.
When there’s too much noise coming in through the window, we close the window, right?
Cells do the same thing when there’s too much insulin trying to force its way into our insulin receptors for too long.
Insulin pushes sugar into cells and cells looove to run on blood sugar. So you know it’s been way too much of a good thing for too long when they start closing their doors to it.
Problem is, it’s much easier to close these metabolic doors to sugar than it is to pry them open again. We call this insulin resistance or, if it advances enough, diabetes.
When the problem is dopamine we call it addiction.
Just like even our best friend may hesitate a beat before picking up a call on the fifth or sixth day of our long-winded losing streak, so too dopamine (and other) receptors lose their sensitivity and shut their ears when we barrage them with stimulation.
So of course the signal responds by getting louder and becoming more demanding. We crave stronger stimulation to overcome the lack of sensitivity and achieve the same neuroendocrine pleasure payoff. More sugar, more fat, more conflict around us, more of whatever it is that we’ve learned to harness to drive our dopamine surges.
And it’s never enough. Not really.
Neuroendocrine systems that wire themselves this way just can’t stop.
Inflammation does that too. Sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, highly industrialized reactive foods … all the good stuff … pushes dopamine receptors into numbness and drives us to excess.
The body sees inflammation as an emergency. Stress hormones hit our circulation. They’re designed to help us run or fight or freeze for our lives but maybe instead we have to stay at our desks until five.
Unused, blood sugar spikes cycle instead into nervous tension. The early spike creates a dopamine surge. We can repeat our favorites drama scripts endlessly with others who we attract for the purpose. We can become addicted to it just like a cupcake, a hit, a beer.
Building Awareness never hurts.
A five-day food diary reveals much about how various foods affect our energy and mood. Rate each day 1-5 on mood and energy and keep a food log alongside it to catch any patterns.
Any food eaten all five days is immediately suspect as a pro-inflammatory, addictive food.
If one’s addicted to allergic or high sugar foods the best approach seems to be to take one or two baby steps each week away from some of the more obvious sources of unhealthy carbs and allergic foods. Each week or two those changes start to become habits and then it’s time for another baby step or two. Huge progress can be made relatively effortlessly over time if one goes at it this way.
Baby steps get us much farther than giant steps here.
Hidden sources of pro-inflammatory foods and ingredients abound. And then there’s all the obvious ones.
Obvious inflammation-firing foods: High-protein foods like beef or pork, dairy products, especially if not organic. Anything with refined or concentrated sugars. Grains, esp. finely ground flours. Alcohol.
Less obvious pro-inflammatory foods: anything craved and eaten every day. Any non-organic food with agricultural chemical residues. Artificial colors and flavors. Anything singed, browned or char-broiled. Hidden sugars and poisons.
One of the worst assaults on our detox systems is mounted by glyphosate (aka Roundup®.) Glyphosate’s very effective at killing weeds by, among other things, binding tightly with their minerals, starving their metabolic pathways and drying them out.
Mammals don’t posssess all the same endocrine pathways that plants do. Roundup interferes with a crucial pathway found in plants but not in mammals. That’s allowed chemical makers to argue that mammals aren’t harmed by the poisons that kill weeds in this way.
Two issues arise with this logic:
- Humans rely on the mineral content of their food for crucial catalysts and cofactors. If we succeed in engineering plants that can survive without high mineral content it’s nevertheless the case that those of us subsisting on such food would likely experience crucial trace mineral deficiencies,
- While humans may not possess the enzyme systems that glyphosate blocks it may be a very different story with the bacteria in our microbiomes. We rely on 4-5 pounds of friendly bacteria for all kinds of crucial nutrients and nutrient processing. We also rely on our microbiomes to regulate our immune system: inflammation itself.
Glyphosate may not harm human metabolisms directly. That doesn’t mean it’s not capable of harming us by altering our microbiomes in ways that keep us inflamed in a kind of metabolic neuro-endo-microbiomome three-point bankshot.
The worst offenders in this regard are thought to be soda pops and highly processed foods sweetened with non-organic corn syrup. Unless it’s clearly labeled organic it was likely grown with glyphosate.
Poisoned microbiome encourage all kinds of metabolic havoic.
Unhealthy bacteria and fungi taking over our guts means we might gain weight. Some will lose their energy and love of life Others get anxious.
And most of us develop cravings for the very foods that set all this in motion. Most of us indulge those cravings and call it fun.
(How can you tell if you’ve had an inflaming meal? Does it leave you energized? Or depleted? Are you on your feet? Are you on your back?)
Enlist a friend. Ask them to endure a slight tap on the same place on their upper arm every few seconds more or less indenitely. Or at least until they’ve had enough.
They’ll invariably report that after awhile even light taps that normally wouldn’t present a challenge become uncomfortable from the repetition. It’s pain by a thousand taps.
Something similar happens in the gut when we challenge it with foods that arouse its immune system. When it’s constantly aroused … as it is when constantly needing to struggle against a sick microbiome … we become chronically inflamed.
Gut immunity sets the tone for the body’s immunity. When we drive it too hard all the time … even if we’re not driving it too hard at any given moment in time … the cumulative insults add up to gut inflammation.
That spreads body-wide. That’s what needs to be addressed to heal anything at all … but especially the mind and memory.
In the end, Dad wouldn’t give up his ice cream. We did manage to swap out one of his fave dairy blends for a coconut milk one after some minor screaming and kicking.
The good news is that while ice cream continued to be one of the high points of his day all the other things we were doing to stabilize his brain function seemed to outweigh it slightly. They arrested his cognitive and memory decline so whatever damage was being done seemed as if it might also be being repaired.
Like in a much younger man.
And I should mention that by this time his wife had passed on and my sister had taken him to live with her on the east coast. I’m sure the love and pampering he’s receiving there has as much to do with his continued high quality of life as anything. Probably more.
We’re working on Part Four. Electro-acupuncture and some advanced nutrients. Stay tuned.