While it’s common to hear how unhealthy foods can make us vulnerable to cancer, heart disease or diabetes, you don’t hear so much about the risk certain foods can pose to your brain. It’s a new field, but growing fast.
Nowadays, if you bother to look, you can learn a great deal about the brain damage inflicted by processed foods loaded with additives. Today, we’ll take a look at one of the most common additives – fructose – and how it can twist the behavior of the genes in brain cells. Recent studies paint a stark picture of how this type of sugar can doom your memory and your ability to think straight.
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Corn Sugar and Your DNA
The basic genetic blueprint that directs how brain and other body cells behave is found in your DNA – the genetic strands found in the nucleus of each cell.
Fructose – especially when eaten in large amounts, as many people do — brings on changes to how these genes function – changes that can make you more susceptible to problems like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. The most common form of fructose is a “Frankenfood” derived from corn. It’s in everything (or at least it seems that way).
Research at UCLA demonstrates exactly how fructose can alter genetic material and shift its molecular processes in ways that harm the structure and health of neurons, the cells that make up the brain and the rest of the nervous system.1
The study at UCLA started out with lab tests on animals that demonstrated that a diet high in fructose hinders learning skills. And when the researchers took a close look at what was happening to the genetic activity in the brain, the news was alarming.
The scientists sequenced more than 20,000 genes and discovered that in the brain’s hypothalamus, where the central metabolic control of the body takes place, fructose warps the function of more than 700 genes. In the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, a high-fructose diet can alter more than 200 genes.
Flipping Genes On and Off
The alterations lead to interference with metabolism and cell communication systems while increasing inflammation – changes linked to a wide range of neurological problems.
It turns out that fructose both removes and adds biochemical molecules to the chemical groups in DNA – additions and subtractions that turn some genes on while turning others off.
“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” warns researcher Fernando Gomez-Pinilla.
A Way to Offset the Harmful Changes
It’s some comfort to know the UCLA researchers also discovered a nutrient that can offset these harmful changes – DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil.
“DHA changes not just one or two genes; it seems to push the entire gene pattern back to normal, which is remarkable,” says Xia Yang, another UCLA researcher. “And we can see why it has such a powerful effect.”
The study also showed that DHA improves the structure of synapses in the brain and helps the neurons keep communicating efficiently.
Now, the UCLA scientists caution that fish oil is not a miracle food that can totally fix what fructose damages. They still think we should limit our fructose intake no matter how much fish we eat or fish oil supplements we consume.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for this news about fish oil and processed foods to reach the average supermarket shopper. There’s too much money being made selling packaged foods sweetened with fructose and other sugars. Cheaply available high fructose corn syrup is in everything from baby food to spaghetti sauce to soft drinks.
Maybe Losing Your Mind is Enough Motivation
Those sugary sweeteners are exacting a high price from our brains. And I hope it goes without saying they also contribute to obesity, diabetes, cancer and all the other so-called “diseases of aging.”
A doctor who’s a famous brain health expert once told me that most people don’t listen when you tell them to stop loading up on carbs because they need to lose weight or lower their blood sugar. The danger doesn’t motivate them. But they DO listen when you tell them the high-sugar diet is going to deprive them of their minds. I hope he’s right. . .