Alzheimer’s is perhaps one of the scariest and most mysterious diseases. Anyone is susceptible and there is still no cure. The good news is that we are coming closer to identifying the causes, which means that we may be able to take preventative measures. Two new studies make the argument that warding off Alzheimer’s and dementia could be as elementary as eating less sugar and getting more sleep.
Typically, people over the age of 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s although it is not simply a symptom of aging. What we do know is that Alzheimer’s is caused by a combination of two factors:
- Nerve cells developing tangles
- Protein deposits known as beta-amyloid build up in the brain
The real mystery is why this whole process happens in the first place. Some researchers have pointed to certain proteins that naturally occur in the body. One well known theory postulates that aluminum in cookware and other daily use items, like deodorant, causes the deterioration associated with Alzheimer’s. Over the years, certain levels of zinc have also been blamed for the build-up of harmful plaque. Yet ultimately, these theories have yet to be proven to any degree of certainty.
Your Brain on Grains
While previous research has focused on the role of environmental factors like the absorption of certain chemicals and metal particles, recent studies have concluded that the cause of Alzheimer’s is directly linked to our lifestyle choices. According to David Perlmutter, neurologist and author the recently released Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killer, “The origin of brain disease is in many cases predominantly dietary.”[i]
Perlmutter makes the case that the link between gluten rich foods, high blood sugar and degenerative brain diseases has been well documented among the medical community for years. His book is simply one of the first attempts to make this information available to a wider audience.
The science behind this theory can get a little complicated, so without getting too bogged down in medical terminology, the basic idea is that gluten and high blood sugar combine to cause a reaction known as glycation. During this process cells and tissues can become tangled and lead to inflexible and damaging structures in your body and your brain. While glycation is a natural bodily function, when it becomes exacerbated by excessive amounts of gluten and high blood sugar levels, it can cause inflammation and wreak havoc on your brain.
Perlmutter supports his theory by drawing a correlation between the evolution of the human diet and the increasing rate of Alzheimer’s cases. Early humans ate a diet that consisted of 75% fat, 5% carbs, and 20%. The prevalence of processed foods and low-fat diet fads have significantly shifted those numbers so that today most Americans consume a diet that is 60% carbs, 20% fat, and 20% protein. Those added carbs translate into high blood sugar and excessive amounts of gluten in our systems. The result of this harmful combination can be seen in the exponential increase in rates of Alzheimer’s cases over the past few decades. As of 2013, it is estimated that “1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s of another dementia.”[ii] As of 2010, approximately 4.7 million people have Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to reach 13.8 million by 2050.[iii]
In order to further test the relationship between grains and the brain, scientists put test patients on diet high in fat. The results showed that those who ate the diet with the highest percentage of fat were 42% less likely to suffer from degenerative brain diseases, adding further credence to Perlmutter’s theory.
But What about Whole Grains and “Good” Carbs?
At this point, you might be asking, what about so-called good carbs? Unfortunately, if you have diligently been replacing your white bread and pasta with whole grain alternatives, you still aren’t doing much good when it comes to your brain health. Although whole grains will not cause the same spike in blood sugar that is characteristic of refined sugars, the real problem is one of percentages. Optimizing brain health means drastically reducing the amount of carbs you consume and getting the majority of your calories from fat. No more bagels or cereal for breakfast, whole wheat or not. Carbohydrates that have become staples of our diet will have to be replaced with vegetables and healthy fats.
Critics of Perlmutter’s book generally agree with his conclusions that gluten and high blood sugar are having a negative effect on our brain health, but they are wary of supporting his dietary recommendations for fear that it represents just another fear-mongering, fad diet. Dr. Julie Miller Jones, professor emeritus of foods and nutrition at St. Catherine University argues that other diets, like the Mediterranean diet, has also been shown to decrease the risk of dementia. She goes on to say that Perlmutter’s recommendations result in an unbalanced diet that simply isn’t sustainable. Ultimately, she says that “following dietary guidelines and getting adequate exercise are the best ways to eat to protect your brain.”
But Doesn’t Fat Cause Heart Disease?
Well, maybe not. More and more scientists are reaching the conclusion that cholesterol is actually essential to healthy brain function and that heart disease is more likely a result of high blood sugar. Consider the fact that “statins, which are prescribed to lower cholesterol, have been linked to problems with cognitive brain function.”[iv] Low levels of cholesterol can also be associated with aggressive behavior and an increased risk of suicide.
The truth is that fat and cholesterol are essential components that allow the brain to form new connections and synapses. Reducing your body’s cholesterol levels may actually negatively affect your brain health without decreasing your risk of heart disease.
Is There a Third Type of Diabetes?
At this point, the link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s is so strong that some doctors have even gone so far as to suggest that the two diseases are essentially one in the same, dubbing Alzheimer’s the third type of diabetes.[v] Unfortunately, if you suffer from high blood sugar levels associated with type two diabetes, you are practically guaranteed to have problems with heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
It is easy to have a knee jerk reaction to dismiss “new findings” that contradict what we have come to regard as medical facts. And while you may want to do some more of your own research before you drastically change your diet based on Perlmutter’s best-selling book, there is no denying the strong connections between high blood sugar, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. In fact, Alzheimer’s patients who switched to a diet high in fat have seen significant improvements in memory and cognition!
While completely eliminating gluten from your diet and limiting your carbohydrate intake to 50 grams a day may not be a feasible solution for you, based on the overwhelming evidence concerning sugar and poor health, anything you can do to reduce the amount of carbohydrates you ingest will be a step in the right direction.
How Sleep Affects Your Brain
In a previous post, I took a look at another recent study that claims that sleep is another vital component to maintaining brain health and fighting degenerative brain disease. Be sure to read “Sleep is the Brain’s Natural Cleanser” to learn more about how plaque buildup in the brain may be exacerbated by inadequate sleep and how simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference.