A high-sugar diet is bitter news for your brain

Eating a high-fructose diet alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information. Thankfully, omega-3 fatty acids can save you

close up of sugar cubes
Sugar is bad for your brain

You already know that sugar is not your body's best friend. It is detrimental for your health on many levels. But a recent study has found that it also affects your cognitive abilities. A University of California, Los Angeles study shows that a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning.

"Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information," said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science.

The UCLA team zeroed in on high-fructose corn syrup, an inexpensive liquid six times sweeter than cane sugar, that is commonly added to processed foods, including soft drinks, condiments, applesauce and baby food. However, the researchers point out that fructose present in fruits is not guilty of hampering the brain as fruits also have antioxidants.

"We're concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative," explained Gomez-Pinilla, who is also a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute and Brain Injury Research Center.

Eating too much fructose could block insulin's ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar for the energy required for processing thoughts and emotions. The hormone insulin doesn't just control blood sugar but also regulates synaptic function in the brain. The researchers suspect that fructose leads insulin to lose much of its power to influence the brain cells.

"Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. Because insulin can penetrate the blood–brain barrier, the hormone may signal neurons to trigger reactions that disrupt learning and cause memory loss," Gomez-Pinilla said.

Thankfully, consuming omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA], can counteract the disruption and protect against damage to the synapses — the chemical connections between brain cells that enable memory and learning.

"DHA is essential for synaptic function — brain cells' ability to transmit signals to one another," Gomez-Pinilla said. "This is the mechanism that makes learning and memory possible. Our bodies can't produce enough DHA, so it must be supplemented through our diet."

A brain that is used to high-fructose diet with no DHA to counter it, shows decline in synaptic activity.The brain cells have trouble signaling each other, disrupting one's ability to think clearly and recall what one has learnt as recently as six weeks back

DHA-deprivation also leads to insulin resistance.

Gomez-Pinilla advises people to keep fructose intake to a minimum and swap sugary desserts for fresh berries and Greek yogurt. An occasional bar of dark chocolate that hasn't been processed with a lot of extra sweetener is fine too.

So if you can't resist foods that are high in artificial fructose, make to also eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds, or take a daily DHA capsule. Gomez-Pinilla recommends one gram of DHA per day. "It's like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases," said Gomez-Pinilla.

The findings are published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Physiology .
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