Your brain is the hungriest organ you possess and it is very sensitive to both environmental toxins and to what you eat every day. It is obviously easier to control what you eat than to change the environmental toxins that we are all exposed to, over which we have very little control. Although there are more toxic foods than the four discussed below, these are the ones that we need to be very aware of, because they are prevalent in many foods, and they are easily avoided.Trans fats (and other as yet un-researched toxic fats)
Trans fats (and other as yet un-researched toxic fats)
As 60% of your brain is made up of fat, it is important to know what types of fats your brain prefers. Trans fats are not the right fats. They are in fact very damaged fats, which cause havoc in our brains (and bodies) because they are not capable of functioning effectively in our cells. Trans fats are "confused" molecules because one side of them works well, while the other side can’t work.
This means that trans fats are very bad "gatekeepers" in the cell membrane, allowing substances into the cell that it shouldn’t be allowed in and stopping nutrients from coming into the cell. They also make the cell membrane hard and inflexible.
In addition, the body breaks trans fats down more slowly than it breaks down other, natural fats. Trans fats also stop the natural flow of energy between molecules and cells. Trans fats raise LDL levels and lower HDL levels – exactly the opposite of what we want!
Trans fats, therefore, stop brain cells from communicating effectively with each other. They are involved in a significantly increased risk of heart disease, which is a precursor for cognitive decline and they are believed to be involved in the onset of type 2 diabetes, which is also a precursor of dementia. There are researchers who believe that trans fats are also partly responsible for the obesity epidemic, with obesity also being a possible precursor to mental decline.
You find trans fats in …
- Spreads – margarines and fake butters
- Fast foods, including pastries, pies, sausage rolls, cakes, and scones
- Packaged foods, including muesli, granola bars and protein bars
- Chips and crackers
- Frozen foods
- Baked foods
- Breakfast cereals
- Toppings e.g., creams in cans
- Dips and salad dressings
- Cookies, candies/lollies
Unfortunately, trans fats are not the only kind of damaged fats that you will find in these kinds of foods. There are other, as yet un-researched fats, that some researchers believe may be even more damaging to our health than trans fats. They are cross-linked molecules in triglycerides, cross-linked molecules across triglycerides, double-bond shifted molecules, polymerized molecules, dimerized molecules, trimerized molecules and cyclized molecules.
Concentrated forms of sugar
Although the brain uses glucose (which is the breakdown of carbohydrates and sugar) for energy, too much eaten at once, or in your diet generally, can be problematic for your brain. The pancreas secretes insulin, which helps get glucose into your cells, where it provides energy. At each meal the pancreas knows how much insulin to supply, even before digestion and absorption have occurred.
Unfortunately, this reaction can happen very quickly if there is too much refined or processed carbohydrates and sugar in the meal. This will cause the pancreas to produce a lot of insulin very quickly. The glucose is then shunted into cells and the liver (for storage) all to protect the brain from glucose, or sugar overload. Eventually, the pancreas gets tired of doing this, meal after meal, day in and day out. This is one of the reasons type 2 diabetes is such an epidemic.
Concentrated forms of sugar (CFOS), which are found in lollies/candy and soda drinks are therefore not the ideal sources of glucose for your brain because they give a big spurt of energy followed by a big letdown a short while later. Research has clearly shown that people with a disturbed insulin response, such as in type 2 diabetes, are more prone to cognitive decline with age.
Unfortunately, the stress response can also get involved in blood glucose ups and downs, because when blood glucose drops too low, the adrenal glands are stimulated to produce cortisol, which stimulates glucose release from the liver, to keep the brain fuelled. This leads to mood swings and memory challenges. In addition, being hungry will also lead to adrenalin release, as hunger is a stress for the body.
Today, the average American consumes 64 kg of sugar per year – i.e. ¾ cup per day – of which 66% comes from camouflaged sugar in processed "non-foods." It would be difficult to leave the consumption of soft drinks out of the discussion, which on average, contain about 9 teaspoons of sugar per 330ml can.
Australians are on average consuming 113 litres of soft drinks per person per year. That’s about 340 cans per person, per year.
You find sugar in …
- Lollies or candy
- Sodas, energy drinks and fruit juices
- Sauces, both sweet and savoury
- Jam, syrup and other sweetened spreads
- Cookies, doughnuts, and other baked goods, as well as crackers
- Granola, muesli, protein and energy bars
- Breakfast cereals
- Ice creams, frozen desserts, sorbets and frozen yoghurts
- Dairy products
Researchers believe that the epidemic of processed foods being consumed today overload the brain (and body) with too much sugar, and the brain is suffering from high and low blood glucose surges as a results.
Processed and smoked meats
Processed meats, whether cured meats, like bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs or cold cuts, are conveniently prepared, sliced and preserved meat products. They are by no means fresh and contain a number of troublesome additives, like preservatives, dyes, excess salt and even sugar.
A special type of preservative called sodium nitrite has been used for many years as a very convenient additive. It is both a preservative and a colorant. When foods that contain nitrites are heated, these compounds change into nitrosamines, which have been linked to various forms of cancer, including brain tumours, in both adults and children. They are also linked to insulin resistance. Nitrites also convert into nitrosamines in the digestive tract, in the absence of antioxidants.
Nitrates, on the other hand, found naturally in the food supply, such as in fresh produce, convert into small quantities of nitrites in the body when we eat, for example, vegetables. Researchers believe that the added vitamins and minerals that come in fresh produce stop them from being dangerous to our health.
Nitrates are also used in fertilizers and as preservatives and colour enhancers in processed meats, along with nitrites. Processed meats contain, on average four times as much salt as unprocessed meat and up to 50% more nitrites. Even processed meat that is labelled natural, may contain hidden nitrites.
Furthermore, research has shown that mothers that eat cured meat, containing nitrosamines, especially hot dogs and sausages, are at greater risk of producing children that are at risk for brain tumours. Interestingly, this was known nearly 50 years ago, when researchers showed that more than 100 nitrosamines are carcinogenic, and no animal species, including the monkey, proved to be resistant to nitrosamine carcinogenesis – in fact, cancers were shown to be found in virtually every organ of the body, by one or other of the nitrosamines. And they still form part of the processed foods that people eat every day.
Meat contains about fourteen times more pesticides than plant foods, and dairy products have five and a half times more. Animal-origin foods have greatly concentrated amounts of chemicals in them, simply because they are at the top of the food chain.
Pesticides, found in animal products, accumulate in the animal's fat, and when you eat them, they find their way into your body (and brain) also becoming lodged in fatty tissues. Choosing organic animal products and nuts and seeds, means less pesticides and chemicals to place a toxic load on your body and brain. Pesticides have been directly linked to Parkinson’s disease, so avoiding them is a wise choice. Furthermore, antibiotics and hormones are also present in conventional animal products, with possible negative effects for your brain.
Excessive amounts of alcohol …
The effects of excess alcohol consumption are very obvious on your behaviour and physical coordination. This is an indication that its effects on your brain are very direct, and although the effects on your body are also profound, they are not as easily observed.
Your brain's frontal lobes, or neocortex, are responsible for abstract thinking, such as planning, problem solving, imagination, and reasoning, as well as mature emotion. Severe cognitive difficulties result from damage to this area, which occurs with excess alcohol consumption.
When excess alcohol is consumed, brain injury can be the result, because it has a direct toxic effect on your central nervous system. This will ultimately influence coordination, planning, problem solving memory, perception, thinking and organization. Excess alcohol consumption also causes dehydration, which can lead to neuronal damage
Consuming excess quantities of alcohol is very damaging to the brain, not only directly, but also because it leaches nutrients which are required for optimal brain function out of the body, in an attempt at detoxification. The absorption of vitamin B1 is interfered with, which is an important brain nutrient, and Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the name of the disorder caused by the severe deficiency of vitamin B1. Ataxia, confusion and vision problems are some of the symptoms that result from this syndrome. Excessive alcohol intake will also interfere with B12 absorption, a critical nutrient for optimal brain function too.
Alcohol related liver disease occurs from excess alcohol consumption. The liver becomes damaged because it can’t manage the detoxification process indefinitely, eventually causing hepatic encephalopathy. This results in severe psychiatric symptoms, such as severe mood changes, hallucinations and confusion.
Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome is involved with short-term memory loss, such as when the drunken person can’t remember how they got home, but fabricates a story, to fill in these memory gaps, and end up believing their own fabricated story.
Peripheral neuropathy is another disorder linked to excess alcohol consumption over a period of time, generally years, when the person's extremities, such as toes and fingers are affected by pain, pins and needles or numbness.
Alcohol also interferes with the production of melatonin, by lowering its rate of production, which will hamper deep, restful sleep. This will impact cognitive functioning in the long term. And although you may reach for a glass of wine, thinking it’s going to relax you, it may – if it’s only one. Excessive alcohol acts as a diuretic, which makes the body lose water, and this state of dehydration leaves the body in a state of stress, which leads to elevated cortisol levels. This is damaging to good, sound sleep, and optimal brain function, as cortisol kills brain cells when it is produced in excess for long periods of time.
The effects of excess alcohol consumption also influence metabolic processes, blood supply, and heart functioning, which all affect brain function. When people consume excess alcohol, they generally neglect their nutrition, which then leads to brain malnourishment.
Obviously, people who are suspected of suffering from Alcohol Related Brain Injury (ARBI) need to be assessed by a neurologist and are forced to live very simple lives, with basic routines. They will never recover and so their lives are forever limited, as well as the lives of the people that have to help them cope with life’s demands.
Alcohol, whether in excess or not, also causes dehydration, which can lead to neuronal damage.
An important note about water, which people eating unhealthy diets are generally deficient in too, is that even mild dehydration causes the dysfunction of important brain processes, such as alertness, concentration, memory and learning. The brain suffers not just from a lack of water, but also from the oxygen and nutrients that can’t reach the brain when there is a lack of water to transport them there. In addition, electrical impulses, which your brain runs on, among other things, rely on water too. Headaches, fatigue and even hallucinations can be the result of a lack of water in the brain, and by default, in the body too.
Now you have a good idea of what to avoid if you want to protect and maybe even heal your brain. Although prevention is always better than cure, there is some evidence to indicate that avoiding these four types of brain toxins will help your brain function more effectively, and may even help you to regain some cognitive ground if you add the best foods for brain health too.
Elbaz A, Clavel J, Rathouz P, Moisan F, Galanaud J, Delemotte B, Alpérovitch A, Tzourio C. Professional exposure to pesticides and Parkinson’s disease. Ann Neurol 2009 Oct; 66(4).
Kummerow FA. The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Atherosclerosis 2009 Aug; 205(2).
Langlais PJ. Alcohol-related thiamine deficiency – impact of cognitive and memory function. Alcohol, Health & Research World 1995; 19(2).
Murray S, et al. Chewing the fat on trans fats. CMAJ 2005; 173(10): 1158-1159.
Peters R, et al. Alcohol, dementia and cognitive decline in the elderly: a systematic review. Age Ageing 2008 Sep; 37(5).
Steen E, et al. Impaired insulin and insulin-like growth factor expression and signalling mechanisms in Alzheimer’s disease – is this type 3 diabetes?. J Alzheimer’s Dis 2005 Feb; 7(1).
www.stop-trans-fats.com (accessed 4 April 2010).