Poor diet has become increasingly recognized as a precursor to poor health, including diabetes and brain diseases, and the health issues are often intertwined. For example, diabetes increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the suggestions for maintaining heart health are very close to those given to maintain brain health.
HealthCentral conducted an email interview with Dr. John Douillard, DC, CAP, to discuss the ways that diet may influence the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease in particular, but related diseases, as well.
Dr. Douillard is the creator of LifeSpa.com, the leading Ayurveda health and wellness resource on the internet. He is also the former Director of Player Development and nutrition counselor for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets.
In light of his credentials, it’s perhaps not surprising that brain health and diabetes are high on the list of Dr. Douillard’s concerns – and that excess sugar in any form is one of his targets.
HealthCentral: Dr. Douillard, what do you feel is the biggest threat to brain health at this time?
Dr. John Douillard: There is no doubt that the consumption of excess sugar in all its hidden shapes and forms is linked to compromised brain health, memory and cognition. In one study, excess consumption of sugar, even without type 2 diabetes, resulted in poor cognitive function, memory and brain health. Excess sugar in the brain can glycate, or clump together with proteins, and glycation can be linked to plaque buildup and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Sugar has many names and faces. All processed foods have a higher glycemic index than whole foods and thus deliver the damaging effects of sugar on the brain. Natural sweeteners found in juice, health bars, dried fruit, energy drinks and other even healthy snack foods are loaded with concentrated forms of natural sugars which can also overwhelm the chemistry with sugar.
HC: What would be your top three suggestions for people to overcome this threat?
Dr. Douillard: My top three suggestions would be:
- Avoid foods with added sweeteners, sugars, artificial sugars and fruit concentrates.
- Demand whole foods! Avoid refined and processed foods that have a higher glycemic index than whole food versions of the same foods, as refined and processed foods can lead to increased oxidation and glycation in the brain.
- Read labels and avoid packaged foods with cooked vegetable oils of any kind. These are used to extend the shelf life. Vegetable oils are highly unstable, and must be highly processed to be used as preservatives, which has been the hallmark of the processed food industry for 60 years. These oils are used as preservatives because bacteria won’t eat them. If the good microbes won’t eat these oils, should we?
HC: Since heart health and brain health are closely related, if someone is working toward vascular health, should this suffice for brain health?
Dr. Douillard: Yes. Two shocking 25-year Harvard studies have been published in the last month linking brain and heart health. One study had 110,000 people and another with almost 200,000 people.
They found that the folks who ate the least amount of gluten over this 25-year period had a significantly higher risk of type 2 diabetes which is linked directly to brain health.
In the other study, those who ate the least amount of gluten have a significantly higher incidence of heart disease compared to those eating the most whole grains—not refined or processed grains. Dr. Douillard notes in his article that people should not dramatically reduce their intake of gluten unless you have celiac disease because, as he says, it raises the risk to diabetes.
Once again we see that whole foods, and in this case whole vs. refined wheat, had a powerful reversal on heart and blood sugar health.
HC: What would you suggest that people who have a genetic predisposition toward Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia do, above and beyond normal healthy living?
Dr. Douillard: There is no doubt that we must stop consuming a diet of refined, processed and sugar laden foods. In one study with whole grains and whole wheat using the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet – which has between two and three servings of whole grains and/or whole wheat daily – saw a reduction of Alzheimer’s risk by 53 and 54 percent respectively.
HC: Do you suggest any prescriptions, herbs, or over-the-counter drugs to people who are concerned about brain health?
Dr. Douillard: There is a new class of herbs called brain derived neurotropic factors (BDNFs) that have been shown to stimulate the production of new brain cells. So far, turmeric, bacopa, fish oils and ashwagandha have been shown to have BDNF properties. The NIH has done a lot of research on turmeric.
HC: What do you think would best motivate people to take action that could preserve their brain health?
Dr. Douillard: Understanding that our brain chemistry is delicate and that “we are what we eat” should help motivate us all. That said, today the gluten-free industry - with grocery stores are now full of gluten free products and the diets becoming a fad for all kinds of reasons - has reached $16 billion a year and is no doubt influencing the decisions we make in the grocery store.
Sadly, what the GF industry is selling is highly processed, hidden sugar-laden foods that have compromised our brain health in the first place. Finally, do not forget about regular exercise and meditation for protecting the brain for years to come.
HC: Thank you, Dr. Douillard. You’ve given us a lot to think about. It seems that by making these positive changes in our diets we can lower our risk of several challenging and possibly lethal diseases. We appreciate your insights.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.