Is Sugar Making You Stupid? Omega-3 Fatty Acids Can MInimize the Damage

I’ve always been of the opinion that eating processed foods loaded with high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars is neither smart nor healthful, and now a new study takes that premise one step further — sugar may actually be making us “stupid”.

In the past decade the increased consumption of processed foods laden with high fructose corn syrup has led Americans to gain weight; a lot of weight. In fact, 2/3 of Americans are now overweight and 1/3 are genuinely obese. This trend threatens to erode the great cardiovascular strides we’ve enjoyed over the last 30 years. In preventive cardiology we are all preparing for the looming storm of heart attacks and strokes that will strike our young population. In addition to the sedentary life style that is plaguing our nation, the shift to high carbohydrate diets is largely to blame for widespread obesity and a wide range of other debilitating ailments and conditions.

A new UCLA study has found an additional problem associated with the intake of high fructose corn syrup — binging on soda and sweets for as little as six weeks may negatively impact one’s intelligence – in addition to expanding our waistline! The study is the first to show that a diet high in fructose slows the brain, impairing memory and learning. The study also found that consuming omega-3 fatty acids could effectively counteract the disruptive effects of the sugar. (No, that does not mean you should follow your cookies with a fish oil chaser! You need to avoid the sugar in the first place.)

While many studies have revealed how fructose harms the body through diabetes, obesity and fatty liver, the UCLA study is the first to reveal the sweetener’s negative influence on brain function. 

“Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think,” 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. “Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.”

The UCLA team focused on high-fructose corn syrup, the ubiquitous, inexpensive liquid sugar that is six times sweeter than cane sugar. Peruse the ingredients label of almost any processed food item in your local supermarket and you’ll find the words “high fructose corn syrup”.  It can be found in all manner of food items from baked goods and pasta sauce to breakfast cereals and baby food. The average American consumes more than 40 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” explained Gomez-Pinilla, who is also a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and Brain Injury Research Center. “We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.”

Gomez-Pinilla and the study’s co-author Rahul Agrawal, studied two groups of rats that were fed a fructose solution as drinking water for six weeks. The second group also received supplemental omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil, as well as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which protects 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.”

The animals were fed a diet of standard rat food and trained on a maze twice daily for five days before starting the experimental diet. The UCLA team tested the rat’s ability to navigate the maze, which contained several holes but only a single exit.

Following the six-week study the researchers tested the rats’ ability to recall the route and escape the maze. The findings were surprising.

“The second group of rats navigated the maze much faster than the rats that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids,” Gomez-Pinilla said. “The DHA-deprived animals were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier.”

The DHA-deprived rats also developed indications of a resistance to insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar and regulates synaptic function in the brain. A closer look at the rats’ brain tissue suggested that insulin had lost much of its power to influence the brain cells.

The study suggests that fructose is the agent behind the DHA-deficient rats’ brain dysfunction. Consuming too much fructose may block insulin’s ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar for the energy required for processing thoughts and emotions.

“Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. This is something new.”

Gomez-Pinilla advises people to exercise regularly and keep fructose intake to a minimum. Replace sugary desserts with fresh berries and foods like Greek yogurt. To balance-out and reduce any remaining sugar intake Gomez-Pinilla suggests you eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds and green leafy vegetables, while taking a daily omega-3 supplement high in DHA.

“Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects,” said Gomez-Pinilla. “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.”

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke funded the UCLA study. Gomez-Pinilla’s lab will next examine the role of diet in recovery from brain trauma. The peer-reviewed Journal of Physiology is publishing the study’s findings in its next edition.


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One Comment

  1. Niko Holmen May 27, 2012 at 3:11 am #

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