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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Gerontologist

Can You Really Give Up Sugar?

As we nested at home these last few months, and will continue to stick around the house for at least a while longer, I had a fresh look at my processed sugar consumption (white sugar, molasses, maple syrup, etc.) and helped clients answer the question, “Can you really give up sugar?”

Like many of us, it seems the longer I have stayed at home, the more inclined I become to add a little sweet treat to help me deal with being on an extended staycation. Not long ago, I reached a point where I was buying several extra-large brown butter chocolate chip cookies every few days. This was a very bad sign that I had fallen (again) down the white hole. Because sugar creates inflammation in our bodies, and because definitive research showing that along with inflammation, sugar brings on brain fog, I can only claim my brain was so foggy I couldn’t make good, healthy decisions regarding the chocolate chip cookies. That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. 😉

can you really give up sugar

For our short science lesson today let’s look at what sugar does to your body:

Inflammation

Years of consuming too much sugar cause the delicate mix of bacteria in our gut (remember the gut is our second brain) to become so imbalanced we lose all the protective qualities of the good bacteria that once lived there. For more on this, check out my article on the Gut-Brain Connection.  All that sugar we consume results in inflammation that zooms straight to our brains. This action causes not only the aforementioned brain fog, but actually kills brain cells. Our brains shrink. No kidding.

High Blood Sugar

Dr. Vera Novak, M.D., Ph.D. of The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute looked at how sugar affects the brain and found insulin resistance or “high blood sugar” (and often resulting diabetes) over time attacks the functional connectivity of the brain. Insulin resistance develops when the cells can’t process insulin properly and it backflows into the blood stream, creating high blood sugar, a term we are hearing more and more. We now know that insulin resistance is a major component contributing to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Vascular Disease

From insulin resistance we end up with vascular disease, which affects the small blood vessels in the brain, reduces blood flow, and causes vascular dementia. In dozens of studies, many scientists find the same results to be true. To repeat, there’s a strong connection between high sugar consumption and Alzheimer’s. High sugar intake also results in a variety of chronic diseases related to inflammation – heart disease, cancer, arthritis – as well as all forms of gastro-intestinal disease. Knowing that sugar can cause anxiety, sugar can cause palpitations, and sugar can make us fat, we might be ready to give up sugar and adopt a new eating plan.

Mediterranean Diet

Time for some Good News! Dr. Martha Clare Morris, director of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, analyzed data from 923 people ages 58 to 98 who kept detailed food diaries about what they ate from 2004 to 2013. Dr. Morris found those who adopted the Mediterranean Diet* had a 50% drop in the development of Alzheimer’s (a form of dementia) compared to those eating a typical American diet of processed foods, high amounts of red meat, sugar, white flour, all fake sugar, diet sodas, and fried foods.

I am a front-row cheerleader for adopting the Mediterranean Diet, as years ago it became my way of eating. Not that I don’t occasionally cheat—those chocolate chip cookies sometimes beckon–  but I really try to stick to that diet a majority of the time. And, not only does that food taste good, I love knowing that I’m eating well. Here’s a plan that has worked for me, and others with whom I’ve shared it:

I start by cutting back my sugar consumption by 50%, this red-hot minute. I will do that for a week, then cut that by 50%, then 50% each week for a month, until I am getting my sweet fix from berries or other low-glycemic natural sugars—like eating an orange. This is how I think I can manage changing for the long-term. But, I know I will fail at some point, slip up and drop three handfuls of M&M’s into my mouth one afternoon because I am having a bad day. And, that will be O.K. One indiscretion will not delete all my efforts. It isn’t a zero-sum game. Thank God. When I have an M&M fall-out, that night I will add to my gratitude list that I am grateful I only needed three handfuls to make me feel better, instead of the entire bag. I am making progress.

Alternative Sweet Options

Giving up sugar doesn’t mean your life will be without sweets. Summer makes it easier for me to stick to this plan and move toward eliminating all processed sugar, including wine, except for special occasions, because of all the delicious fruits in season. I love the berries and I could live solely on watermelon and the luscious stone fruits. Well, yum! The berries are so low on the glycemic index – GI I can have them anytime.  I save the other fruits higher on the GI for a delicious dessert in place of a piece of Key Lime pie.

The bounty of vegetables also helps release us from our sugar addiction. Just watch the GI for those veggies that score over 50. What happens when we give up sugar and fill up on fresh, organic veggies, fish, lovely salads, and ripe fruit? Our gut flora rebalances in no time, our waistline trims, and our brain fires on all cylinders. Now, that’s a blue ribbon combination!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

*https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801

Can You Really Give Up Sugar?

Many of us are experiencing the dog days of summer, but before too long, flat gray clouds will cover the sky more days in many parts of the world, as autumn rolls in and the days grow shorter towards winter.  During the depth of winter (yes it will happen, again!)  I want to stay in bed, wait for tomorrow, and hope for sun. Being a Texas girl born and raised, I grew up with more sunny days than cloudy ones, and for decades now, I know my energy level and productivity are somehow linked to sunshine.

On gray winter days, I have little energy, care about nothing, and generally feel and act like Grumpy Cat until evening. Even though I know dark chocolate won’t shift my mood, I sometimes give that delicious treat a good try! If I am somewhere and experience a run of gray days, pretty soon I have sunk so low I must be scraped off the floor. This got me thinking about winter depression, SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder, and while I don’t think I suffer a full on case of SAD, I know friends who do. The sooner we start to add a few proven principles to the day, the more likely we are to avoid suffering from SAD once Old Man Winter settles in. This year, with all the sheltering in place we’re all doing, I will be adding these to the top of my to-do list!

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown Medical School, and author of Winter Blues, Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, who first identified and coined the term in 1984, found we women suffer from seasonal depression or SAD four times as often as men do in our earlier years (ages 20-30), but the numbers become closer to equal as both sexes get older. Your science lesson for today: The research also tells us that the culprit is low serotonin—the chemical in our bodies responsible for our moods, appetite, sleep regulation, and libido. In folks with SAD, serotonin can’t function efficiently because the body produces a serotonin-blocking chemical called SERT. At this point, scientists aren’t exactly sure why this occurs in some people, and not in others. Stay tuned for more developments in this area. For those of us who have clear-cut cases of SAD every winter, there are some well-researched steps we can take to markedly reduce the symptoms until the sunshine and warmer temperatures return.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Low energy
  • Sleeping too much or not wanting to get out of bed
  • Overeating
  • Craving refined carbs and sugar
  • Weight gain (as a result of the above)
  • Just feeling “blah” all the time
  • Withdrawing from friends and family (feeling like hibernating)

Here are some of the best ways to counter the feelings of SAD and make winter your favorite season. Well, maybe… ????

Counter the Feelings of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Throw open those curtains.

As soon as you wake up, get up (as hard as that may be), and raise those shades as high as they will go to let in as much morning light as possible.

Put on those gym shoes.

A meta-review (a compilation and review of many studies) from the American College of Sports Medicine Journal found for some of us experiencing SAD, vigorous exercise, like HIIT—High Intensity Interval Training, might be as successful as therapy or anti-depressants at lowering our SERT levels, which help to elevate our serotonin levels, and alleviate the depression.

Keep up your Interests.

You may not feel like getting on yet another Zoom coffee hour, or social distance walking outside with your neighbor,  but pushing yourself to be with friends, virtually or in person, is a great way to lift your spirits, to say nothing of strengthening your social connections—a strong choice toward staying vibrant as we get older. The same goes for indulging in your favorite hobby; that ship isn’t going to sail itself into that bottle!

Get a Light Box

This is probably the most often-cited and well-known tool available to fight SAD. Studies show light boxes are the magic bullet for up to fifty percent of SAD sufferers. If used correctly, the boxes cause mood shifts to occur in only a few days, giving blessed relief almost as fast a speeding bullet. Discuss with your doctor, and experiment with different types of light boxes, and see what might work for you.

Eliminate Sugar

My long-time readers will be nodding, (I hope), as I add another reason to drop sugar from your diet. In addition to the negative effects sugar has on our brains and bodies, people who consume the most sugar are more prone to depression. Scientists now think sugar lowers our bodies’ ability to cope with stress. Craving sweets and starchy foods in the winter is also an indicator and symptom of SAD.

Go Outside and Play

Your mother was right. Grab your earmuffs and your muffler and take a brisk walk outside in the morning after sunrise. Or, take up a wintertime-specific sport, like snowshoeing, outdoor ice-skating or curling (at a social distance 😉 Some of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Kelly Rohan (no relation) at the University of Vermont, and Dr. Ani Kalayjian at Columbia University, both endorse this plan, and Dr. Rohan notes getting that morning light into our retinas is especially beneficial; plus you get exercise as well. Home run in my book.

Hit the Mat

Dr. Kalayjian also recommends taking up yoga for relaxation and relief from depression. More and more studies are pointing to yoga as a good practice for stress reduction and anxiety. That’s one more reason to add a yoga class or two into your weekly regime.

The research points to starting early to fortifying our serotonin levels so we have reserves at the ready for when the days grow short and dark. This year, especially, I plan to get on the program long before I put out my pumpkins and pick out George’s Halloween costume.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!