We all know that sugar is a major problem in modern society, especially as it plays such a strong role in obesity development. In fact, sugar is a key source of excess calories for many people. To make matters worse, sugar tends to turn up in a lot of foods where it isn’t needed at all (including many low fat foods).
Sugar is often considered to be such a serious issue because it is associated with a wide range of other conditions, including diabetes, heart diseases, stroke, breathing problems osteoarthritis, inflammation and even some types of cancer (1). All of these issues are key reasons why there is such a strong emphasis on decreasing obesity.
This effect is associated with the fructose in sugar, which is particularly alarming.
Now, the sugar that we find in our food is a compound made up of sucrose and fructose. In general, the fructose part of the sugar is considered to be more damaging, as the body has to process it to be able to use it as energy.
The relationship between fructose and damage to the brain is concerning because many foods now use high fructose corn syrup as a substitute for sugar. As the name suggests, high fructose corn syrup contains a greater proportion of fructose than regular sugar does. That difference in fructose may increase the negative impacts that high fructose corn syrup has on health.
So, what can we do about this?
The simple answer is to cut out sugar or at least cut down our consumption.
Many people already try this, often by moving to healthier foods and relying less on processed food. Some others may choose to rely on artificial sweeteners instead, although this approach isn’t necessarily healthier.
Moving away from processed foods and towards a healthier diet is certainly a good move for health but most people find that they can’t cut sugar out of their lives entirely.
A recent study (Meng et al., 2016) proposed one interesting solution to the issue by taking a look at exactly what damage sugar does to the brain.
The Study Itself
In the study, the authors used animal models and they found that there were a number of gene networks that responded to the presence of fructose. Specifically, the fructose promoted reprogramming within the brain networks. That reprogramming affected networks that connect brain function and metabolism.
As part of their research, the authors also identified two key genes (Bgn and Fmod), which they found to be critical for regulating the gene networks that responded to the fructose.
The authors also connected the outcomes that they observed to the research in humans, arguing that the mechanisms help to illustrate how fructose can have negative impacts on metabolic and brain disorders.
The potential of fructose to reprogram brain networks is a concerning outcome. It suggests that sugar may be having more significant effects than most of us assume and may even help explain how sugar can play such a significant role in obesity development.
However, the real emphasis of the study was not on the impacts that sugar has.
The authors found that DHA could help to normalize gene networks and reverse the reprogramming that fructose can cause.This is yet another reason why people should be consuming fish and/or fish oil on a regular basis.
In fact, the observed outcome may help to explain why some research has found that fish oil may play a role in treating depression (5). Likewise, the site Self Hacked talks about other fish oil benefits.
It’s also worth noting that the study was conducted on animals (not surprisingly, as it involved looking at chemicals in the brain). The authors do consider a combination of human and animal research, making it likely that similar effects are present for humans but that outcome isn’t certain.
The authors also note that the outcomes of this research offer some support to the concept of considering genetic responses to predict disease susceptibility in humans. Likewise, the authors also argue that genetic responses could play a key role in personalized medicine.
Implications of the Study
More than anything, this research suggests that we can reduce some of the impacts of our modern diet by consuming fish or fish oil on a regular basis. In fact, some commenters have even called DHA a ‘magic pill’ because of this.
Personally, I wouldn’t go that far.
DHA might be able to reverse some of the chemical impacts of sugar (and high fructose corn syrup) but sugar is still going to have other impacts, especially because of the calories that it contains.
So, DHA certainly isn’t a reason to ignore the risks of sugar. On top of that, most of us probably should cut down on our sugar intake and the outcomes of this study don’t have any effect on that need.
If you do want to decrease sugar consumption, The Chalkboard offers 11 tips to get you started.
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