Brain Health & Diabetes
The brain is a very complex organ which is very sensitive to the amount of glucose it receives, so by its very nature Diabetes has an impact on it.
Like every other organ in the body, the brain gets its fuel from the bloodstream. People with Diabetes are going to have high and low blood glucose levels some of the time, which can affect the brain, both in the short and long term. While our aim is to keep our glucose levels as close to normal as possible, what else can we do to protect our brain, both our physical brain and our mental health?
The good news is that the things that help to keep our blood glucose stable (whether we have Diabetes or not) also help to keep the brain healthy.
The following are good for optimum blood glucose and for brain health:
- Fats are essential for the body, particularly the brain and nervous system. Healthy fats containing Omega 3 – oily fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines; nuts and seeds. Good quality cold pressed Extra Virgin Olive, flaxseed or avocado oil contain antioxidants which are good for the brain. Coconut oil is better for cooking at high temperatures than the others.
- Berries provide antioxidants, which help to improve cognitive skills and slow brain aging. They also have the least impact of any fruit on blood glucose levels. Bananas have more impact on blood glucose but are high in potassium which helps the brain transmit messages. I often eat a banana if my glucose level is going low (not hypo) or during exercise to keep it stable.
- The brain is made up of approximately 85% water and it depends on having enough water to function properly. Drinking plenty of water benefits the brain itself and the blood flow to the brain. High blood sugar causes thirst and low blood sugar can cause sweating. Being well hydrated also helps to flush out excess sugar.
- Brain health is influenced by gut health. Onion, beetroot, oats, milk, probiotic yogurt and sauerkraut all benefit our gut health. These foods contain healthy fiber and carbohydrate which are needed by the gut and brain to function properly.
- Foods high in the B vitamins, particularly B6, B12, Folic acid – wholegrains, dark leafy vegetables and turkey.
- Green vegetables, the darker the better – kale, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, mixed lettuce/green leaves.
- Remember that high or low blood glucose levels will prevent the brain and other organs from getting some of the benefits from the food we have eaten. Dealing with highs and lows quickly is very important. After reading and researching this topic I believe that eating a variety from the list above every day and doing our best to keep blood sugar levels in range (as much as possible) will give our brain the best type of fuel to keep it healthy.
- Any form of exercise that gets our blood flowing is beneficial for our brain. Exercise is good for blood glucose regulation but has to be carefully managed by people with T1 diabetes, who are at risk of hypoglycemia. Exercise is also good for our mental health in general. Some exercise routines have the added benefit of socializing, which is also good for our mental health.
- Meditation, mindfulness or relaxing yoga can all benefit our brain and general wellbeing. Blood sugar is often affected by stress, so anything that can help reduce stress will help.
- Staying in touch with friends and family and getting out and about plays a huge part in our mental health. Managing diabetes can become very stressful and it is important to stay connected with lots of other things, like hobbies and friends to keep a good balance. Laughter is the best medicine!
- Learning new things is thought to be beneficial, so anyone for Italian lessons? People who are new to Diabetes need to learn new skills, like carb counting and possibly managing insulin too. Managing insulin dependent Diabetes involves lots of calculations every day, unless an insulin pump and CGM is used, and even then there is a fair bit of figuring out to do, which keeps our brains active.
- We all need a certain amount of stress to function efficiently, but chronic stress is very bad for us. We need to learn to manage unhealthy stress. Exercise helps, as does a healthy diet and good social interaction with other people. I think it is important to chat with people in person rather than relying on social media all of the time. Always talk to your Doctor if stress is affecting your health.
- Our brain does a lot of work while we sleep and it needs enough time to do its job. Ever wonder why you had the answer to a problem or remembered something when you woke? It is easy to become sleep deprived if you or your child has T1 diabetes, which often involves setting alarms for blood testing during the night or poor sleep due to being woken by, testing and treating high or low blood glucose levels. At different stages, I have found this particularly hard. I have been able to improve my overnight glucose levels since I started using *FreeStyle Libre because for the first time ever I could see what my levels were all night. I have since moved on to an insulin pump with a continuous glucose monitor, which alarms during the night if my glucose level is going higher or lower than the set range. I have tweaked my insulin and evening food intake to try to keep my overnight levels more even, which has improved my sleep quality a lot. This is trial and error and often needs adjustment.
I hope this article doesn’t depress anyone. In fact with today’s knowledge of glucose levels and improved equipment including blood glucose testing (which wasn’t available for many years after I was diagnosed with T1, so I’m sure my poor brain has suffered a lot of abuse), better insulin, CGM’s and a better understanding of the mental health issues around Diabetes, the risk to brain health due to Diabetes is less than it has ever been.
This article is my personal opinion and is not medical advice.
* FreeStyle Libre is a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) which measures glucose in extracellular (cell) fluid which surrounds all cells in the body. Glucose comes from food that we eat and some is secreted by the liver. Lots of things contribute to blood glucose levels, but that is a discussion for another day. Our body digests food by mixing it with acids and enzymes in the stomach. The digestive process breaks down food containing carbohydrate (starch and sugar) into glucose. The stomach and small intestine absorb the glucose and release it into the bloodstream. It is at this point that blood glucose tests are performed using conventional meters for personal use by people with diabetes. From there glucose is distributed through cell fluid to the parts of the body that need it for energy. It is at this point that FreeStyle Libre measures glucose.
References: Brain Food by Dr. Lisa Mosconi; The Final Frontier: How does Diabetes affect the brain by Elizabeth R Seaquist MD; Brain Health/Sebina Brennan; Eat Your Way to Better Health by Dale Pinnock; The Smith Group Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing and Vitamin B, New England journal of medicine 2013 Mediterranean diet, WEB Med; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4017270/