Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Brains Need Grains

All cells in the body require glucose for energy. The cells that make up the human brain (neurons) require twice as much energy than any other cells in the body. And if anyone else has ever been set to a task of arduous problem solving knows that thinking makes you damn tired. But what sorts of fuel is really needed to power the brain? Like anything to do with the complex machines we call our bodies the answer is complicated.

Glucose is the energy needed for cellular metabolic reactions. In short glucose its self is a simple sugar chain consisting of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. The energy that cells get from this elemental cocktail is hidden in its design. The bonds that hold the compound together are strapped to laws of physics, breaking bonds releases potential energy, energy which cells use to fuel everyday cellular needs and in turn keeps the entire machine (your body) functioning. There are two types of sugars, simple and complex.

Simple sugars are simple short molecular chains, which the body breaks down quickly and easily.  Simple sugars are broken down and absorbed through the stomach wall and instantly reaches the blood stream. Before you get all excited about simple sugars being the fasts way to feed your body read on. Simple sugars (processed foods, sugary snacks and soft drinks) provide a quick spike in blood sugar levels. This sugar concentration signals your pancreas to secrete insulin, insulin triggers the cells in your body to pull the glucose out of your blood stream and store it for later use. This sudden drop in glucose levels is your body crashing after the sugar high, but what it is really doing is starving your neurons which are the only cells unable to store glucose, the feeling of disorientation and lack of concentration is called hypoglycemia and if sustained for too long can lead to unconsciousness.  Years of rushed sugar exposure and then sudden starvation swings blood sugar levels to a point at which the body can no longer regulate and respond properly to insulin, hormone receptors become insulin resistant and Type 2 diabetes is born.

Whereas, complex sugars or carbohydrates are long chains of sugar molecules that are taken to the liver and broken down piece by piece, time released energy. Complex carbohydrates and foods with low glycemic index are gradually broken down and released over time to the bloodstream. A steady stream of energy for all cells in your body means no storing followed by starvation and  the result is optimal brain function. This is not a golden ticket to run off and stuff your face with white breads and power bars because despite what you may have been taught these items are NOT healthy and certainly not low on the glycemic index. Because so much of the “food” found in grocery stores are nutritionally designed to be exactly what our bodies crave and manufactured by companies looking to turn a profit choosing the right brain food can be complicated. Luckily nature was kind enough to supply us with foods over the history of gradual crawl out of the primordial ooze in perfect packages for our survival. Or more accurately we co-evolved with our environments which provided necessary sustenance for our survival.

Grains for brains might have been a misleading, albeit it witty title.  Grains are one good options for time released healthy energy, but they aren’t the only one. And some people’s ideas of grains are very different from others. When I say grains I mean whole chunky unprocessed real grain foods like, buckwheat, millet, chickpeas, barley, brown rice, and quinoa. Not whole wheat bread found on a non refrigerated shelf in the grocery store (you know why it doesn’t mold, it doesn’t have enough nutritional value to grow fungus). Whole wheat bakery bread (especially rye and pumpernickel) that will get stale if you don’t eat it that day is good bread. Other foods to consider for optimal blood sugar levels are things like; sweet potatoes (not sweet potato fries), fibrous fruits such as apples, bananas, kiwis and cantaloupe (there are many more and fruit juices don’t count because the fiber has been removed and all you are drinking is the fructose), beans of all kinds, veggies of all kinds. Now the truly great thing about these non grain foods is that they contain other little miracles, like vitamins and minerals that your body also required to maintain normal healthy function. Beans provide protein, fruits and vegetables contain vital vitamins and minerals as well fiber which is necessary on many levels which I will not touch on here for brevity sake, let’s just say though your colon and digestive track will thank you later. Has the message sunk in yet?

If not here it is in short, your brain like any other part of your body is made of cells, highly specialize signal transmitters. Without proper energy they start to shut down, then you start to shut down, and deprivation of energy leads to all manner of late in life diseases. Oh! And long periods of starved cells will start to pull energy from any source available for your neurons that happens to be the fatty tissue that makes up your surrounding brain mass. Think microscopic cannibalism, now go eat yourself an apple.

Forgive the totally lame image, not alot of sexy pictures of complex carbs out there.

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