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How the Gut Controls the Mind and Heals the Brain

gut health affects brain health

Believe it or not, many ancient people thought that most of our thinking and what we consider to be our ‘mind’ was centered in the heart. That’s where the sayings “follow your heart”, “heartbreak”, “follow your heart’s passion” and many others came from.

This was fairly rational for the time given that not much was known about human anatomy, but now we know definitively that our consciousness and control center is solely located in the brain, right? Well, not completely.

In our bodies, bacterial cells outnumber human cells and research is showing that they have a say in how the body operates and possibly how the brain functions as well. Bacteria are becoming known as ‘the forgotten organ’ for the role they play.

It has also been shown that when our body gets harmed, and more specifically our brains, the microbiome may be harmed and play an important role in the healing process.

The Role Bacteria Play In General Health

Given the importance, it’s startling how recent the discovery was of the true role bacteria play in our bodies. They are crucial for digestion, development and maintenance of the immune system, defense against infection, formation of blood vessels as well as acting as a wall of defense that sifts through what goes in and out of our body through the digestive tract [1].

Depending on the health of the microbiome (the community of bacteria whose home is the body), inflammation can either be boosted or suppressed. This is important because an unhealthy microbiome has been associated with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis in addition to others such as obesity, heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease [1].

So, the point is that the microbiome is very important for general health, but back to the original topic, what about the brain?

The Gut-Brain Connection

I once thought that all of our neurons were kept in the brain, and I was wrong. It’s an interesting fact that there are many neurons in the gastrointestinal tract (the gut) and they form a large network called the enteric nervous system (ENS) [2].

The ENS is deeply connected to the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the brain through the Vagus Nerve. This connection is called the gut-brain axis. The microbiome plays a role by sending signals that influence the ENS which then directly influences the CNS [3].

While we are still in the early stages of the gut bacteria story, you can see how the little bacteria in our bodies may have more control over us than we think. Furthermore, researchers have found that modifications to the microbiome can affect the immune system responses in the CNS [4] and may be crucial to CNS function [5].

This back and forth communication is important for the proper function of our gut and possibly mental health, given that 90% of our serotonin is stored in our gastrointestinal tract [1].

The link between the microbiome and the brain doesn’t stop there. The gut can influence the brain through many other pathways as well including hormonal production, upkeep of the blood-brain barrier, and metabolism (gut bacteria break down a lot of what we eat) [6].

How the Gut Affects Brain Health

Because of the massive amount of input the brain and CNS receive from the microbiome, you can probably predict that there will be health implications.

Right off the bat, there have been a few studies that have linked the gut-brain axis to many CNS and brain malfunctions. Conditions such as autism, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, stress, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s among others have been associated with an unhealthy gut microbiome [7].

“The gut microbiota likely plays a role in a wide range of neurological conditions, including autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, stress, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease”

It is well known that patients who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are also highly likely to develop depression as well. One study found that administering probiotics to patients with IBS not only alleviated gastrointestinal problems, but their depression was significantly improved as well [8].

In another study, patients lacking healthy diversity in their microbiome were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression [9]. This is especially interesting given that most of our serotonin is held in the gut.

These recent studies are causing the entire medical field to reconsider how we determine causes for brain diseases and the significance placed on the health of the gut.

How Brain Health Affects the Gut

The gut-brain axis isn’t a one-way street. The health of the brain also can have effects on the microbiome as well. One big area of focus among researchers is how the microbiome changes after traumatic brain injuries (TBI). If you’ve ever had a brain injury, this is important.

Studies show that there are specific alterations to gut bacteria following traumatic brain injuries [1]. In mice, TBI made changes to microbiome composition just two hours after the event [1]. The changes were harmful because they decreased the diversity in the gut, most of which came from decreasing the ‘good’ bacteria and increasing ‘bad’ bacteria [3].

One study among stroke patients had similar findings as the mouse study. After having a stroke, the diversity of organisms in the gut drastically decreased and digestive problems and bad bacteria increased [10]. All of this was accompanied by an increase in inflammation.

“A decrease in relative abundance in traditionally beneficial bacteria was observed, specifically in the families Lachnospiraceae, Mogibacteriaceae, and Ruminococcaceae.”

We saw earlier that problems with gut bacteria may be a cause of anxiety and other mental health issues, but it has also been shown that stress can also harm the gut as well, another two-way street [11].

If you’ve ever had a TBI such as a concussion, stroke or other issues, it is very possible that your gut suffered as well without you even knowing about it.

Physiological Problems Caused By An Unhealthy Gut

So, we know that an unhealthy gut microbiome can cause serious problems for brain health along with brain injuries causing disruptions in gut health, but why does this happen?

Unfortunately, other than knowing that the gut and brain are connected through the ENS, CNS and Vagus Nerve, scientists aren’t sure about the exact mechanism through which they affect each other. However, we do know the consequences of this connection.

When the gut microbiome gets harmed, there is an influx of inflammation that wreaks havoc throughout the body and brain, creating a nasty loop that can possibly make the brain injury worse [1].

In addition to this, the defense that is normally provided by healthy bacteria breaks down, allowing mischievous ‘bad’ bacteria to spread to places in the body they normally aren’t allowed [12]. This is the cause of much of the inflammation due to an immune response to fight the misplaced bacteria. The breakdown can also make it harder to digest nutrients required for brain recovery.

When it comes down to it, inflammation is one of the root causes of many chronic diseases especially in the brain, so harming the gut microbiome can be devastating.

In addition to this, when the microbiome isn’t functioning properly, the serotonin in the gut may not be stored properly which might cause some of the mental health problems. There really is a plethora of different explanations for why the two can harm each other.

What You Can Do To Boost Gut Health

In general, gut health is very important if you want to live a long and healthy life. It is especially important if you’ve had or are recovering from a TBI. Luckily, you have quite a bit of control over the health of your microbiome. Those little bacteria that outnumber your own cells rely on you to give them what they need to be successful.

It has been shown that diet plays a large role in microbiome health [13], and likely the largest role. Going a bit deeper, studies show that the diversity of vegetables you eat is correlated with the diversity of bacteria in the gut, which is what we want [14].

It is also well known that processed foods are the arch-nemesis of a healthy microbiome. In general, focusing on eating whole foods is one of the best things you can do for your gut.

As we mentioned earlier, anxiety and stress are also detrimental to the health of the microbiome, so findings ways to de-stress and live more peacefully can help them out. Other healthy lifestyle practices such as taking walks out in nature and getting regular exercise are very beneficial as well.

Another way to replenish gut diversity to eat foods and take supplements that contain healthy bacteria. Probiotics (pills with healthy bacteria) and foods like kombucha, kimchi, kefir, and Greek yogurt are all some ways to eat your way to better gut health.

More specific supplements for gut health include glutamine, arginine, nucleotides, and omega-3 fatty acids [15]. In addition to these, vitamins and minerals such as nicotinamide, zinc, and magnesium have also been shown to yield healthy gut flora [16].

The Take-Away

So, we have seen here that the gut-brain axis deeply connects our microbiome to the brain. The health of one is dependent on the health of the other. While this can harm us if one is unhealthy, it can also help us if we are proactive about our health.

If you do suffer from a TBI, the microbiome takes a hit as well. However, researchers are speculating that we can use this to our advantage. By stabilizing and improving the health of the microbiome, we could possibly speed the brain’s recovery process.

In general, the key is to eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy lifestyle if we want optimal microbiome health and brain function. This is something that is possible for everyone and based off of the research, might be necessary for everyone.

There was a lot of information here! Here are some quick points to sum it all up:

  • The health of our microbiome (gut bacteria) is crucial for general health.
  • More and more research is showing that the microbiome plays a large role in brain health
    • Sends signals through the enteric nervous system to the central nervous system and the brain.
    • The gut microbiome can either increase or decrease inflammation. More inflammation can be harmful to the brain.
    • An unhealthy microbiome has been associated with various brain conditions.
  • New research also shows that brain health can affect microbiome health.
    • Brain injuries have been shown to decrease microbiome health
    • The harm to the microbiome could possibly cause increased inflammation, making the brain injury worse.
  • The good news is that we have a lot of control over microbiome health which could speed the brain’s recovery process.
    • Some easy steps to a healthier microbiome:
      • Eat a balanced diet with minimally processed foods and a variety of vegetables.
      • Take walks under the sun and in nature.
      • Exercise Regularly
      • Eat foods with good bacteria like yogurt, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, and probiotics.
      • Give your gut the minerals and vitamins it needs


What is your experience with the connection between gut and brain health?

How do you keep your gut healthy?


For articles that go more in-depth into the gut-brain axis, here are two good ones:

[1] Zhu, Caroline, et al. “A Review of Traumatic Brain Injury and the Gut Microbiome: Insights into Novel Mechanisms of Secondary Brain Injury and Promising Targets for Neuroprotection.” Brain Sciences, vol. 8, no. 6, 2018, p. 113., doi:10.3390/brainsci8060113.
[2] Leaphart, C.L.; Tepas, J.J., III. The gut is a motor of organ system dysfunction. Surgery 2007, 141, 563–569.
[3] Yoo, B.B.; Mazmanian, S.K. The Enteric Network: Interactions between the Immune and Nervous Systems of the Gut. Immunity 2017, 46, 910–926
[4] Grandhi, R.; Bonfield, C.M.; Newman, W.C.; Okonkwo, D.O. Surgical management of traumatic brain injury: A review of guidelines, pathophysiology, neurophysiology, outcomes, and controversies. J. Neurosurg. Sci. 2014, 58, 249–259
[5] Mu, C.; Yang, Y.; Zhu, W. Gut Microbiota: The Brain Peacekeeper. Front. Microbiol. 2016, 7, 345
[6] Wang, H.X.; Wang, Y.P. Gut Microbiota-brain Axis. Chin. Med. J. 2016, 129, 2373–2380
[7] Mayer, E.A.; Knight, R.; Mazmanian, S.K.; Cryan, J.F.; Tillisch, K. Gut microbes and the brain: Paradigm shift in neuroscience. J. Neurosci. 2014, 34, 15490–15496
[8] Pinto-Sanchez, M.I.; Hall, G.B.; Ghajar, K.; Nardelli, A.; Bolino, C.; Lau, J.T.; Martin, F.P.; Cominetti, O.; Welsh, C.; Rieder, A.; et al. Probiotic Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 Reduces Depression Scores and Alters Brain Activity: A Pilot Study in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Gastroenterology 2017, 153, 448–459
[9] Kleiman, S.C.; Watson, H.J.; Bulik-Sullivan, E.C.; Huh, E.Y.; Tarantino, L.M.; Bulik, C.M.; Carroll, I.M. The Intestinal Microbiota in Acute Anorexia Nervosa and During Renourishment: Relationship to Depression, Anxiety, and Eating Disorder Psychopathology. Psychosom. Med. 2015, 77, 969–981
[10] Earley, Z.M.; Akhtar, S.; Green, S.J.; Naqib, A.; Khan, O.; Cannon, A.R.; Hammer, A.M.; Morris, N.L.; Li, X.; Eberhardt, J.M.; et al. Burn Injury Alters the Intestinal Microbiome and Increases Gut Permeability and Bacterial Translocation. PLoS ONE 2015, 10, e0129996.
[11] Houlden, A.; Goldrick, M.; Brough, D.; Vizi, E.S.; Lenart, N.; Martinecz, B.; Roberts, I.S.; Denes, A. Brain injury induces specific changes in the caecal microbiota of mice via altered autonomic activity and mucoprotein production. Brain Behav. Immun. 2016, 57, 10–20
[12] Bansal, V.; Costantini, T.; Kroll, L.; Peterson, C.; Loomis, W.; Eliceiri, B.; Baird, A.; Wolf, P.; Coimbra, R. Traumatic brain injury and intestinal dysfunction: Uncovering the neuro-enteric axis. J. Neurotrauma 2009, 26, 1353–1359.
[13] Griffin, N.W.; Ahern, P.P.; Cheng, J.; Heath, A.C.; Ilkayeva, O.; Newgard, C.B.; Fontana, L.; Gordon, J.I. Prior Dietary Practices and Connections to a Human Gut Microbial Metacommunity Alter Responses to Diet Interventions. Cell Host Microbe 2017, 21, 84–96.
[14] McDonald, D.; Hyde, E.; Debelius, J.W.; Morton, J.T.; Gonzalez, A.; Ackermann, G.; Aksenov, A.A.; Behsaz, B.; Brennan, C.; Chen, Y.; et al. American Gut: An Open Platform for Citizen Science Microbiome Research. mSystems 2018, 3.
[15] David, L.A.; Maurice, C.F.; Carmody, R.N.; Gootenberg, D.B.; Button, J.E.; Wolfe, B.E.; Ling, A.V.; Devlin, A.S.; Varma, Y.; Fischbach, M.A.; et al. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature 2014, 505, 559–563.`
[16] Lucke-Wold, B.P.; Logsdon, A.F.; Nguyen, L.; Eltanahay, A.; Turner, R.C.; Bonasso, P.; Knotts, C.; Moeck, A.; Maroon, J.C.; Bailes, J.E.; et al. Supplements, nutrition, and alternative therapies for the treatment of traumatic brain injury. Nutr. Neurosci. 2018, 21, 79–91
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The Link Between Tylenol and ADHD

Tylenol associated with ADHD babies

As a parent, you try to do everything in your power to keep your child healthy. Keeping harmful chemicals away from them is essential to accomplish this goal.

You might buy organic food to avoid pesticides. Perhaps a scent-free laundry detergent would be an easy way to eliminate a few unneeded artificial fragrances from seeping into your child through their skin. There are many measures that can be taken to keep your child safe.

healthy babies over the counter medicationWhat about when they are still developing in the womb? Almost everything the mother eats and does to herself will end up affecting the baby in some way. This is a daunting idea, but luckily, most of what we eat and subject ourselves to is benign.

However, there are many things that are known to be dangerous and should be avoided. This list includes drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and many others. I thought it was mostly limited to substances that are already known to be bad for you, but this might not be the case.

Can Tylenol Really Cause ADHD?

The Evidence

In recent years, acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, has been associated with increased levels of ADHD in children with mothers who took the drug [1].

A Norwegian study done in 2014 looked through data on 112973 children and found that long-term acetaminophen use among mothers was associated with ADHD in the children [7].

“Long-term maternal use of acetaminophen during pregnancy was substantially associated with ADHD even after adjusting for indications of use, familial risk of ADHD, and other potential confounders”

Furthermore, another study came out soon after to see if they could replicate those results. Indeed, the New Zealand researchers came to the same conclusion that acetaminophen use in mothers was correlated to ADHD [8].

keep children's brain healthyWhile these results are frightening, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. By that, what I mean is just because acetaminophen use was correlated with ADHD doesn’t mean that it was the sole cause.

However, another study showed that mothers who had acetaminophen in their system after birth also had children with significantly higher levels of ADHD [1].

This study was a bit more objective with their data since they were searching for actual blood biomarkers that showed acetaminophen use. They also found that as the amount of acetaminophen in the blood increased, so did the prevalence of ADHD. In mothers with medium and high amounts of acetaminophen in their system, ADHD was increased by 55% and 88% respectively.

How Acetaminophen Makes It to The Babies

This research is particularly disturbing because it has been found that in the US, 65% of mothers take acetaminophen throughout their pregnancy. The use in Europe is slightly less, but still high at 50% [2,3].

All of this begs the question, how does acetaminophen make it to the babies in the first place? Well, mostly like any other nutrients the baby absorbs. Once the drug is digested by the mother, it is rapidly transferred to the baby through the umbilical cord [6]. It has also been shown that mothers can pass the drug to their children even after birth through breast milk [1].

However, acetaminophen can end up staying in the baby’s body for much longer than adults because of an underdeveloped liver. In adults, acetaminophen hangs around for about 5.5 hours, but in baby’s, it can stick around for as long as 26 hours [6].

This is dangerous because even in adults, the changes Tylenol makes occur quite rapidly in the brain.

What Does Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Do?

Don’t get me wrong, acetaminophen is an amazing drug that helps many people overcome pain and decrease the severity of fevers. It does this by inhibiting prostaglandin synthesis [4]. Prostaglandins are molecular messengers in the body that transmit pain signals and induce fever.

how acetaminophen affects the brainProstaglandins also play other important roles in brain function such as strengthening synapses to help with brain communication, increasing learning, and facilitating brain development [1]. So, it works well in adults and in low doses in children, but babies that are unable to metabolize the drug run into problems.

Aside from what acetaminophen does in its ‘normal’ form, the inability to break it down inside the baby could also lead to other harmful byproducts [1].

Takeaways for ADHD and What To Do

With those potential causes listed, more research is needed to find the exact harm that acetaminophen does to developing brains. Researchers have found other ADHD risk factors such as maternal obesity, low birth weight, premature birth, and exposure to harmful chemicals.

Acetaminophen use will likely be added to that list along with many others as researchers continue their grueling search to help us all be safer. This research isn’t meant to be frightening, but rather empowering. When it comes to your child, you want to know as much as possible so that you can give them the healthiest and best shot at life possible.

So, if you are running a fever or are in pain, by all means, take Tylenol. However, be mindful of the potential damage it can do long-term and possibly mix in some other drugs so that nothing builds up in the baby over time. As always, consult your primary care physician before making any changes to your current regime.

What are your thoughts?

Do you have any experience with this?

Comment below!

[1] Ji, Y., Riley, A., & Lee, L. et al. (2018). Maternal Biomarkers of Acetaminophen Use and Offspring Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Brain Sciences, 8(127).
[2] Lupattelli, A.; Spigset, O.; Twigg, M.J.; Zagorodnikova, K.; Mardby, A.C.; Moretti, M.E.; Drozd, M.; Panchaud, A.; Hameen-Anttila, K.; Rieutord, A.; et al. Medication use in pregnancy: A cross-sectional, multinational web-based study. BMJ Open 2014, 4, e004365.
[3] Werler, M.M.; Mitchell, A.A.; Hernandez-Diaz, S.; Honein, M.A. Use of over-the-counter medications during pregnancy. Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. 2005, 193, 771–777.
[4] Dean, S.L.; Knutson, J.F.; Krebs-Kraft, D.L.; McCarthy, M.M. Prostaglandin e2 is an endogenous modulator of cerebellar development and complex behavior during a sensitive postnatal period. Eur. J. Neurosci. 2012, 35, 1218–1229
[5] Randles, D.; Kam, J.W.; Heine, S.J.; Inzlicht, M.; Handy, T.C. Acetaminophen attenuates error evaluation in cortex. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 2016, 11, 899–906
[6] Levy, G.; Garrettson, L.K.; Soda, D.M. Letter: Evidence of placental transfer of acetaminophen. Pediatrics 1975, 55, 895.
[7] Ystrom, E.; Gustavson, K.; Brandlistuen, R.E.; Knudsen, G.P.; Magnus, P.; Susser, E.; Davey Smith, G.; Stoltenberg, C.; Suren, P.; Haberg, S.E.; et al. Prenatal exposure to acetaminophen and risk of adhd. Pediatrics 2017, 140
[8] Thompson, J.M.; Waldie, K.E.; Wall, C.R.; Murphy, R.; Mitchell, E.A. ABC Study Group. Associations between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and adhd symptoms measured at ages 7 and 11 years. PLoS ONE 2014, 9, e108210
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Two Super Supplements To Combat Reactive Oxygen Species In The Brain

turmeric and resveratrol for brain health

After a quick search for ‘brain power’ or ‘brain health’ on Google or social media, you’ll likely come across many posts with so-called ‘brain superfoods’. Common food such as avocados, various nuts, chia seeds, and maybe even sardines will litter your search results

curcumin and resveratrol aid the brain's longevityWhile these are all great and should be a part of a balanced diet, I am always personally more interested in digging deeper to find less known foods and supplements that still yield powerful benefits for brain health that are also backed by science.

I stumbled upon a recent study by Davery and Agrawal that fit this description perfectly. It explained how beneficial curcumin (from turmeric root—Curcuma longa) and resveratrol (from grapes, wine, and nuts) are for brain health, function and longevity. It turns out that they are quite the molecular superheroes when it comes to fighting one of the brain’s biggest villains, reactive oxygen species.

Reactive Oxygen Species

Now, before I go into what they found, it would be useful (and necessary) to learn about reactive oxygen species (ROS), where they come from, and why they are harmful. In short, reactive oxygen species are unstable molecules that contain an oxygen.

ROS harm cells once past defensesInside of our bodies, ROS are always being made through metabolism and breathing, but luckily our natural antioxidants mainly take care of them [1]. However, if we have too much inflammation in the body such as that caused by eating an unhealthy diet, we may have an excess of ROS which can allow them to enter our cells.

Once past the cell’s natural defenses, they wreak havoc on the inside. The ROS then cause “oxidative stress” which can damage our DNA, fats, proteins, and can contribute to brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple forms of cancer. While ROS do serve a few purposes inside the body, it is important that they are kept in check through diet and, as this study points out, supplements.

Protecting Our Brains From Reactive Oxygen Species

Curcumin and resveratrol are two old dogs when it comes to the supplement world. People and cultures have been consuming them for ages, although they mainly have just been a part of their diet. Recently, however, I have started to see them pop up more and more on the shelves of nutrition shops and health stores.

Despite this, most users don’t typically think of brain health when consuming the capsules. Though the anti-aging and anti-inflammation properties of the two are backed by science, new research shows that curcumin and resveratrol should also be considered brain supplements as well. Here’s why.

Curcumin and Resveratrol for the Brain

The researchers I mentioned above wanted to determine specifically how curcumin and resveratrol protected brain cells from ROS, the nasty enemy of health and the brain. What they did was fairly straightforward: expose brain cells to ROS and see if they could be rescued by the two supplements.

supplements for brain power and longevityMore specifically, the cells used by the researchers were called astrocytes, the most abundant cells in the central nervous system. They play an important role in how well the body and mind function while simultaneously holding some control of inflammation in the brain. While all cells are important, they chose arguably the MOST important to do their experiments on.

When placed under oxidative stress from excess ROS, astrocytes can die which is detrimental to brain health, but alternatively, removing oxidative stress can make them live longer and improve longevity. This is because astrocytes don’t have the same antioxidants that are seen in many other cells.

Now, on to their results! They found that both resveratrol and curcumin made the astrocytes live significantly longer than the control without them. Interestingly, curcumin was more effective short-term (4 hours after administration) and resveratrol was more effective after a longer time-period (24 hours after administration).

In addition to this, curcumin was able to reduce inflammation in the brain cells caused by oxidative damage, while resveratrol was not. Curcumin has also been shown to repair some of the damage done by inflammation and oxidative stress as well. These results are important because it shows that these two supplements can somewhat make up for the brain cell’s lack of defense against ROS by protecting them.

“Curcumin and Resveratrol both protected astrocytes from oxidative stress thus potentially using them for treating various neurodegenerative diseases.”

The Takeaway

Based on the results, the researchers concluded that it might be a good idea to supplement with both curcumin and resveratrol. While I agree with this, if you have a limited budget, go with just turmeric extract as it is cheaper, and research suggests it is more broadly applicable to other parts of the body.

As a side note, if you want these same benefits, you will likely need to invest in a supplement (like the ones listed below) instead of just incorporating turmeric into your diet as the root powder won’t have the specific compounds in a high enough concentration to be helpful. So, give one a try to keep your brain happy and healthy!

Turmeric (Curcumin) Supplements To Try:

Premium Extract:

Budget Extract:

Liquid Extract:

Resveratrol Supplements To Try:




[1] Devasagayam, TPA; Tilak JC; Boloor KK; Sane Ketaki S; Ghaskadbi Saroj S; Lele RD (October 2004). “Free Radicals and Antioxidants in Human Health: Current Status and Future Prospects”. Journal of Association of Physicians of India (JAPI) 52: 796.



supplements for brain power and longevity

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Why Alzheimer’s Disease Can Be Called “Type 3 Diabetes” and How to Prevent It

preventing alzheimer's disease

In today’s first world countries, most people live in abundance. This should be and is a great blessing to everyone who experiences the comfort it brings. This truly is one of the best times to be alive. We can drive to the grocery store and spend a fraction of our income to obtain all the food we need. Humans before us wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.

grocery store abundant unhealthy foodHowever, this also gets us into trouble. While modern society has developed in many positive ways, we are still the same humans as our ancestors who were built solely to survive off whatever resources were available to them.

We all have the instinct to splurge on food as if we did not know when the next time it would be seen. However, nutrients are always available, and if this habit continuously repeats itself with unhealthy foods, we have a real problem on our hands.

We see this problem manifest itself daily as a detriment to our health. Humanity brings more disease upon itself through lifestyle choice than ever before. The list of well-known diseases that can be self-inflicted include obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and many more, but how lifestyle plays into the health of our brains isn’t spoken of as often. What about diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), which is projected to afflict as many as 13.5 million people by 2050?

The Story of Alzheimer’s as Type 3 Diabetes

I was reading a review article by Song, Whitcomb, and Kim about how intertwined AD and diabetes are and what they spoke of was stunning. They discussed how new information about AD points towards it really being “Type 3 diabetes”. A diabetes of the brain.

For me personally, AD always seemed sort of mystical. It just happened to some people as they aged and there was no specific cause or anything we could do about it. I have known a few people with the condition and hoped that it never happened to me in old age.

With this new research, I don’t think I will experience it, and if you read this information carefully, you could possibly reduce your risk as well. Before we get to that, however, a bit of a story needs to be told about why exactly AD is being called Type 3 Diabetes.

Shared Risk Factors Between Alzheimer’s Disease and Diabetes

People with Type 2 Diabetes have a much higher chance of getting AD than the average person. There are even some common characteristics that are true to almost every case of Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) and to AD. Let’s dive into some of the details.

Insulin Resistance

Due to a constant influx of sugar from poor dietary choices, the pancreas is forced to produce more and more insulin to get glucose out of the blood and into cells where it can either be burned immediately or converted to fat for energy storage.

Insulin resistance from too much sugar alzheimersHowever, our pancreas and cells weren’t meant to handle copious amounts of sugar. In a healthy person, there should only be about a teaspoon of sugar in our blood. What happens when we eat a bag of candy that contains 10, 15 or 20 teaspoons worth of sugar? The pancreas spits out insulin to clear it out, but if this happens consistently, our cells become insulin resistant.

Science hasn’t nailed down all of the reasons for why this happens, but our cells stop being able to use insulin efficiently and more is required to shuttle away the same amount of sugar. That is why people with T2D are in a dire condition; their bodies have broken and cannot process sugar properly.

In addition to this, the pancreas begins to malfunction. In a time when we need MORE insulin due to insulin resistance, the workload on the pancreas is already too high which leads to a slow shutdown. The result is high blood sugar which is why diabetics need medication.

At this point, you may be wondering how this relates to the brain. Well, it has been shown that the progression of AD depends on the brain’s ability to use glucose, its main source of energy. Unfortunately, the effects of insulin resistance don’t just stay below the neck. Our brains become insulin resistant as well which makes them unable to make as much energy.

Even without looking at AD, this inability of the brain to get energy causes a general cognitive decline in many people with T2D. Although we mainly talk about insulin’s sole purpose being blood sugar regulation, it becomes very different in the brain. Be prepared, this is where it gets very, very interesting.

Older adults alzheimers preventionInsulin and the Brain

In the brain, insulin has a protective effect and is even responsible for memory. On the protective side of things, insulin resistance has been shown to harm neuron cells inside the hippocampus (which is responsible for much of our long-term memory). This makes sense when we think about some of the symptoms of AD such as memory loss.

“Insulin is known to be neuroprotective and has powerful effects on memory”

In a few different studies, the hippocampus has been shown to regulate memories through the use of insulin. The hippocampus is lined with insulin receptors (things on the edge of cells that catch molecules of insulin) which become damaged through insulin resistance as well. On average, patients with AD have about 80% fewer insulin receptors than a healthy person.

To be a bit more straightforward, studies have shown that deficiencies in insulin receptors directly lead to memory dysfunction. Insulin resistance in the brain has been shown to stunt chemicals that function to help new neurons grow and proteins that increase memory and learning ability are unable to be activated. Even more, molecules that increase the number of misfolded proteins are made which could lead to the characteristic harmful plaques that are seen in the brains of AD patients.

“insulin resistance and impaired insulin signaling are significantly related to tau hyperphosphorylation and Aβ deposition (plaque buildup) in AD, and ultimately contribute to cognitive decline”

Since there is a lot of information packed in a tight space above, here is a quick summary:

Insulin resistance harms the brain because…

  • Insulin receptors (especially in the hippocampus) are damaged.
    • Insulin receptors are the main way the brain can use insulin.
  • Cells in the brain don’t get enough energy from glucose.
  • Proteins that promote neuron growth and survival are stunted.
  • Molecules that are involved in learning and memory cannot get activated.
  • Proteins misfold and form harmful plaques.

High Blood Sugar and the Brain

Damage to the brain in people with AD from symptoms shared with diabetes doesn’t stop with insulin resistance. Since the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, the high blood sugar dilemma also causes problems in the brain. Luckily for us, this part is a bit more straightforward.

unhealthy brain alzheimersToo much glucose flowing through the brain has been shown to harm the cells that make up the blood-brain barrier (BBB). You’ve most likely heard of the BBB, but in short, it is a fortress of cells that decides very selectively what is able to go in and out of the brain. When this defense mechanism is harmed, holes open up that allow unwanted molecules and proteins into the brain.

Some of these unwanted proteins are misfolded and form the plaques that we have heard about a few times already. Although we don’t completely understand how and why these plaques form, scientists are fairly certain that insulin resistance and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) play a big role.

“hyperglycemia-induced BBB disruption might play an important role in the onset and progression of AD”

Another side effect of having hyperglycemia is that harmful radicals are formed. These radicals can go on to do many negative things such as causing us to age and harm our DNA, but most importantly for the brain, they increase inflammation. This increase in inflammation has also been associated with the build-up of plaques and consequently lowers cognitive ability and diminishes memory even further.

“Type 3 diabetes (Alzheimer’s Disease) is related to the prevalence of [Type 2 Diabetes] and results from insulin resistance and hyperglycemia”

We Aren’t Helpless in This Fight For Our Brains

The description about AD given above may make the situation for many of us seem a bit dismal. After all, the CDC reports that over 100 million people are diabetic or prediabetic in America alone. However, I think that knowing what causes AD is more empowering than fearful. Instead of hoping you don’t just become another statistic, there are ways that we can live that can greatly reduce our risk.

melatonin for brain healthMelatonin and the Fight Against AD

When reading the common risk factors for diabetes, most of them (insulin sensitivity, hyperglycemia, etc.) make sense, but one stood out to me that didn’t: sleep trouble. Why would problems sleeping be a risk factor for diabetes?

It turns out that melatonin does much more than regulate sleep. When your circadian rhythm is out of tune from a lack of melatonin, having trouble sleeping is just a warning sign for much larger problems. No, you won’t just have less energy throughout the day from not sleeping as well, but melatonin also plays a crucial role in some of the risk factors for AD and T2D. There is some amazing new research detailing melatonin’s importance that was described by the same review paper.

How Does Melatonin Help Us?

Interestingly, 45% of patients with AD have trouble sleeping which points towards them having a problem with their melatonin. It turns out melatonin is quite the molecular superhero when it comes to the brain, acting as a protector that can break up plaque accumulation while simultaneously helping synapses to function properly.

Melatonin has also been shown in a multitude of studies to lower insulin resistance and regulate blood glucose levels, both of which are enormous problems that lead to AD and T2D. Furthermore, melatonin is even starting to be prescribed to patients with AD as a viable treatment option.

As if this wasn’t enough to validate melatonin, it also can help to reduce some of the inflammation caused by hyperglycemia in the brain. In mice, melatonin supplementation has been shown to reduce some of the memory loss caused by AD as well. This makes sense as it specifically improves synapse function in the hippocampus where much of our memory is held.

“Melatonin may be a key to improving memory function by suppressing the cell damage induced by Aβ toxicity and tau hyperphosphorylation”

How to Use Melatonin To Our Advantage

The paper only detailed how melatonin helps, so the following is my personal recommendation. We now know that maintaining healthy melatonin levels and a regular circadian rhythm is crucial to fending off some of the risk factors for T2D and AD. So, let’s do this!

We can make changes to our lifestyle to keep melatonin and circadian rhythm in check. Yes, genetic factors do play a role, but we really can’t do anything about that (yet) but you CAN make lifestyle changes to combat this. Here’s what you should do based off other research I have studied:

  • Go to sleep at the same time every night no matter what day of the week it is.
  • Put away electronics at least 45 minutes before bed.
  • Exercise in the morning.
  • Eat a healthy diet that allows your body to function properly
    • It has been shown that allowing hyperglycemia and insulin resistance to occur in your body can harm circadian rhythm and melatonin production.
  • Take supplements that boost melatonin and help circadian rhythm

For more depth on how to get the best sleep possible, read more here.

healthy lifestyle to prevent alzheimersLive the Lifestyle Your Body Deserves

While melatonin is an important factor to consider when thinking about how to give yourself the best chance of avoiding T2D and AD, the elephant in the room is that our lifestyle choices remain the largest risk factor for T2D and, from new research, possibly AD.

In the average person, hyperglycemia and insulin resistance are simply caused by eating an unhealthy diet and not exercising enough. Going back to the introduction of this article, our current environment of abundance and comfort provides us with the ability to live the best life possible, but it can be abused.

The most important thing that we can do is eat less sugar and processed foods while making sure to exercise regularly. It’s very straightforward, but hard to put into practice. For me, sacrificing some comfort and pleasure is worth lowering my risk of T2D and AD along with many other chronic diseases.


In the end, it comes down to what you want for your future and where your priorities lie. Alzheimer’s disease is being called “Type 3 Diabetes” because we are learning that it shares many risk factors with diabetes. If you take anything away from this, it should be a sense of empowerment because you can make decisions that will lower your chance of being afflicted with these diseases and make choices that will improve your quality of life. So, enjoy the benefits of modern society but get good sleep and most importantly, live a healthy life if you want to protect your brain.

What is your experience with these diseases?

What have you been successful with?