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  • The Food Brain Connection By William Wilson, MD

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    Thursday, September 01, 2011 10:39 am Email this article
    Is our food making us sick? Unfortunately the answer is a definite yes. In this article, William L. Wilson, MD outlines a new disease model called CARB syndrome that explains the rapid rise in obesity, diabetes and a long list of common medical problems. You will also learn how a few simple components in our modern diet are triggering this devastating disease.

    As with many practicing physicians, I’ve had a front row seat as a witness to the changing health of our patients. Unlike just a few decades ago, the majority of our patients are now overweight or obese and many of them also seem to carry a bevy of labels indicating some type of brain problem. Many of these conditions carry traditional Psychiatric labels and some do not, but they all share symptoms indicating some type of brain dysfunction. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few decades, I don’t need to tell you about the obesity epidemic. What you may not know is that many common medical conditions seem to be increasing at a similar rate. These diseases include:

    Over twenty years ago two Harvard Psychiatrists, James Hudson and Harrison Pope, proposed that these disorders might in fact be part of the same disease process and they coined the term “Affective Spectrum Disorder” to describe this condition. Because they could never figure out the pathology and environment triggers of Affective Spectrum Disorder, their concept never made it out of academic medicine. I believe that my colleagues and I have solved this dilemma. Over the years we have noticed that the above conditions often seem to be associated with obesity, insulin resistance and type II diabetes-three closely related metabolic conditions. We also noticed that people with the above conditions seem to share many similar symptoms that reflect low levels of monoamine neurotransmitters. These important chemicals-serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine allow nerve cells in your brain to talk to each other. If for some reason you have low levels of one or more of these neurotransmitters, then you will develop symptoms that reflect these low levels.

    Thus the real question is what type of pathological process could make you store fat and at the same time screw up your brain so it doesn’t work properly? As it turns out, the answer is food. Not just any food, but a select few components of our modern diet and it has nothing to do with calories or how much food you eat. The solution to this mystery starts with the simple sugar from fruit-fructose. Your body primarily relies on glucose for energy and most of this glucose comes from carbohydrates such as bread, rice and potatoes. When carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in your body, your pancreas produces insulin, which allows the glucose to enter into cells. When you consume fructose, there is no insulin response because fructose is metabolized by a completely different metabolic pathway. When you consume a small amount of fructose, most of it is converted in the liver to glucose or the storage form of glucose called glycogen.

    Our main problem today is that virtually nobody consumes a small amount of fructose. Because sugar and high fructose corn syrup contain 50% fructose, most people consume large amounts of fructose from these sources as they have taken over our diet over the past forty years. Today many individuals get up to 40% of their calories from sugar or high fructose corn syrup. When you consume this much fructose, the way it is metabolized in your body starts to change. Much of this excess fructose is converted to triglycerides and uric acid, two substances that can cause problems when you have too much of them in your body. As you consume excessive fructose, your liver starts to fill up with fat from triglycerides and fat in the liver leads to insulin resistance where the cells in your body no longer respond appropriately to insulin when you consume a carbohydrate. Insulin resistance is the first step down the pathway to type II diabetes. Excessive triglycerides also leads to central obesity where fat storage occurs in your abdominal cavity leading to the typical “beer belly”.

    High levels of uric acid irritate the linings of your blood vessels leading to something called endothelial dysfunction, the first step a process that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Uric acid also counters a gas called nitrous oxide that allows your blood vessels to relax. Thus if you have too much uric acid in your blood, the blood vessels contract rather than relax, leading to high blood pressure. High blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and beer belly obesity-not a pretty picture. But wait, it gets much worse. Remember the diseases listed above? How could they possibly tie into this metabolic mess? That’s where it gets really interesting.

    Once you have insulin resistance from consuming too much fructose, when you consume a carbohydrate, especially a rapidly absorbed one (high glycemic carbohydrate), you end up with a magnified glucose spike in your blood because the glucose can’t easily enter into the cells in your body. And there’s one organ in your body that definitely doesn’t like magnified glucose spikes-your brain. Unlike other organs in your body that can use substances other than glucose for energy, your brain is totally dependant on glucose for its energy needs. Your brain is also unique in that it doesn’t need insulin for glucose to enter into nerve cells. Thus Mother Nature developed a complex system to keep the glucose levels in your blood at a steady level-too little glucose and your brain won’t be able to function and too much glucose could damage sensitive nerve cells. That’s because glucose is toxic to cells at high levels.

    That’s where magnified glucose spikes come into the picture. When you eat a Twinkie or other type of high glycemic carbohydrate, you end up with a magnified glucose spike in your blood and inside every nerve cell in your brain. When this glucose is burned to produce energy, it releases too many free radicals-highly charged molecules capable of damaging the cell’s delicate interior. Your natural built-in antioxidant system didn’t evolve to handle this load of free radicals so you end up with nerve cells that don’t work so well.

    Magnified glucose spikes have another adverse affect on your brain cells-they cause the cells to dump out too many monoamine neurotransmitters-dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and epinephrine so over time your brain cells don’t have enough of these important chemicals to function properly. You end up with brain cells that don’t work very well leading to symptoms of brain dysfunction, the very symptoms that are typical for all the conditions listed above. There’s another thing the brain doesn’t do very well after it is exposed to magnified glucose spikes over a long period of time-regulate body composition. If your brain is healthy, it works very hard to keep your total body fat stores in a narrow range. Although you can certainly override this auto regulatory function by continuously eating too much food when you aren’t hungry, you would really have to work at it to get your body to store too much fat. This became apparent to us when we directly measured the body composition of thousands of patients in our medical practice. We noticed that people with normal body composition almost never have the brain dysfunction symptoms indicating low levels of neurotransmitters. When a person starts to develop these symptoms, within a short period of time the total amount of fat in their body slowly starts to increase. In other words their brain seems to flip them into a famine protective metabolic mode where they will store fat at any caloric intake.

    Are you following me? Let’s summarize this new disease concept. When you consume too much fructose over a long period of time, your liver starts to fill up with fat and you develop insulin resistance and abdominal obesity-the classic “beer belly”. Then when you consume rapidly absorbed or high glycemic carbohydrates, you end up with magnified glucose spikes in your blood and inside every nerve cell in your brain, eventually leading to diffuse brain dysfunction. As this brain disease progresses, you develop bothersome brain dysfunction symptoms and your body starts to store fat at virtually any caloric intake. No, it’s not a pretty picture but it certainly describes many patients that are filling our waiting rooms today. I have coined the term “Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain syndrome” (CARB syndrome) to describe this disease process. Yes, the good news is that the disease is reversible and treatable. In future articles I will outline the basic treatment elements of CARB syndrome and most of these treatments elements are available without the involvement of a health care provider. Unfortunately because CARB syndrome is a new disease model, most people in the medical profession are currently unaware of it. We hope to change that in the future.

    Although the CARB syndrome concept is new, a large body of basic research supports it. To learn more about the issue of fructose, I suggest that you read the book “The Sugar Fix” by my friend Dr. Richard Johnson. Dr. Johnson is a researcher who has done a lot of the basic research on the adverse effects of excessive fructose. To learn more about the CARB syndrome concept, look for my book “CARB Syndrome” which should be published in the near future. Because CARB syndrome is likely the most common disease in modern Western societies, it’s likely that either you, members of your family or those you care about have already been affected by this progressive disease process. The more you learn about it, the better chance you will have to prevent the illness or effectively treat it if you already have it. If future articles I will provide more details about the CARB syndrome disease process and things you can do to effectively reverse the condition. The good news is that most of these effective treatment elements are very safe and readily available to everyone.

    So is sugar toxic? That’s the title of a recent article in the New York Times written by Gary Taubes, the author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories”. His conclusion is that yes, sugar probably is toxic. I am also throwing my hat into the ring. I believe that sugar and high fructose corn syrup are chronic toxins, similar to cigarette smoking. John Wayne smoked cigarettes for decades without obvious harm. For most of those years he rode his horse off into the sunset with a pretty woman at his side. Then the wheels fell off. We are seeing the same thing in our waiting rooms-loads of patients with insulin resistance, obesity and type II diabetes topped with a bevy of the disorders listed above. It doesn’t have to be this way and in future articles I will outline a roadmap for a different future.


    About Dr. Wilson

    About William L. Wilson, MD

    William L. Wilson is a Board Certified Family Physician currently working in the Boston area. He has been practicing in primary care for over 30 years and has a special interest in preventative medicine and Neuroscience, especially the interface between food and brain function. He has proposed a new disease model called CARB syndrome that seeks to explain the rapid rise in obesity, type II diabetes and a long list of common medical disorders that seem to be associated with some degree of brain dysfunction.

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