What's In That? How Food Affects Behavior

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There's a double threat out there that may help explain poor school performance, criminal behavior, alcoholism, and the growing numbers of Alzheimer's patients.

The possible culprits: food additives and junky diets. Dr. Russell Blaylock says it's a double whammy because of high sugar content and starchy carbohydrates. Those carbs, too, act like sugar in the body.

Blaylock is a retired neurosurgeon, clinical nutritionist, professor of biology at Belhaven College, and author of numerous books. In addition to writing a monthly health newsletter, The Blaylock Wellness Report," he recently put his lecture Nutrition and Behavior onto DVD.

The Sugar Syndrome

On that DVD, Blaylock explains the sugar syndrome: "Why would sugar have such a profound influence on brain function and psychological function? Now when the sugar is in excess, it produces excess release of insulin."

That is, if the insulin release is excessive, the blood sugar falls. That's known as hypoglycemia.

Among other effects, hypoglycemia causes the brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, panic attacks and an increase in suicide risk.

Glutamate is a messenger molecule in the body. Tiny releases of glutamate play an important role in the body, but any excess can be dangerous - especially to the brain and nervous system.

This glutamate is identical to the flavor-enhancing monosodium glutamate (MSG) and its chemical cousins found in thousands of food products.

Consumed in food and added to the effects of sugar and simple carbs, serious excesses can result. For instance, repeated hypoglycemic episodes will increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and ALS (Lou Gehrig's).

This low blood sugar can affect people in many different ways - especially considering the high numbers of vulnerable individuals.

It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of U.S. adults are hypoglycemic. In children, the response is often hyperactivity. In both children and adults, there can be violent and aggressive behavior. In older people, there can be mental confusion -- as the low sugar fails to fuel the brain and making it more prone to Alzheimer's.

That hypoglycemic confusion is apparently what happened to Jack Samuels when he went out to grab milk at the grocery.

"I just, I remember getting way out into the countryside and pulling to the side of the road and trying to sort of calm myself and think where did I come from?" he recalled.

Samuels, a retired hospital administrator, had accidentally consumed some MSG, the flavor- enhancing food additive. MSG can cause hypoglycemia on its own.

What's Lurking in Food Labels

Samuels is also an activist against MSG, and heads the Truth in Labeling Campaign. He diligently tries to avoid all forms of it, but has struggled because there are so many hidden sources.

Food labels will sometimes list monosodium glutamate, but MSG usually appears under deceptive names like hydrolyzed corn, autolyzed yeast, broth, textured protein and even natural flavors. ---hidden sources link here or at end?

Another danger is alcohol - because it acts just like sugar.

Blaylock explains the process: "The alcohol is the source of tremendous energy. And so when their blood sugar falls, they drink the alcohol, they feel better. And their blood sugar falls again, they drink more alcohol."

One study found an astonishing 97 percent of alcoholics to be hypoglycemic. Yet another study showed that when an alcoholic's hypoglycemia is treated with nutrition, 70 percent of them become sober. When other alcoholism treatment methods are used, only 25 percent or less find relief from their addiction.

And it may be partly the alcohol component of the diet soda sweetener aspartame that makes it hypoglycemic. Blaylock says the aspartate in aspartame acts like MSG, stimulating actual glutamate receptors in the pancreas to release and increase insulin.

That brings out more dietary danger, according to Blaylock, "So you tend to eat and snack and nibble. And you gain weight. Monosodium glutamate will make you do the same thing. Now the food manufacturers know this. That's why they put so much MSG in food."

In addition, the MSG additives, also known as excitotoxins, can destroy the neurons in a crucial part of the brain. This can result in gross obesity.

And then there are the effects of just regular sugar on children. One study gave kids sugar equal to one soda. As a result, their test scores went down. In fact, at one hour after the sugar, they made twice as many mistakes. The sugar-loaded students also showed more "inappropriate behavior" during free play.

Safe Foods

So what diet is anti-hypoglycemic? That would be lean meat and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. For supplements, a good multivitamin and some fish oil are considered quite helpful.

Another key is limiting sugars and starches. That would include sugar itself as well as products with corn syrup. Most fruit juices are very sugary as well. Then there are the white culprits: white bread, white rice, white pasta and white potatoes.

And by avoiding most processed food, you'll be more likely to steer clear of the MSG that so often lurks among the ingredients of many processed foods such as soups, varieties of canned tuna, flavored chips, box mixes, and frozen prepared selections.

There's even some evidence that eating the good and avoiding the bad is what worked for ex-convicts on parole. One study found that a good diet enabled parolees to maintain good behavior over half of the time. Those with a bad diet fared less than half as well.

With those results, perhaps the government is looking into the connection between nutrition and behavior.

Samuels comments, "There is very little financial reward for a researcher to find the cause of a disease and consequently most of the research dollars go to the development of drugs to treat a disease -- because there's a lot of money involved there."

He has spent years trying to get government officials to his pleas for better research and more truthful food labeling.

Blaylock says think of the kids -- and start teaching them about nutrition. That could make for a better home life today and future adults better able to excel in the world.

*Originally aired on April 9, 2008.

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