Blood Sugar and Brain Chemical Imbalance
This paper was published in the August, 2012 issue of "Acupuncture Today"
We all have friends and family members with these health issues. But what most of us don’t know is that we all have the blood sugar problems that lead to these brain chemistry problems.
After reading this paper, you will understand what leads to blood sugar imbalances, how blood sugar imbalance leads to deficits in brain chemicals like seritonin and how those imbalances cause brain disfunction, primarily depression, anxiety, migraine headaches and dementia.
Let’s spend some time with the numbers;
Mental Disorders: Effect 1 in 4 worldwide
Depression Alone: 16% of adults lifetime risk
(Of these, 50% will have anxiety disorder)
Dementia: aged 71 and older was 13.9%, comprising about 3.4 million Americans over 71, Alzheimers (more severe was 9.7% ,representing 2.4 million Americans.
Migraines: Between 12 and 28% risk lifetime.
So these are prevalent diseases and they touch every one of us in some way. But how is this connected with our blood sugar?
The simple version: Your brain needs fuel to make seritonin and the other chemicals that make us happy and energetic. If the brain does not get the material it needs, consistently and over time, those chemicals get in low supply and we feel like we are lacking, either energy or good humor. If you have depression or know someone who does, you know low energy and depression go together.
One in Four Americans Have “Metabolic Syndrome” otherwise known as “insulin resistance”. (In my practice it is more like 80%)
Insulin resistance causes wild fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
The brain is the most dependent part of your body to glucose, or sugar. Your brain needs sugar for the brain to change one molecule into another - as in the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin - it needs a sufficient amount of biological energy called ATP. That energy is derived from the sugars in our food in the form of glucose. (sugar, or blood sugar. When the brain does not have enough energy, and especially over years and years, a depletion of serotonin is the result. With a depletion of seritonin, our brain cannot respond to pleasurable events and the result is depression.
(This is called endogenous depression; i.e. depression is due primarily to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Mainstream medicine and psychology often fail to help these people, because they have no proper explanation as to what causes ‘endogenous’ depression.)
In the section above I focus on seritonin, but the brain is dependent on consistant levels of glucose to produce all of the chemicals called neurotransmitters that control mood, energy levels, memory and pain.
To recap: If a person has fluctuations in the level of glucose in their blood over time, they are vulnerable to having low levels of the brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, and that is the cause of the mental diseases that I have listed above: Depression, Anxiety/Panic Attacks, Migraine Headaches and Dementia.
(I am an acupuncturist and clinician, so there will be some medical and scientist types who disagree about migraines and dementia being in the category of brain chemical imbalance, but from a clinician/treatment perspective they fit rather well.)
Depression: Current medical solutions for depression are anti-depressant drugs. These can be very effective, especially in the short-term. They do have side effects ranging from mild to severe, but these drugs are used with shocking frequency and volume. A large percentage of my chronic patients have been on them for many years and have no plans to get off of them.
The only problem I have with the drugs (aside from the side effects) is that is does nothing to address the underlying problem of blood sugar imbalance. (We are speaking of the connection between blood sugar and depression but thyroid function plays a huge roll also.) People can be on these forever.
Anxiety is also treated with anti-depressants, unless it is severe, and then it is often treated with valium-type drugs like xanex. These drugs really pump up the GABA (one of the neurotransmitters, mostly responsible for calming) which is great for someone with anxiety attacks, but it is really difficult to stop taking these “diazepams” once the brain gets dependent on them.
Migraine headaches are also treated with drugs. There are drugs for when a person is having a severe headache, some are tartans, or narcotic pain medication. The side effects of tartans can be severe, and narcotics have the effect of not being able to work or drive. And this treatment strategy addresses the severe episodes, but not the cause, which can be ongoing for decades.
There are drugs for preventing attacks, but all of these drugs are primarily for other diseases and have been found to be moderately effective for preventing migraine headaches. The types of drugs are interesting in that they all either effect the central nervous system, or relieve the effects of stress peripherally. These drugs are anti-depressants, anti-histamines, anti-seizure drugs and botulinum toxin (Botox).
“In most cases, preventive medications don't eliminate headaches completely, and some cause serious side effects.” (From the Mayoclinic webpage)
Dementia has no real medical treatments. “Current FDA-approved drugs for Alzheimer's disease do not prevent or reverse the disease, and provide only modest symptomatic benefits.” ((Recent developments in Alzheimer's disease therapeutics; Raffi, et al., 2009)
The common thread through all of these diseases is that drug therapies help control the symptoms of the imbalance, but do nothing to address the underlying cause of the neurotransmitter imbalance, which is glucose level fluctuations in the blood.
How to Fix The Underlying Cause of These Brain Chemical Imbalances
Clearing up depression, anxiety, and migraine headaches using acupuncture, herbal medicine and dietary changes is very successful, but it takes a commitment of time and energy (money and lifestyle change) from the patient. Here is the simple-to-say protocol:
1: Acupuncture twice a month
2: Eat in a way that keeps a constant but slow flow of glucose to your blood. This means starting with breakfast (you have to eat breakfast) with protein and eating a snack every 2 to 3 hours with protein in it. There aren't many protein snacks (nuts, eggs, meat, beans, seaweed, protein shake) but we all get used to eating these. Don't finish a meal with sugar and no sugar (or simple carbohydrates; bread, baked goods, bagel, ect.) between meals or your blood sugar will go crazy.
3: Take supplements and herbal medicines that fix the chemical pathways that are broken to restore insulin sensitivity.
If my patient can do these things for a few months, most of the brain chemistry imbalances that we have talked about will slowly disappear.
When brain chemistry deficits are the result of blood sugar fluctuations, the problem is not cleared up quickly. Blood sugar levels need to be maintained for the brain to produce the neurotransmitters and then it takes time for those chemicals to reach normal levels again. Most patients start to see improvement in two to four weeks, but don't feel normal again for months.
If nothing is done to correct the insulin resistance it will progressively lead to type II diabetes. This is the most severe form of insulin resistance, at it's most severe the body loses it's ability to produce insulin and the patient is dependent on external (shots) insulin for the rest of their life. If a person is on the fence about treating this, they should google "insulin dependent type II diabetes": It is very persuasive.