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Eliminate These Brain-Draining Foods Spiking Your Blood Sugar

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Eliminate These Brain-Draining Foods Spiking Your Blood Sugar

The Worst Culprits Of Brain-Draining Blood Sugar Spikes
Dr. Mike Dow
Dr. Mike Dow More by this author
Feb 13, 2018 at 12:15 PM

Below is an excerpt from my book - Heal Your Drained Brain – Naturally Relieve Anxiety, Combat Insomnia, and Balance Your Brain in Just 14 Days

Janet was a 48-year-old woman who struggled with her weight and anxiety her entire life. Recently she was diagnosed with prediabetes, which only added to her worry. Although the diagnosis didn’t surprise her, it was becoming more and more difficult for Janet to stop overeating and lose weight.

Recently divorced, she felt insecure about her age and body. For Janet, a big bowl of pasta followed by ice cream comforted her on nights alone in front of the TV. Of course increasing anxiety means serotonin levels go down, creating more carb cravings since processed carbs, sugar, and flour release a surge of serotonin. In the moment, Janet felt better as she used carbs as self-medication.

But the constant blood-sugar spikes would eventually turn her prediabetes into diabetes and lead to more weight gain, which would increase her insecurities and shrink her hippocampus, making her less able to deal with stress. This would, of course, lead to even more brain drain. This vicious cycle is what brought Janet to me. She needed help climbing out of this hole so she could feel better and create the life she wanted.

“It’s just so hard,” she said. “I look around at other people eating anything they want, and it makes me so angry. I gain five pounds if I have even a few pieces of bread. My metabolism makes it so much harder for me than other people, and it’s only getting harder as I get older. Now that I’m prediabetic, I feel like I’m not allowed to eat anything good at all, and lately food has been the only thing that makes me feel better. Now I can’t even do that. Honestly, I reach this point where sometimes I just give up and eat everything I’m not supposed to: fries, pasta, pizza, bread . . . I mean, what’s the point of life if you can’t enjoy bread?”

As I spoke more with Janet, I quickly came to realize that her brain imbalance was likely due in part to low serotonin levels, which meant we needed to work on raising those to counteract the dependence she felt on food. With a bit of digging into her past, we were able to figure out that Janet often found herself in a spiral of pessimistic thinking, believing that she wouldn’t be able to handle life. By shifting the focus to her past successes and her strengths, we came up with a plan.

“So what does the powerful, confident Janet do differently in her life? Paint a picture for me. What does a typical day look like?”

“Well, I’d be eating healthy again. I used to love gardening and making caprese salad with the tomatoes and herbs in my garden,” she said with a smile, “and I have so many friends I’ve been neglecting lately because I just haven’t felt very social.”

“Sounds like a great place to start,” I replied, “so now you have your homework. And it also sounds like you’re identifying other activities—like gardening and talking to friends—that will be your ‘replacement therapy.’ Those activities release the same serotonin that you now get through binging on carbs, and they’ll help to mitigate the withdrawal symptoms and temporary cortisol spikes food addicts feel when they switch to healthier ways of eating.

Think of gardening and talking to friends like a nicotine patch for a smoker—only better and more fun. Find other ways to boost feel-good serotonin through healthier activities.”


Part of Janet’s story is probably relatable to most of us. Using food as self-medication is, after all, the most socially acceptable way to drug yourself. We all know that pints of ice cream put Band-Aids on worries and broken hearts. But sugar can be a disaster for your brain. It’s vital for all of us to reduce the blood-sugar spikes lurking in all the tempting food most Americans are presented with 24/7.

Remember: these processed foods are extremely profitable to food companies and restaurants. The profit margin on soda and processed foods is sky high; the margin on healthy proteins and organic vegetables is pretty low. This means the processed foods and soda are marketed to you more heavily to keep the shareholders happy. While they tempt you to improve their bottom line, your waistline ends up paying the price.

And as your waistline grows with blood sugar–spiking foods, your hippocampus shrinks. Remember, this is the part of the brain that helps you remain resilient in the faces of stress and helps mood regulation by controlling your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It’s also the part of the brain where the most neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells, occurs.

In 2015, the first human study demonstrating associations between diet and hippocampus volume was published. This study looked at people who followed a “prudent” diet versus the blood sugar–spiking “Western” diet. The prudent diet was associated with a larger hippocampus, and the Western one was associated with a smaller hippocampus; and these relationships held true even when accounting for other variables like education or physical activity levels.

Other studies have shown other parts of the brain and systems associated with stress are affected as well. In research published in 2015, we see what happens when people withdraw from an unhealthy, blood sugar–spiking Western diet: genes that affect stress are altered.

All of this really changes how we think about the relationship between drained brains and blood sugar–spiking foods. The link between blood sugar spikes with diabetes, obesity, and dementia had previously been established; now we can also put a decreased resiliency to stress and a drained, shrunken brain on that list. With all of the processed foods we eat, is it any wonder so many people struggle with stress and anxiety?

Another way that sugar affects your brain is by negatively affecting your sleep. In a study from Columbia University, people who ate the most sugar throughout the day had more arousals during sleep. These intrusions can pull you out of deep sleep without consciously waking you, so you may not even be aware your carbs are preventing you from sleeping well at night—except that you may notice fatigue and increased hunger the next day.

Like too much alcohol, a big plate of pasta can create a sedated “food coma” that may help you fall asleep but then prevent deep sleep. Processed carbs like foods high in flour were also correlated with these sleep arousals, and unhealthy carbs can delay your body’s release of sleep-inducing melatonin.


What do I mean by “cut foods with a high glycemic index or load”? Basically, replace the foods that spike your blood sugar with foods that keep it steady. To determine which foods are draining and which are balancing, you can use their glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) measurements.

The glycemic index gives an approximate measure of how much a carbohydrate in a food raises your body’s blood-glucose level. A high-GI food will raise your glucose level a great deal; a low-GI food will not. Beans, small seeds, and strawberries are examples of low-GI foods, with a ranking below 55. Medium-GI foods like basmati rice and bananas have a ranking between 56 and 69. High-GI foods, the ones so pervasive in our diet, have a GI of more than 70. White bread, white rice, pasta, cookies, candy, cake, and even most whole-wheat breads are all examples of high-GI foods.

The glycemic load (GL) measurement, which was created by researchers at Harvard, is based on the glycemic index but also takes into account the serving size of a food to more accurately calculate blood-sugar spikes. The numerical values are different since the GL is calculated by multiplying the GI by the number of carbohydrate grams in one serving of that food and then dividing by 100. Thus, a low-GL food has a ranking under 10; medium-GL foods have rankings between 10 and 20; high-GL foods have rankings 20 or above.

While many unhealthy foods are both high GI and high GL, like soda, candy bars, and donuts, the GL measurement does help to adjust for healthy foods like carrots that may have a high GI but a low GL since the average serving of carrots does not spike blood glucose levels. The takeaway: GI matters, but the amount of food you eat should be considered as well.

Instead of getting caught up on the exact numerical ranking of a food’s GI or GL or measuring serving sizes, we will focus on reducing the worst culprits of brain-draining blood-sugar spikes—sugar, flour, and processed foods that also commonly have emulsifiers that cause inflammation of the gut and thus stress—while increasing the amount of whole foods like vegetables, fruits, natural sources of fiber, and healthy proteins and fats that protect the brain.

High-GI and high-GL foods aren’t just bad for your waistline; they profoundly negatively affect the brain and the body and even create growth factors that help cancer cells grow and divide.

For a list of GI and GL rankings for more than 100 common foods, check out this website.


Since we’re talking about sweets and sugar, I want to specifically address some of the swaps that people make to “eat healthier” while still having sweetness in their diet.

The first of these is replacing soda with fruit juice. While fruit juice is the lesser of two evils in this case, it’s not a great choice for a couple of reasons. First, juicing fruit leaves the sugar while reducing the blood sugar–stabilizing fiber provided by the pulp and skin of the whole fruit. The result: apple juice can spike your blood sugar like chips or pasta.

So what’s the solution here? If you’re thirsty and want sweetness, aim for water and whole fruit. When you eat an apple whole, including its skin, you’ve got fiber to balance your blood sugar, protect your brain, and promote restful sleep. And bonus: when eaten more slowly as people tend to do when they chew, it also allows the fiber time to register in your brain as the feeling of fullness—something that is bypassed when downing a glass of fruit juice.

You can also feel free to drink vegetable juice since it doesn’t have the sugar content of most fruit juices. Or if you just can’t let go of fruit juice, dilute it with sparkling water or mix a little fruit juice with veggie juice to cut the blood-sugar spike that can drain the brain. You can also drink unsweetened iced tea and zero-calorie stevia-sweetened beverages like vitaminwater zero as you ditch soda.

The other swap I want to address here is added sweeteners. Over the years, we’ve been told that agave is a healthy alternative to sugar. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. The “goodness” of agave came as a reaction to the public’s understanding that the high-fructose corn syrup, which began to replace cane sugar as a sweetener 1970s, was harmful. We were looking to natural sweeteners rather than the processed versions of white sugar and corn syrup. But agave—and natural sweeteners such as honey, molasses, and maple syrup—are all high in fructose.

Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and sucralose (Splenda), have also been used to replace the sweetness of sugar while avoiding the calories that other sweeteners provide. However, these have been linked to obesity, possibly by recalibrating your taste buds to prefer sweet and blood sugar–spiking foods. They also reduce levels of good bacteria in the gut. That’s important because when levels of good gut bacteria go down, anxiety rises.

The best option for adding sweetness is stevia, which has a GI of 0. Very limited amounts of real maple syrup and honey (especially manuka honey) are also acceptable since they both have relatively low GI values. Recent science has also shown both may contain valuable health benefits, including minerals that can combat stress.

Manuka honey from New Zealand is the best form of honey since it may have health benefits like reducing reflux and digestive problems that many brain-drained individuals face. But use these two sweeteners in very small amounts as an occasional treat since they do contain fructose which, in large amounts, can lead to health problems and anxiety.

You can also look to other spices to take the place of sugar. For example, you can sprinkle cinnamon in your oatmeal or tea instead of sugar. By making this change, you’ll prevent a brain-draining blood-sugar spike. Cinnamon also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, whereas sugar creates inflammation.

For more blood sugar-safe swaps and more information about healing your drained brain, see my book – Heal Your Drained Brain – Naturally Relieve Anxiety, Combat Insomnia, and Balance Your Brain in Just 14 Days.


About Author
Dr. Mike Dow
Dr. Mike Dow is a psychotherapist, author, and relationship expert.  Dr. Mike also appears regularly on The Dr. Oz Show as one of his Miracle Workers and has appeared on Rachael Ray, Wendy Willia Continue reading