Among the more common complaints listed on patient intake forms after pain is poor memory, difficulty concentrating, and mental fatigue. This is frequently due to stress and other lifestyle factors, which affect blood glucose (sugar) levels. Here I will explain the relationship between glucose and brain function, along with some simple recommendations to help regulate your blood sugar levels.
Glucose is the form of sugar that serves as the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. The brain is the most energy-demanding organ in the body, and it uses about half of all the sugar energy in the body to fuel the nerve cells responsible for thinking, memory, and learning. All of these functions are closely linked to glucose levels and how efficiently the brain uses it. If there is an insufficient amount of glucose in the brain, the chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, are not produced, and, as such, communication between the neurons breaks down. Insufficient glucose is called hypoglycemia, and it is a common complication of diabetes and metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance). It can also be caused in cases of persistent high stress and skipping meals. When glucose levels in the blood are low, it can lead to poor attention and cognitive function, because there is not enough fuel available for the neurons in the brain.
While the brain is dependent on glucose to be able to function, too much also creates problems. Excess levels of glucose in the blood can affect the functional connectivity of different regions of the brain and brain matter, resulting in cognitive difficulties and poor memory, and it can cause the brain to atrophy and shrink. Persistent high glucose levels, such as occurs in diabetes, can also lead to small blood-vessel disease, which restricts blood flow in the brain. This can ultimately lead to dementia. Type-2 diabetes actually accelerates brain aging and functional decline.
Many people struggle to regulate their blood sugar levels. High stress causes the body to tap into stored sugar reserves to propel the fight or flight function. This can lead to sugar cravings, as the body tries to rebalance, and sudden spikes in blood sugar levels. Skipping meals, which is common in our high stress and body-conscious society, can also cause the blood sugar levels to drop. As mentioned, both low blood sugar and high blood sugar impact the brain, so regulating blood sugar is vital to cognitive function, memory, and long-term brain health.
Basic guidelines for keeping blood sugar levels stable include not overindulging in carbohydrates and refined sugar, not skipping meals, getting regular exercise to help promote insulin utilization and the ability of muscles to store and use glucose properly, and managing stress responses via mindfulness practices, such as meditation, and other cognitive therapies to manage fear responses such as general stress and anxiety.