For quite a while now, researchers have known that the extra pounds most of us carry around our waistlines can contribute to harmful inflammation that increases the risk for heart disease and cancer.
But now the most recent investigations into this type of fat also show that it can send destructive cellular messages to the brain – messages that impact the hippocampus, one of the brain’s most important memory centers.
And, if you’re eating the wrong foods – foods that increase this inflammatory damage – these messages can set the stage for memory-robbing neurodegeneration.
Research at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine now reveals, in detail, that the fat around your middle sends destructive molecular signals to the brain’s hippocampus that contribute to memory and brain function issues.1
According to these scientists, a system in the body they call the “Na,K-ATPase oxidant amplification loop” leads to extra oxidative damage to the brain’s neurons while causing microglia, immune cells that roam the brain, to contribute inflammatory damage in brain tissue.
Western Diet to Blame
This study shows the complicated steps that lead to the extra oxidative stress and inflammation that endangers neurons. And the researchers warn that their lab work shows how these destructive effects of fat tissue increase when you eat a typical western diet – a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
“The western diet induces oxidative stress and adipocyte (fat cell) alteration through Na, K-ATPase signaling which causes systemic inflammation and affects behavior and brain biochemical changes,” says research Komal Sodhi, M.D.
Dr. Sodhi and his colleagues explain that the “western diet” also compromises the blood-brain barrier, a cellular filter that is supposed to keep toxins and free radicals out of the brain tissue. As a result, ceramides, a type of fat, can enter the brain and further increase inflammation while, according to research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, multiplying your risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.2
Lifestyle Improvements Can Make All the Difference
A basic way to help lower your risk of the transmission of these destructive messages from your waistline to your brain is to try and limit the amount of belly fat you carry around. That means keeping your weight under control.
And it seems evident to me that the best place to start is to eliminate junk food and processed food from your diet. Giving up those types of foods may help lower your weight and lower your inflammation levels. Plus, studies show that those foods have a cascading effect – every time you eat them, you want to eat more and more of them.
For instance, a study at Macquarie University in Australia found that for people who don’t normally eat processed food, a week of eating junk and fast food can increase the susceptibility for overeating those foods – while also affecting the function of the hippocampus.3
In this Australian research, 110 slender young adults who were “lean, healthy and currently consuming a nutritious diet” were switched to a diet of mostly fast food for a week.
As a result, says researcher Richard Stevenson, PhD, “After a week on a western-style diet, palatable food such as snacks and chocolate becomes more desirable when you are full. This will make it harder to resist, leading you to eat more, which in turn generates more damage to the hippocampus and a vicious cycle of overeating.”4
Improve Your Body Fat
Along with giving up junk food, you may be able to lower the inflammation linked to body fat by encouraging your body to create more of what’s called brown and beige fat. (The standard inflammatory fat carried around the waist is white fat.)
While white fat doesn’t burn many calories and mostly stores up the fats called triglycerides, brown and beige fat are filled with extra mitochondria – the powerhouse organelles that help produce energy for cells – and these types of fat use up a significant supply of fat and sugar to produce heat.
According to researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta, you can encourage your body to make more beige and brown fat by exposing yourself to colder temperatures as well as intensively exercising.5
The Georgia researchers also report that beige and brown fat may help protect your brain from white fat’s inflammatory harm.
So, when you come right down to it, all of these studies confirm what we’ve known all along: A healthier diet combined with exercise – and perhaps a few hours with the thermostat turned down – can make for better brain health.