Does Sugar Make You Sharp?
The brain's source of energy is, almost exclusively, glucose, a simple sugar to which all dietary sugars and other carbohydrates are ultimately broken down. Hormones that aid memory do it by raising glucose levels. According to University of Virginia psychology professor Paul Gold, Ph.D., studies of rats and people show that glucose, whether given after a fast or after a meal, whether consumed as food or injected directly into the brain (in rats), in fact improves long-term memory.
In a recent study, Gold and colleagues gave college students a lemonade drink containing 50 grams of glucose -- 200 calories' worth of pure sugar -- and then subjected them to a battery of cognitive tests. Gold found that glucose measurably enhanced the students' performance, most notably in a reading retention task.
Which leads directly to the question: Should you chug a glucose-laced sports drink such as Gatorade to boost your brain power a quarter of an hour before your Mensa test? Perhaps, but the amount you need to drink is still something of a crapshoot. Your optimum dose of glucose at any one time depends on several factors: current blood glucose level, physical and mental stressors, previous dietary patterns, individual metabolism, and other variables that neither you nor medical science can readily evaluate at this time.
To further complicate matters, the dose you take doesn't always match the response you want. Too much glucose can actually prompt a hypoglycemic response. Blood sugar levels soar, then plummet: in response to the sudden sugar flood, insulin rushes into the blood and mops up the excess, worsening mental performance.
Still, a glucose drink specifically tailored more for brain boosts than for physical performance is already available in England and might reach American markets within the next few years, according to Gold. Most likely it will be initially targeted for the elderly, and those with Alzheimer's disease, Down's syndrome, and head injuries, all of whom perform substantially better on cognitive tests when given glucose.
How best to stoke your brain with glucose? "The variety of carbohydrate foods found in a balanced diet will take care of the brain's energy needs," says Gold. "The brain is selfish, and takes care of itself," having first dibs on any glucose present in the bloodstream. Or it may force the conversion of other nutrients into glucose.
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