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Is Alzheimer’s Type 3 Diabetes?

  • A Possible Link Between Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease

  • You undoubtedly know about diabetes – a condition in which the body has difficulty with insulin and blood sugar levels. You have also heard about Alzheimer’s disease and its resulting tragic memory loss.

    What you may not have heard is a relatively new concept suggesting there may be a tie between the two diseases. In fact, some researchers are proposing that Alzheimer’s disease may be a new manifestation of diabetes – calling it "Type 3 Diabetes".

    This theory has been around since 2005 and was featured more recently in a cover story of New Scientist magazine, titled Food for Thought: What You Eat May Be Killing Your Brain.

    MyLifeStages talked with Berkeley Neurologist Joshua Kuluva, M.D., about this concept of Type 3 Diabetes.

  • Insulin Resistance and the Brain

  • Insulin resistance is a key factor in the disease of Type 2 Diabetes. In a normally functioning system, insulin is produced by the pancreas to help the body use glucose (sugar) in the blood. When you have a perfect balance of insulin and glucose, the body functions as it should.

    In Type 1 Diabetes – sometimes called Juvenile Diabetes because it is diagnosed in children or teens – the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin. People with Type 1 Diabetes must carefully watch their diets and use insulin to regulate their metabolism. Diet itself is not the cause of Type I Diabetes.

    In Type 2 Diabetes, insulin is produced by the pancreas, but is not properly used by the cells. It is thought that the body cells become overloaded with glucose in the blood and become “weary” of responding to insulin. They are then described as being “insulin resistant.”

    The emerging news seems to be that the brain may also be impacted by insulin resistance. In the brain, usable insulin is crucial for forming memories. If the insulin mechanism goes awry, the resulting symptoms of memory loss and confusion look an awful lot like…Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Can Our Diet Protect Us from Alzheimer's?

  • Dr. Kuluva emphasizes that blood sugar doesn’t come only from consuming actual simple sugar. Many food sources are broken down into glucose for use by the cells, especially carbohydrates. What has changed in our current diet is a major increase in foods that have a “high glycemic load,” meaning they break down into glucose quickly and cause large glucose spikes in the blood. This connection to a diet high in sugar and carbs is clear for Type 2 Diabetes, and changing the diet can positively impact Type 2 Diabetes – or eliminate it entirely – in many patients.

    Dr. Kuluva notes that many things impact the functioning of our brains, including the biological aging process. But he also notes that diet can play a key role in a healthy brain, as well as the health of all cells of the body. “A diet that may be good for preventing diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease, will also be a diet for heart health and overall well being.”

    Dr. Kuluva says that a modified “Mediterranean diet” seems to be a good, balanced approach. That consists of:

    • Plant-based foods – lots of fresh vegetables and fruits.
    • High quality organic meats, with more chicken and turkey than red meats.
    • Fish, which have already been associated with good brain health. Caution, however, that larger-sized fish may have accumulated mercury and other contaminants. Smaller fish are less likely to have harmful amounts of contaminants. (See video Best Fish to Eat For Your Health)
    • Low amounts of gluten and dairy products
    • High fiber, low-glycemic-load products – de-emphasizing breads and pastas.

      See our Mediterranean Diet Plan for an easy guide to adopting this diet.

    Specific foods that seem to improve brain health include:
    • Berries
    • Green tea
    • Dark chocolate

    Certain supplements, like fish oil and Vitamin D, may also play a role. See your health care provider for a specific discussion of supplements that might be right for you.

    What’s to be avoided? Starchy carbohydrates and simple sugars that are quickly absorbed in the blood stream. This includes sugary drinks and simple carbs in the form of cookies, crackers and chips. But don’t forget that low-fiber pastas and rice can also be problematic.

    If you shop in the outer aisles of the grocery store, you can avoid packaged produces and choose among more healthy options: healthy meats/poultry/fish, fruits and vegetables. (You may also want to check out our video on Stocking a Healthy Pantry and Fridge.)

    The goal of this diet is not necessarily weight loss or staying slim. The goal is to eat foods in a more natural state, which support the proper functioning of the metabolism and the insulin/glucose reaction in particular.

    Exercise, avoiding sleep loss, and stress reduction also play a significant role in brain health, according to Dr. Kuluva.

    “This news about a possible relationship between Alzheimer’s and diabetes could be seen in a positive light,” says Dr. Kuluva. “There are likely many causes of Alzheimer’s, some out of our control, but if diet is a factor – we can impact that with our own choices.”

Download our diabetic meal plan