WHAT IT MEANS: Like so many things, it’s about balance. A key to healthy cognitive function as you age is maintaining good blood sugar regulation, preserving your body’s ability to keep your blood sugar neither too high nor too low. The primary ways to do this are through exercise and diet. A healthy diet keeps you from overdosing on sugar, and regular aerobic exercise increases insulin sensitivity, enabling the cells of your body to efficiently utilize glucose for energy. This is a big part of why you feel more energetic when you exercise regularly, plus, it means your body doesn’t have to produce as much insulin to get the job done.
Here are some ways to keep your sugar levels balanced, overcome sugar addiction and cravings, and keep your cognition in good working order:
• Minimize your intake of sugar, and of the refined carbohydrates that your body quickly converts into sugar. When it comes to carbs, stick with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The fiber in these foods helps your body maintain consistent blood sugar levels and reduces cravings for more carbs. Avoid highly processed carbs, found in many cakes, cookies, breads, cereals, and pasta products.
• Eat healthy carbs with protein, which further enables your body to maintain consistent blood sugar levels. Eating protein stimulates your liver to produce glucagon, which slows down the absorption of glucose and makes it available longer.
• Eat healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids. These also help to balance your blood sugar.
• Get regular aerobic exercise. This is the main way to increase insulin sensitivity and healthy glucose metabolism. Exercise also stimulates production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance that promotes the growth and connectivity of new brain cells.
• Be aware of your blood glucose level. If it’s creeping up as you age, talk with your doctor about strategies for keeping it lower. With healthy lifestyle modifications, you can prevent type 2 diabetes, and stave off its precursor, insulin resistance, while also keeping your brain sharp.
• Manage stress well. Prolonged, excessive stress can damage and impair functioning of the hippocampus. Slow, rhythmic breathing exercises and meditation can help to quiet the mind, relax the body, and reduce the effects of stress.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, and the author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The Breakthrough Drug-Free Program for Lasting Relief from Depression (Rodale Press, 2010).