Monthly Archives: July 2012

Diet Drinks Confuse the Brain

Diet Drinks Confuse the Brain

Reference: Science News,  July 14th, 2012  Physiology and Behavior

Another nail in the coffin of, “A calorie is just a calorie”!   If that were the case, this study wouldn’t be true.  Our bodies are incredibly complicated organisms with all sorts of feedback loops that we mess with when we try to manipulate them.  That’s what we try to do when we drink diet soda.  We think it’s zero calorie so it must be better for us.  We won’t go so many calories that way. What we don’t realize is that we still have the flavor sweet in our diet soda.  Whether it be saccharin, as in this study, or any other artificial sweetener.  And in response to that flavor called sweet, we put out insulin and all the other hormonal adjustments that we anticipate for the arrival of those calories, a few seconds or minutes later.

What Erin Green and Claire Murphy did, and will be publishing in Physiology and Behavior, was to try and understand what happens to your brain response pattern by studying it directly with brain scans, while giving healthy young volunteers a slight taste of saccharin in their mouths.  They had two groups of subjects: one group were steady diet soda drinkers. The other group were non-drinkers.  Each group had markedly different areas of their brains light up in response to the flavor sweet (from saccharin).  Compared to the non-drinking group, the regular diet soda group had the area of their brain that is reward processing strongly down regulated, to both saccharin and sugar.   In particular, they noted a reduced activation in the caudate head, which is the area that is associated with rewards and food motivation.  That reduction has been linked to obesity.

What this means is simple and elegant.  Your brain responds to the delivery of calories before the calories make it into your system.  You start to anticipate the arrival of the calories by putting out hormonal responses, just with the taste.  In fact, you start with just the thought, but that’s for another day.  If you are putting out hormones, you expect to get the calories. When the calories don’t arrive, you have a mismatch, so have to adjust your “response meter”.  The next time you have that flavor, you assume no calories are coming.  Then you overstep.  Your brain gets faked out and all confused.  No wonder we gain weight when we use artificial sweeteners.

What this study confirms, to my eyes, is the continuing theme that every calorie we eat is more than just a calorie.  It also represents the initiation of a hormonal response.  The food we eat isn’t just calories but a complex set of messages.  Those messages are as important as the calories.  This explains a lot of confusion when fully understood.

WWW. What Will Work for Me.  The tangled web of calories versus messages and hormonal effects feels overwhelming.  It’s gradually sorting out, much to my relief.  If it’s sweet, I’m dabbling in trouble.  I keep trying to find comfort in other flavors.  Lemon has been high on the list recently.  With summer, sweet basil is up there too.

Written by John E Whitcomb, MD   Brookfield Longevity and Healthy Living Clinic, 262-784-5300  or

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Good Morning Joe

Good Morning Joe

References:  NEJM and Circulation

Get out of bed in the morning and have a cuppa…Joe.  Coffee is about as American as we can be.  And the questions rage back and forth about whether it is good for us or not.  Seems like the answer is beginning to congeal around the concept that it is just fine.  Two cups a day keeps the doctor away.

This study, in the journal Circulation, looked at 5 meta-analysis studies (combining the results of many studies) that involved over 140,000 people.  What they were looking at was heart failure and the affect of coffee on that.  Heart failure is a reasonably good surrogate marker for diabetes and high blood pressure, which are all part of the metabolic syndrome package.  About 4 cups a day seemed to be the sweet spot with an 11% benefit in reduction of risk for heart failure.  After that, benefit started to fade and harm starts showing up.  The research was done in Scandinavian countries, known for their strong coffee but the researchers did not look at whether it was decaf or fully loaded high test caffeine.

But this study comes on the tail of the New England Journal Study last month that said that drinking two cups of coffee a day was associated with a  longer life.  In that study, 400,000 folks were followed for 13 years and found to have a pretty strong association with longer life.  They had to adjust the numbers for other habits like smoking that make things worse, but when all was well and done, women who drank two cups a day had a 13% benefit, 4 cups a day had a 16% benefit.  Men only had a total of 10% benefit.  Longer life is likely a benefit based on very fundamental physiology.

There have been many, many studies on coffee that show good effects like it does not raise blood pressure.  There have been some that show that it decreases brain blood flow when you get to 5-6 cups a day, as much as 27% in one study.   The question remains, is it the caffeine or any of the several thousand other chemicals found in coffee that make it so beneficial?

What’s the mechanism?  We don’t know but here is my conjecture.  Caffeine is a methylxanthine that is a chemical that looks like adenosine.  Adenosine is what we make ATP from.  Now, when we eat a ton of fructose, we force our liver to get exhausted and use up our ATP and thereby raise our blood uric acid level.  That uric acid in our blood wipes out our nitric oxide, leading to hypertension.  There is good research that shows that one sugared soda a day will raise your blood pressure 1 mm Hg in one month.  We do believe that caffeine as a general rule lowers your uric acid, though there is no real solid evidence that it reduces gout.  But I believe coffee, or caffeine, blocks that process ever so slightly and raises our blood nitric oxide level.  But only at 2-4 cups a day.  Blood vessels with more nitric oxide are happy, mellow blood vessels.

WWW.  What will work for me?  I drink tea. Coffee makes me too jittery after which I crash and fall asleep.   There are other ways to affect my nitric oxide level in my blood.  One is to eat less sugar and the other is to supplement myself with arginine, the amino acid that we make nitric oxide from.  NO (nitric oxide) makes my blood vessels mellow.  I think that’s the unifying hypothesis.  And I’m sticking with it.  “Morning, Joe!” to the rest of you.  Drink and enjoy.

Stand Your Ground!

Stand Your Ground!

Reference:  American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, Marketplace Money, Saturday June 29th,

“It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting.”  Nice joke.   Specially when it’s 93 degrees outside and outdoor work looks awful.  So, we all sit at desks.  All day long.   We get up to go to the water cooler and then to get rid of the water.  We nap after lunch, drowsy over the calories we digest.  But most of us sit.  We go to a meeting or two, but again we sit.  Add it all up.  How many hours a day do you sit?  You are paid for 8 hours of work.   You get up three times for a total of 10 minutes of walking.  The math says that leave you with 7 hours and 50 minutes of sedentary behavior.  And it’s killing us.  We aren’t quite sure how so we don’t give it much credence.

We have done columns before about the ill effects of sedentary behavior.   For example, we know that the benefits of exercise are blunted by sitting for prolonged periods.  Now, we have another slant.  The American Cancer Society has summarized the data and picture isn’t pretty.   If you are a woman and you sit for more than 6 hours a day, you have a 37% increased risk of premature death.  A man who sits 6 hours a day has a 17 % higher risk of premature death.  Those aren’t small numbers.   That’s all comers.  If you are a person who gets no exercise and sit 6 hours a day, your chance of earlier death is 94% higher for women and 48% for men.

Dr Alpa Patel looked at thousands of cases of breast, endometrial and colon cancer and found this data.  But it’s not just cancer but also heart disease, diabetes and stroke too.  She is an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society and is going beyond the typical role of just looking at drugs to cure a given disease.  The prevention of cancer may come down, in part, to avoid “Sitting Disease”, the results of sitting more than 3 hours a day.  And the numbers are just about bigger than anything else.

WWW. What will Work for me?  Time to use our collective imaginations.  We have to stop sitting so long.  How about standing?  How about getting a standing desk?  Start slow.  I learned to run with the slowest of approaches… adding the tiniest increment each day.  Now you and I have to learn to stand.  Can you get yourself to stand at work?  Can you stand and talk to your clients? Can you make a standing desk that you put your lap-top on? Can you answer your phone standing?  This is a big change but every step counts.  Can you get your printer to print out at the furthest printer in your office?  Can you go to the bathroom upstairs?  I know a professional counselor who stands while talking to his clients.  I know a secretary with a standing desk.  Can you make a rule when driving?  Stop at every other rest stop and walk up and down all the sidewalks.  I’m dead serious.  You have to build walking and standing into your lifestyle.  Bring a positive spin to “Stand Your Ground”.  Aim for no more than 3 hours a day of sitting.   Imagine the board room….