Brain Fuel: The Sweet Spot

  • Mind Health

What’s the sweet spot when it comes to fueling your brain? 

We start with this euphemism because the sweet spot is often referred to as the optimal place for obtaining a certain desirable effect or result. Where things are “just right.” That’s precisely what our brain likes when it comes to glucose. Glucose is the brain’s favorite fuel source. It literally cannot not function without it, so our body’s amazing check and balance system is constantly striving to keep the brain fueled.

Hold on, I know you are thinking to yourself, if I eat more sugar, I’ll be feeding my brain, right? Not necessarily. It’s not about how much sugar you do or do not consume, its about how your body uses the sugars we consume. 

Carbohydrates are the most abundant food source on the planet. Every plant contains this macronutrient and, in nature, it is the perfect food. In older times, humans were constantly active, gathering or foraging for food, without the stresses of modern life. Today, humans are much more sedentary. We buy our food produced by industrial entities, and are constantly bombarded with daily stressors. So, considering we are about as far as you can be from “natural,” our bodies have had to make major adjustments to keep our brains fueled.     

When our calories don’t get “burned off” by physical exertion, it must be managed in a different way. One simple assessment of how well you have fueled is how you feel after a meal. Do you feel like taking a nap? This is a sign that your body just got over-fueled for the amount of energy required. As a result, your body has to find a way to store those unused calories for future needs.   

How Does This Affect My Brain? 

The brain does not store glucose for future use as other parts of the body, like muscles do, so it needs a steady supply to function optimally. Typically about ninety minutes after a meal, the blood glucose reservoir starts to become depleted and, depending on how much glucose flooded the system from the meal you consumed, your brain will either scream “I need food NOW” or you will maintain good brain energy throughout the day. When your brain thinks it is running low on glucose, stress chemicals are launched signaling “dangerously low fuel.” In reaction to this alarm, we typically grab a quick fix like caffeine or a sugary snack. This reaction can keep us in a vicious hunger cycle and, over time, can create fatigue, brain fog and depression.

There are many links between blood sugar and brain function, says Dr. Goldfine of the Joslin Diabetes Center. Research shows that high blood sugar levels and insulin resistance appear to disrupt the communication pathways within the brain. Diabetes-related inflammation appears to be another culprit, especially in the development of amyloid plaques in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

What Else Can I Do To Keep My Brain Healthy?

  1. Eat smart carbs at or between meals. 

Smart carbs carry with them a couple of partners to help slow down the rush of glucose to the brain, namely protein and fiber. Many fruits and vegetables contain these components but some that top the smart carb list are:

Fast carbs have no partners so they have nothing to hold back the rush of sugar. The result is that the brain gets a quick fix of fuel but it uses it quickly as well. This can send off a cascade of sugar cravings because, remember, the brain cannot store extra glucose. The long term effects of consuming fast sugar are staggering. According to renowned physician Dr. William Sears,  the incidence of just about every age-related illness goes up as your blood sugar rises: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and other “-itis” (inflammatory) illnesses. 

2. Keep moving, moving, moving!

In addition to all the other benefits of exercise, according to the Mayo Clinic regular physical activity benefits the brain. Multiple research studies show that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function.

3. Get plenty of sleep.

For more advice on this topic, see our blog on circadian rhythms and setting up your home for rest.

4. Stay mentally active.

Do a crossword puzzle, or learn a new language! They old saying goes “use it or lose it” and this applies to brain function, too. You can challenge yourself to keep learning–at any age.

5. Be a social butterfly!

According to the Mayo Clinic, an active social life can help ward off depression and stress, both of which can contribute to memory loss.

Remember, optimal brain function depends on a whole host of elements, but if you follow the tips above, you can keep your physical and mental health in “sweet spot!”


“Prime-Time Health”, Dr. William Sears, Hachette Book Group. 2010.