Brain Science

Is Your Brain Being Plasticized?

Is Your Brain Being Plasticized? about undefined
Every year, companies in the US produce 100 billion pounds of plastic for all kinds of products and packaging. But a toxic substance -- bisphenol A (BPA), described as a “plasticizer” – is frequently included in plastic to make it flexible and less brittle. BPA is most famously used in bottles for plastic drinks, including sodas, fruit juices, and bottled waters, but it’s also found in many other types of food containers. The chemical does find its way into the food or drink the container holds, and from there, into our bodies – and also into the environment in general. BPA has long been a concern among people worried about cancer risk. Now it appears it may increase the risk of dementia as well. . . If you underwent the proper tests, you’d almost certainly find that BPA is in your body right now. This is bad news, because a steady stream of research shows that the BPA we’re consuming makes problematic changes on a cellular level that can derail the way our brains operate. Full disclosure:  The Food and Drug Administration and a number of other regulatory agencies worldwide insist the levels of BPA in our foods is far below anything we need to worry about. I hope they’re right, but health-conscious people are skeptical, and most of us take steps to keep our exposure as low as possible. There are ways to potentially minimize the damage – which I’ll get to in a moment. The best way is prevention: you should avoid this chemical wherever possible.

BPA has been Controversial for a Long Time

We are practically saturated by BPA because it’s used so widely. It lines the cans containing soups, soft drinks and beer. It’s in fast food packaging and much of the plastic packaging in the supermarket. It’s also in some thermal paper (like those receipts you get at checkout), polycarbonate water pipes, medical devices, eyeglasses, compact discs and dental sealants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that more than 90 percent of us have BPA in our bodies. The highest levels have been found in children. Studies consistently show that once it enters the body, BPA acts as an “endocrine disruptor.” It interferes with the actions of estrogen – and sometimes acts like a harmful, weak form of estrogen. In general, researchers say that BPA and other endocrine disruptors can increase your cancer risk, hamper your immune and nervous system and pose a threat to reproduction.1

And Now It’s Going to Your Head

Most recently, researchers have begun to more closely examine what BPA does to the brain. The evidence suggests it changes the brain’s structure and interferes with reasoning and cognitive abilities. A lab analysis at the University of Illinois shows that exposure to BPA can result in a smaller medial prefrontal cortex. Shrinking this part of the brain may shorten attention span and make it harder to do mental work that entails switching your focus from one task to another. The tests found that exposure to BPA and similar chemicals results in fewer neurons and synapses in the prefrontal cortex.2 Meanwhile, a study at the University of Missouri shows that BPA interferes with the brain cells responsible for communication and language. This happens, the scientists say, because the toxin distorts “global regulatory pathways” in the brain – systems that are required for the proper networking of neurons   Alarmingly, this research also indicates that the harm can be passed down to children and grandchildren possibly because of changes to how genes are expressed, exposure to BPA in the womb or other interactions between parent and offspring.3 And BPA’s harmful effects don’t stop there. It can also:
  • Ruin spatial memory and affect your ability to remember where things are – the whereabouts of your keys, for instance – and increase anxiety. But the tests showed this mostly affects males.4
  • Impair memory by increasing oxidative stress in the brain’s hippocampus, an important center for memory.5
  • Expand harmful brain inflammation by causing microglia – immune cells that wander the brain – to increasingly harm neurons.6

How to Fight Back Against BPA

To avoid these BPA effects you can:
  • Minimize your consumption of canned foods because they frequently absorb BPA, which is used to line the inner surface of the can.
  • Don’t microwave or heat foods in plastic containers.
  • Try to avoid drinking beverages out of plastic bottles or cans.
  • Try supplements of alpha lipoic acid. Studies show that this antioxidant nutrient may reduce BPA’s toxic effect on neurons.7
  • Take curcumin supplements. Research indicates this popular herbal remedy may stimulate processes in brain cells that fend off neurodegenerative damage.8
It’s important to remember that much of the research on BPA has been performed on animals. There’s really no ethical way to test BPA on people. So this toxin’s precise brain effects on humans are still murky. And don’t be fooled by plastic packaging that trumpets the fact that it is “BPA-Free.” Many companies now use BPS – a similar chemical – as a BPA substitute in packaging. But researchers believe that BPS’s harm to the body and brain is just as bad as BPA -- and maybe worse.9

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