This is Your Brain on Pop

October 28, 2019 | Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

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 This is Your Brain on Pop
Do you remember the ad campaign showing “This is your brain on drugs”? It featured an egg sizzling in a fry pan. Recent findings may bring similar thoughts once you hear about how chronic soft drink intake affects the brain. As enjoyable as having a cold fizzy beverage may be on a hot day, a trail of evidence demonstrates that regular soda pop consumption creates a number of unhealthy effects to the brain.

Soft drink consumption has been previously linked to diabetes, obesity, bone loss, and dental cavities. The latest research shows that chronic consumption of today’s soft drinks leads to brain stress with increased free radicals and depleted antioxidants, but there is more fall-out than that.

Oxidative Stress and Free Radicals

A 2016 study reported on the effects of carbonated soft drinks and oxidative stress to the brain. The three-month study involved rats divided into four groups. The control group drank water while the three test groups received Coca-Cola, Pepsi or 7-Up with their regular chow. After the study was completed, tissues were analyzed and several significant concerns were found.

In all three soda consuming groups, there were elevated blood levels of malondialdehyde (MDA). MDA is a very reliable sign of oxidative stress and free radicals which indicates breakdown of lipids or fats within cell membranes. This reflects damage to membrane stability and function making the cell membrane more like a broken window screen rather than a controlled semi-permeable wall.

A healthy cell membrane keeps contents within cells, transfers toxins out and brings nutrients and other helpful compounds inside cells, and keeps order within the cell structure. Each soft drink group had increased levels of MDA, with the highest levels in the Pepsi group.

Because of the increased oxidative stress, antioxidant levels declined within the brain. Each group of animals that drank the soda pop had lower levels of glutathione reductase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. The Pepsi group fared the worst.

Additional effects were seen in all three groups with down-regulated mRNA genes and other antioxidant changes. In this test, the Cola group was the most affected, followed by the Pepsi and then the 7-Up group.

Focus, Behavior, Depression

Neurotransmitter and genetic measurements of various types were evaluated with MAO-A, AChE, and 5-HTT mRNA. MAO-A is linked with neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin which affect mood, focus, and behavior. AChE affects acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter involved with learning, memory, sleep, gut, and autonomic nervous system function. 5-HTT mRNA expression related with tryptophan and serotonin metabolism was also down-regulated which may increase depression.

Neurotransmitter function, receptor sites and gene function were affected in all three soft drink groups, with the greatest as Cola, followed by Pepsi, and then 7-Up group. The findings suggested a link with increased aggression, violence, depression, and anxiety.

Gene expression with DD2R was significantly upregulated in all three soft-drink groups. DD2R is related with dopamine and is normally found in high concentrations deep within the brain’s limbic system or the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system. This area of the brain plays a direct role in the preparation, execution, and consequences of aggressive acts. Increased DD2R has been linked with increased aggressive behavior in certain conditions.


An interesting comment about caffeine was noted within the article. Caffeine is more readily absorbed in soda pop compared to non-carbonated beverages like coffee, chocolate, green/black tea, etc. Because of its relative safety, government regulatory industries pose no restrictions on caffeine use in soft drink products. As a result, “In the majority of carbonated beverages, caffeine is deliberately added to make it addictive”.

Artificially Sweetened Drinks, Stroke, and Dementia

If you are wondering about artificially sweetened soft drinks compared to sugar sweetened soft drinks and brain health, there isn’t a winner. In the Framingham Heart Study, consumption of artificially sweetened soft drinks was linked with a higher risk of stroke and dementia Risks were higher in the adults who had greater intake of pop in the more recent years prior to their loss of health.

Loss of Brain Energy, Electrolytes and Hormones Skewed, Cell Death

In a different study, brain damage occurred in rats that consumed low levels of aspartame and cola soft drinks. In this short two-month study, several adverse changes were seen. Brain energy production declined. Calcium and sodium electrolytes were increased in the blood which reflects cell stress, whereas copper, iron, zinc, and potassium levels were depleted.

Other findings included skewed thyroid hormone levels with increased T4 and lower T3 (less thyroid hormone activation). Parathyroid (calcium, bones and vitamin D) and aldosterone (blood pressure, electrolyte management) hormone levels were altered. In addition, like the earlier study, MDA levels were elevated and major antioxidant systems were reduced. Gene measurements showed cell death.

Cerebellum Changes, Balance, Posture, Speech

An earlier study showed that rats fed either diet or regular soda for 21 days experienced cerebellar damage. Nerves in the cerebellum shrunk and underwent neurodegenerative changes. Diet soda caused the greatest decline, but both types of soft drinks caused neurodegeneration. The cerebellum regulates balance, movement, motor control, posture, and speech.

This is Your Brain on Pop

Add up these findings with chronic soft drink intake. You get increased free radicals and oxidative stress, a decline in antioxidants, changes in neurotransmitters and genetic expression linked with mood, learning, and focus, etc. Skewed electrolyte levels, holes in your brain’s cell membranes, adverse changes in multiple hormones, neurodegeneration, and cell death can also happen. Then add in caffeine, sugar, non-caloric sweeteners, and other food chemicals for the addictive response. This is your brain on pop.

Research published just a few weeks ago expands on this topic even further bringing home the seriousness of how soft drinks adversely affect health. This isn’t even delving into the various concerns with aspartame and other non-caloric sweeteners, potassium benzoate, high fructose corn syrup, etc.

Even More Serious Consequences

The September 3, 2019 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine published findings on soda and mortality. An extensive population-based cohort study was conducted on 451,743 individuals from 10 European countries. The average age of the participant was 50 years old and recruited between January 1992 and December 2000.

The study found that “consumption of total, sugar-sweetened, and artificially sweetened soft drinks was positively associated with all-cause death.” A higher mortality rate of all different causes was found in those who consumed two or more glasses per day of soft drinks.

Further analysis showed that consumption of two or more glasses per day of artificially sweetened soft drinks were linked to deaths caused from circulatory disease. Individuals who consumed one or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks had higher rates of death from digestive diseases. The findings led European officials to implement public health campaigns to help citizens limit consumption of soft drinks.

In light of this information, think about you or a family member’s intake of soft drinks. Even though soda consumption has declined in recent years, an average of 39 gallons of soft drinks per person was consumed in 2018. Before you reach for that 12-pack of soda that’s on sale or the grab-n-go bottle at checkout for a quick refresher, think about how many cases or liters of pop you or your family has consumed in the last year or the previous 20 years. Are you willing to live with the adverse effects on the brain along with the other known risks of bone loss, obesity, diabetes, and cavities caused by soft drinks? Make the choice towards a healthy body.

Other Brain Health Concerns

If you have other brain health concerns such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other mood disorders, ADD/ADHD, sleep deprivation or sleep disorders, concussion or traumatic brain injury, or neurodegeneration risk or concern, you must be even more discerning of your intake. Consumption of soft drinks especially with an already challenged brain is just ramping up the stress and fire within the brain. If you want to help your brain recover from these things or even simply age well, you need to feed your brain well.


Focus on the fact that your body needs water to function. A general rule of thumb is to consume half of your body weight in ounces of water every day. Increase this amount if you are an athlete or are in an occupation that causes a lot of perspiration.

Nutritional Tips and Resources

If your reach for the soft drink to quench thirst and enjoy the bubbles, then try some mineral water with lemon, lime, raspberry, or other flavors. If you desire the caffeine and mental alertness boost, then try some green tea, licorice root tea, organic coffee (in moderation), or use nutritional support to help that heavy head feeling and improve focus.

Mental energizing supplements without caffeine and overstimulation include Daily Energy Multiple Vitamin, Super Brain Booster, Pantethine, Activator Plus, Adrenal HelperStress Helper, Thyroid Helper, Brain ProtectorDaily Protein, and others.

If you find yourself addicted or struggling with withdrawal from years of drinking pop, consider support such as Super Brain Booster, Activator PlusDaily Detoxify, and Sleep Helper while you wean off the pop. Replenish depleted electrolytes and minerals may help make the withdrawal easier. Support may include Coral Calcium or Daily Bone Xcel, Potassium PlusRelaxaMag or Strengthener Plus.

Replenish antioxidants levels, support cell membrane integrity and neurotransmitter balance with a healthy diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, cold-water fatty fish, grass-fed meats and poultry, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and avocados.

You may want to take Brain Protector, Daily Protector, Daily DHA, PhosphatidylSerine, RelaxaMag, Super Coenzyme Q10, and/or Sleep Helper as they provide targeted, therapeutic levels of nutrients. If you want to do more than just survive the challenges of today, you have to make healthy daily choices. Use this knowledge to empower yourself and thrive. You deserve something other than a Coke today.

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