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Nutrition and Healthy Habits for Brain Health

Brain health is a topic that hits very close to home for me.  In 2016, my mom received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.  She wasn’t that old, only 69 when diagnosed and she did not survive long with the illness.  For certain, I feel her life was definitely cut short by this disease and there is no real understanding of what caused this illness in her.  At this moment in time, there is no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  The best thing we can all do is focus on altering lifestyle behaviors that will prevent or delay the occurrence of these issues. I likely have Alzheimer’s in my genes so I would rather eat a healthy diet and create healthy lifestyle habits now, with the hope I will not face the same outcome.

Scientific research related to food and how our bodies respond to the way we eat is constantly changing.  But as time goes on and more research is available, it is becoming more evident that food is more than just fuel for our bodies.  What and how we eat influences our overall health.  Some ingredients have health promoting qualities which makes them important for us to get through our diet.

Photo by Jeremy Stewart on Unsplash Omega 3-fatty acid is found in several foods but is most commonly found in cold water fish such as salmon and tuna, walnuts, flax and chia seeds.

Omega-3 fatty acids
One form of Omega-3 fatty acids found in high levels of the membranes of our brain cells is DHA.  The whole mechanism surrounding the use of DHA in the brain is complicated, but basically DHA is part of our brain cell membranes, working to maintain the integrity of our cells membranes and the synaptic function.  Since our bodies can’t produce this fatty acid on its own, we must consume it in our diet in order to maintain the health of our brain cells.

Omega 3-fatty acid is found in several foods, but most commonly in cold water fish such as salmon and tuna, walnuts, flax and chia seeds.  It is also found in less fatty types of fish as well but in smaller amounts.  Eating fish once a week, adding walnuts to salads and including flax or chia seeds in smoothies or yogurt parfaits are some ways I eat foods with omega-3 fatty acids.  You can also take a supplement if you feel that you are not able to eat enough of these foods.  However, I recommend speaking to your doctor or a dietitian prior to beginning any form of supplementation.  Make sure the supplement you choose includes both DHA and EPA because your body actually needs both forms of these omega 3-fatty acids.

Photo by William Felker on Unsplash Antioxidants are commonly found in blueberries, red berries, kale, dark green vegetables, sweet potatoes, orange vegetables and beans.

The brain is a metabolic powerhouse which leaves it particularly vulnerable to damage from free radicals.  The brain produces these free radicals during its metabolic processes.  Free radicals left floating in the blood stream of the brain cause damage.   Antioxidants work to remove these free radicals from our body.  Studies have revealed that antioxidants will delay cognitive decline in the elderly.  These antioxidants are from several different vitamins including, Vitamin C, E and A.  These vitamins are commonly found in blueberries, red berries, kale, dark green vegetables, sweet potatoes, orange vegetables and beans.

Other nutrients
A host of studies have also shown that many other nutrients including B vitamins, vitamin D, E and choline, and others obtained from our diets, provide either a delay in cognitive decline or improvement in cognitive function.  I believe this further emphasizes the need for consuming a healthy diet.

Most B vitamins come from a host of natural sources.  It is important to note that Vitamin B-12 is not found in plant food.  Meaning if you are eating a vegan diet you may be at particular risk of a deficiency in B-12.  Supplementation in this instance may be necessary, since the body needs B-12 to keep nerve and blood cells healthy.

Vitamin C is most commonly found in citrus fruits, strawberries, pineapple, mango, brussel sprouts, bell peppers, broccoli and kale.

The best sources of Vitamin E are asparagus, avocado, nuts, peanuts, olives, seeds, spinach, and vegetable oils.

Choline isn’t a nutrient that we commonly here about, but it is found in egg yolks, soy, beef, chicken and lettuce.  It is used by the body to make the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.

Trans fat, Saturated Fat and Sugar
Studies have indicated that some foods have a negative impact on brain health.   First, some animal studies indicate consuming saturated fats lead to a decline in cognitive function.  Furthermore, in studies of aging humans saturated fat appears to further exacerbate cognitive decline. In another instance, studies of rodents consuming a diet with lots of foods high in saturated fat and sugar, demonstrated a decline in cognitive function and a reduction in the neural plasticity of the synapses in the hippocampus (a major part of the brain).

These foods also tend to promote unhealthy insulin levels. Overtime these high levels can lead to issues with diabetes and obesity resulting in harm to the brain.  The danger of diabetes concerns the damage it causes to blood vessels including those in the brain.

Processed foods generally contain saturated and trans fats, and butter, dairy products and meat all contain saturated fats.  It is also important to limit the sugar we add to foods such as beverages and cooked foods.  This doesn’t include sugars found naturally in foods, such as fruit because these foods often also have many other health benefits.

The best diet for brain health?
Maybe your next question is so how do I eat that is good for my brain and overall health?  The best diet you can consume consists predominantly of veggies, protein, whole grains and healthy fats, and lower amounts of processed foods and sugar.  But if you are in need of a diet that has more structure, I’d recommend looking at and following the Mediterranean diet.  There is scientific evidence that this diet does benefit the brain, and I recall vividly that it was recommended by the doctor when my mom’s memory troubles first began.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

The discovery of this “diet” came about in the 1950’s.  It began with a scientist investigating why it appeared that poorer people living in small towns in southern Italy were much healthier than wealthier individuals in the United States.  After investigating groups in seven different countries, the researcher was able to determine that folks in this area definitely had lower measures of cholesterol and thus less cardiovascular disease. In addition to diet other lifestyle factors such as physical activity and avoidance of eating excessive calories also contribute to their overall better health.

I am not sure that I’d call this a diet, it is more a style of eating.  But it hits all the requirements of a diet that is good for your overall health and your brain. This eating pattern includes foods loaded with fiber, antioxidants and unsaturated fats.  At the same time, it reduces or limits foods that contain animal fats and cholesterol.

Further, scientific studies indicate a correlation between cognitive health and this diet in older adults. The drawbacks of these studies include their limited scope and mixed results from study to study.  In conclusion, further research needs to be conducted to more solidly substantiate this correlation.  But in my opinion, this pattern of eating is representative of how we should be eating.

In 1992, the USDA introduced the Mediterranean Diet as a healthy eating pattern.  It created a food pyramid to show what foods and how much of them to eat. The items we should consume in greater quantity fall at the bottom of the pyramid, and those we should eat less frequently at the top. The 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines still recommend this pattern of eating with some modifications over the years.

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In my opinion, it’s a good diet to follow because it doesn’t eliminate any foods.  The hardest diets to stick with long term are those that restrict certain foods.  You may be able to follow for a certain period of time.  However, long-term it is difficult to eliminate groups of food, and in some cases it may be flat out unhealthy for you.  in this diet, you can still eat all foods, including meat and sugar – just in limited amounts.  Also, this style of eating adapts easily for those who wish to eat only plant-based foods.  All that is required is the elimination of the animal proteins from the diet and an increase in the plant-based proteins.

Lifestyle factors that influence the brain’s health
In addition to diet, there are other lifestyle factors that greatly affect the health of our brain. 

Physical Activity
Studies show that exercise leads to improved learning and memory, and it affects people of all ages.  Exercise works against the natural mental decline that occurs in aging adults.  Also, physical activity improves the brain’s cognitive function in young adults and improves recovery of function following a brain injury or brain disease.  In addition, physical activity is a preventative measure for those of us that are obese, or at risk for diabetes and other illnesses that effect the brain.

There does seem to be a correlation between sleep and cognitive function.  I know that when I get adequate sleep at night, I feel better. Also, I am better able to perform at work and my thought processes seem to flow more easily. Scientific studies also associate sleeping issues and lack of sleep with a higher chance of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  The exact mechanism working here is unclear, and further study and research is certainly needed.  Most experts recommend most adults get 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

Stress Management, Socialization and Other
Some other lifestyle factors that contribute to overall brain health include stress management, active social life, and keeping the brain active.  My favorite tools for stress management are physical activity, yoga and meditation.  Whether or not these actually will contribute to actual prevention of dementia or Alzheimer’s isn’t clear, however they are still healthy habits that may in general make us feel better.

What to do next
So now that we’ve gone through all that what does it all mean for each of us? No one knows what the future holds for each of us, and there is still so much that is unknown about this disease but the science does seem to overwhelmingly indicate that living a healthier life has benefits.

Healthy Habits for Better Brain Health

  • Eat a variety of foods that include more plants and less meat
  • Eat for balanced energy intake and avoid eating excessive calories
  • Get daily physical activity
  • Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night
  • Manage your stress through activities such as meditation, yoga or anything else you find relaxing
  • Keep your brain engaged through puzzles or education
  • Maintain an active social life that includes time spent with friends and family or engaging with others in some form of activity

Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function

A Life-Long Approach to Physical Activity for Brain Health

Mediterranean diet habits in older individuals

Summary of the evidence on modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia

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