Eat for a Healthier Brain

Deanna Minich, PhD, author of Chakra Foods for Optimum Health had advice for eating right to live a long and active life.

Visualize the following - a row of elderly people in wheelchairs in a nursing home, completely lost in reverie, forgetful of their family members, and unable to function throughout the day. Now imagine that you are in your 80s and are completely physically active, attending gentle yoga classes and swimming in the local pool a couple of days a week, meeting with friends for tea, and going to festive family parties.

Which path do you prefer? Because for the most part, it's up to you!

It is comforting to know that we can do something about our brains into old age. We were not as hopeful decades ago when we were taught that the human brain was static and hardwired - no matter what we did, we could not change it. The new brain model for the 21st century is that our brains are wonderfully adaptable, and are only hardwired when it comes to change! Indeed, studies show that there is such thing as “brain plasticity”. Under the right conditions, our nerve cells can regenerate, rewire, and reconnect, giving us much more flexibility, connection, and ability to age with a vibrant healthy brain.

Research has shown that there is a lot of variability in how our brain ages (Liu et al., 2004). As we venture into our middle age, there are stark differences in individuals' brain gene expression. If we take all the right steps to improve our lifestyle habits, chances are much greater that we will stay mentally fit.  There are many aspects to ensure healthy brain aging:

  • Reduce unhealthy, unproductive stress loads
  • Exercise frequently (especially aerobic exercise to oxygenate the brain)
  • Engage in mental exercises like Sudoku or crossword puzzles
  • Stay connected in a community
  • Eat foods that are good for the brain

If you can implement at least one of these, it could make a profound impact on the plasticity of your brain. An easy one to get you started might be to start changing up how you eat.

(1)     Eat like you live in the Mediterranean: A recent study showed that people who were more compliant on a Mediterranean diet compared with a group that was on the diet to a lesser degree had a 28% lower incidence of becoming cognitively impaired (Scarmeas et al., 2009). For those who developed cognitive impairment, staying strictly on the Mediterranean diet helped reduce progression to Alzheimer's disease by 48% compared with the group of people who did not follow the diet to the same degree. The Mediterranean diet is chock full of healthy food items - olive oil, tomatoes, modest amounts of red wine, fresh fish, herbs and spices, to name a few. Introducing just one of these more consistently to your eating palette may be a beneficial in the long run. As an added perk, the Mediterranean diet may not only be healthy for the brain, but for reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease, cancers, and even death (mortality was reduced in 70 to 90 year olds following the Mediterranean diet by 50%; Knoops et al., 2004).

(2)     Fish oil keeps your nerve cells flowing and fluid: Many population studies show that eating the liquid unsaturated fats, such as those found in nuts, vegetables, and fish, are associated with lower rates of cognitive decline whereas the solid, saturated fats will make our brain stiff and less pliable. Of course, by the very natures of these oils (one liquid and one solid), this would make good sense. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fish oil likes to swim its way into nerve cells. When we eat enough DHA, we keep our nerve cells plastic and flowing. The other component of fish oil, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is anti-inflammatory. Populations that eat more fish oil also tend to be less depressed. Healthy options for oils other than fish include walnuts (notice how they even look like a brain!), flaxseed oil, leafy green vegetables, and olive oil.

(3)     Berries - the food to learn from: Berries, particularly the dark purplish kind, like blueberries, have been shown to help animals learn better. Researchers have shown that giving berries to aged animals (the equivalent of about _ cup for humans) resulted in cognitive improvements. And if that weren't interesting enough, what we now know is that berries aren't just brain-wonder foods because they are potent antioxidants. Scientists have shown that the two berries, blueberries and strawberries, influence different types of learning and memory. They appear to be very specific both in function and where they end up in the brain. Think berries for breakfast, especially for kids, to help them learn at school. Smoothies containing a mixture of frozen berries are also a real treat as a snack.

(4)     Spice it up! Curry spice prevents cognitive decline in animal models, which is probably not too surprising considering that turmeric is a potent antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties. People with dementia have lower amounts of antioxidants and higher amounts of damaging free radicals. Therefore, make sure that you eat foods, including potent spices like curry that are full of antioxidant action. Other examples include a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains. Taking supplemental antioxidant vitamins like vitamins C and E have been shown to reduce deficits in memory induced by a high-fat diet (Greenwood, 2009). In addition to antioxidant activity, keeping the brain cool and putting out any inflammatory fires is essential in preventing dementias. Anti-inflammatory spices other than curry include ginger and rosemary.

(5)     Balance your blood sugar: Insulin is one of the key players in determining how plastic your brain is. When your blood levels of insulin stay consistently high, as in individuals with “insulin resistance”, this leads to low levels of insulin in the brain. Without insulin in the brain, it can't process glucose for energy. And the brain loves glucose. Even though it's only 2% of the body weight, it consumes 18-30% of the glucose ingested. So no glucose, no focus, no learning. Long-term, significant insulin reduction in the brain can result in a buildup of amyloid plaques, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease. Keep your blood sugar steady by eating low glycemic index foods like legumes (garbanzo beans, lentils, black beans), nuts, vegetables, and whole grains (no white rice!). Many of these foods also contain chromium, a key nutrient for insulin action. Finally, cinnamon is an excellent spice that helps your body to use insulin better. Try sprinkling some in your steamed soy/rice/almond milk!

(6)     Fried foods fry your brain: Foods that are fried, burnt, overcooked, toasted or baked can result in the formation of complexes (“Advanced Glycation Endproducts” or AGEs) that end up getting absorbed and increasing inflammation in the body. Bacon, pizza, and a fried chicken breast are some major culprits that contain significant amounts of these AGEs. Let's put it straight - eating AGEs ages! Try eating some raw food dishes once in awhile - like a tossed spinach salad, conveniently cut vegetables, fresh fruit - to help keep AGEs at bay.


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