It is estimated that every 3 seconds someone is diagnosed with dementia around the world, 40 million of those with Alzheimer’s specifically. And yet there is currently no successful treatment or cure. As daunting as these statistics are, there is actually much we can do to optimize our brain health and prevent or delay the onset of dementia and a wide range of other mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, autism and ADHD.
Nutrition for optimal brain health
A plant-heavy diet made up of real whole foods versus processed foods is the first line of defense in protecting your brain. As Hippocrates said, “let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”
At the heart of every major degenerative disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, is inflammation in our bodies caused by a poor diet. A diet high in refined white starches and sugar damages the gut and leads to inflammation throughout the body, which impairs our cell communication and regeneration.
More than 100 million nerve cells line our gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to rectum, and these cells communicate back and forth with our brain. With 90 percent of our feel-good hormone serotonin made in a healthy gut, it is no wonder our gut is referred to as our second brain! A diet rich in a rainbow of whole vegetables and fruits provides our body with the fiber and nutrients that give our gut microbiome the diversity it needs to thrive.
For optimal brain health, focus on eating gut healing foods such as fiber-rich leafy and cruciferous vegetables, and fermented foods like miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh and natto. Foods rich in healthy Omega-3 fats, such as avocado and olives and their oils, and wild-caught SMASH fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring) are also essential components of a brain-boosting diet. Studies have shown the anthocyanins that give red, blue and purple berries their color, offer anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anti-cancer benefits that also protect our brain cells from aging.
Exercise and the brain
Most people know that exercise improves our cardiovascular health. In addition, regular movement increases our heart rate, improving our blood flow throughout our body, which sends more oxygen to the brain.
Studies have shown that regular exercise plays a critical role in increasing our brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is essential for learning and long-term memory storage, encouraging our neurons’ communication, survival, and even regeneration (neurogenesis) as we age. The most beneficial exercise shown to boost BDNF is a combination of aerobic activity and strength training. All exercise lowers the level of our stress hormones which helps reduce inflammation throughout our body. In communities with the longest living populations, movement is a regular part of their day, whether it be walking to errands instead of driving or gardening. Find movement that you love and aim for at least 30 minutes a day or 210 minutes a week.
How sleep affects brain health
A good night’s sleep (aim for 7-9 hours) quite literally clears our minds. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers found that the space surrounding the brain cells–the interstitial space–may increase during sleep allowing the brain to flush out waste that builds up during the brain’s active waking hours. Furthermore, sleep loss activates inflammation and cell damage and lowers our body’s overall immune response to fight off illnesses. Here are some sleep hygiene tips to get you your best Z’s:
- Avoid exercise a few hours before bed as the adrenaline it creates will challenge sleep.
- No caffeine after 12 noon, ideally; not even decaf.
- Avoid heavy meals before bed and if possible, finish dinner 2-3 hours before laying down to aid digestion and sleep.
- Try to keep the same bedtime as often as possible, and have a soothing wind-down routine.
- Keep your room cool and dark. Lowered lighting before bed stimulates the melatonin that your brain makes for good quality deep sleep.
- No TV/phone/computer or other electronic devices 30-60 minutes before bed. Use blue light glasses or put a filter on your device if you read on it before bed.
- Get a sleep apnea test every 5 or so years to ensure your brain is getting the oxygen it needs during sleep. There are easy take-home tests available now.
It seems like everything is made worse by stress, which can be, frankly, stressful! The reality is stress increases the level of cortisol in our bodies, setting off an inflammatory process with a cascade of risk factors for cognitive decline: rising glucose levels, obesity, leaky gut, and cardiovascular disease. While we all have to deal with some stress in our lives, there are ways to control it:
- Establish healthy boundaries and be intentional when you say yes to adding things to your calendar.
- Consider a practice of yoga or meditation. They create a peaceful structure for breath work and movement with impressive research supporting their impact on reducing our stress levels. Even a simple practice of taking a minute out of your day to breathe slowly and consciously signals your nervous system to calm down.
- Make regular time–even 15 minutes daily–for an activity that connects you to your community and sense of joy and/or spirituality. Taking a walk in the park after work, pursuing a hobby or new skill, and maintaining social engagements keeps those neurons firing and connecting.
Hormone + brain health
Making sure our hormone levels are within ideal range is an important component of optimizing cognitive function and reversing cognitive decline. Our hormones influence just about every process in our body, from heart rate and metabolism to appetite, reproduction, mood and cognition. Hormonal imbalances can impair memory and cause brain fog. Thyroid function can be off in people with cognitive decline, and reproductive hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone have powerful brain effects. The benefits of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), especially for women in menopause, is the subject of much research. While individual hormone levels can be assessed with a simple blood test, our hormones should be evaluated and regulated as a whole by a skilled functional medicine practitioner.
Supplements that support cognitive function
While the goal is to get optimal nutrition through our diet, certain supplements are beneficial for supporting our cognitive function as we age: Omega 3, Vitamins B, C, D and E, Curcumin and Ubiquinol are all MVPs when it comes to protecting brain health. Ashwaganda, Holy Basil and Rhodiola are herbs that can be taken to support mood and synaptic function.
At Companion Health, our functional medicine practitioners will work with you to come up with the proper regime of supplements that will support your brain and overall health.
Fasting & how it supports a healthy brain
There is increasing research on the benefits of fasting to encourage the regeneration of healthy cells. Fasting, like exercise, encourages the production of BDNF, the protein that is essential for cell growth specifically in the brain’s hippocampus, the area responsible for learning and memory.
Fasting has a history dating back to Hippocrates in the 5th century BC, when he used it to heal his sick patients. In various religious faiths, fasting is associated with the holiest of holidays, such as Ramadan, and is considered a time to recharge spiritually. And of course in our hunting and gathering past, fasting happened naturally depending on food availability, as it does for animals in the wild.
Fasting can take many forms: dietary restriction, caloric restriction, and time-restricted eating. Time-restricted eating–eating within a certain time period–has become popular in recent years as a way to maintain or lose weight. It involves fasting overnight for 12-16 hours, depending on your goals and tolerance, with 3 of those fasting hours occurring before bedtime. The real benefits are beyond weight loss. After fasting 10-14 hours, our body expends the liver’s store of glucose, and turns to burning fat cells (ketones) for energy. This switch from glucose to ketones (ketosis) is where cell regeneration occurs. It triggers a process called autophagy where damaged cells are removed and then in the recovery period, once we eat again, neurons shift to a growth mode and form new synapses.
How to optimize your brain health
Brain fog, memory loss, anxiety, depression are all made worse when we do not take care of ourselves. The changes in your brain that lead to Alzheimer’s may begin 20 to 30 years before symptoms show up. What we do today makes a profound difference in our health. Every food choice we make, how often we move our body, the quality of our sleep, and the way we handle stress are all important factors in our longevity. While humans are living longer than ever before, our goal as functional medicine professionals is to not only add years to your life, but to improve the quality of your days.