First of all, let’s get over the idea that there is, or will ever be, a miracle food, herb or drug for brain health. What’s good for the whole body – food-, exercise-, sleep-, mind-wise – is also what’s good for the brain. Today we have an epidemic of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, but not as a result of brain shrink caused by natural aging. Rather, in the overwhelming majority of cases, evidence strongly suggests that we are being set up for these diseases as a consequence of lifestyle factors all too common in our advanced technological age.
The prime culprit is the modern Western diet – high in refined sugars and carbs, low in healthy fats, quality protein, fresh fruits and vegetables. Today’s typical diet elevates blood sugar which causes metabolic havoc over time, like shrinking the brain memory center, the hippocampus – a perfect recipe for memory decline, as well as a host of other serious degenerative conditions.
The good news is, we now know that brain cells can regenerate, i.e., regrow and rewire (neurogenesis), given the right environment. It’s all about cultivating a good crop of brain cells through a healthy lifestyle. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, this helps explain why brain autopsies may reveal the presence of cells indicative of Alzheimer’s, but symptoms were never manifested because the brain also contained an abundance of normal cells. A healthy, active brain is like a thickly forested jungle. If a few trees get cut down, the forest still thrives. By focusing on building up your brain reserves, it is possible that memory decline and other brain maladies can be reversed or prevented.
The brain loves and absolutely requires healthy fats, especially saturated fats from grass-fed animals which supply vital nutrients, like B12 and fat-soluble A and D, for energy, repair, hormone production and overall daily operation. Cholesterol is vital for building cell membranes, helping regulate protein pathways required for cell signaling in the brain and whole body, etc. For the last 60 or so years, we’ve been brainwashed by food manufacturers and misguided government agencies to think that saturated fats and cholesterol are the bad guys, while, processed polyunsaturated fats, transfats, margarine, low-fat foods are the good ones. The exact opposite is true! The situation is compounded when doctors prescribe statin drugs to lower cholesterol. Statins increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, which has been shown to double the risk of Alzheimer’s. Also, routine use of antibiotics destroys gut health, compromising the brain and entire immune function.
A Diet for Body and Brain
It seems like every week there’s a new theory about what is the best way to eat. It’s easy to get confused and cynical about the whole thing, but, honestly, it’s not that complicated! As discussed in great detail on this website, eat a wide variety of whole foods as close to their natural, unadulterated state as possible, preferably locally grown and seasonally available. This includes a mix relatively high in healthy animal and vegetable fats and low in carbs, primarily the less starchy kind, raw or lightly cooked; fermented foods and vegetables; meat from grass-fed, pastured animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. Food should be delicious and satisfying. The Mediterranean diet is a good model. In our experience, very few people can thrive over time on a pure vegetarian or vegan diet because it simply lacks the nutrient density necessary for maintaining long-term health, most especially brain health. The exception might be for those whose bodies have adapted to very low meat consumption over at least 3 generations.
Here are some foods (by no means all) that are particularly helpful for cultivating a healthy brain:
- Healthy fats – vital for optimal body and brain function, including organic butter and meats (from grass-fed animals), olives, extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, raw nuts, eggs from pastured chickens, wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, cod liver oil, avocado, etc. These healthy fats, especially animal fats, increase Omega-3 (vs. damaged omega 6 fats from processed vegetable oils) which studies show help reduce symptoms of a variety of psychiatric illnesses and degenerative brain disorders. The brain is 60-70% fat.
- Grass-fed red meat and organ meats like liver – prime source for Vitamin B12 vital for brain function; studies show B12 deficiency may lead to brain shrinkage and lower cognitive ability.
- Curry – contains anti-inflammatory turmeric. Research shows that curcumin in turmeric can help inhibit the accumulation of destructive beta amyloids in the brain of Alzheimer patients, as well as break up existing plaques. Curcumin has also been shown to boost memory and stimulate growth of new brain cells.
- Celery, peppers, carrots – good sources of luteolin that calms brain inflammation, primary cause of neurodegeneration.
- Broccoli and cauliflower, pastured eggs and meat – provide choline which aids brain development, especially important in pregnancy and childhood.
- Walnuts – good source of omega-3 fats which contain DHA to boost brain function and healing. Pecans and macademia nuts are also high in good fats.
- Chickpeas – excellent source of magnesium, along with kelp and leafy greens; magnesium relaxes blood vessels, allowing more blood flow to the brain.
- Blueberry – rich in phytochemicals linked to enhanced learning, thinking, memory, along with reduced neurodegenerative oxidative stress; also lower in fructose than other fruits.
- Fermented foods – unhealthy gut flora weakens brain function, contributing to anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, learning disability, etc. Daily doses of sauerkraut juice or beet kvas, lacto-fermented vegetables like pickles and kim chi, whole plain yogurt, kefir, probiotics, etc., provide good bacteria which, as recent research reported in Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences has shown, strengthens overall health, especially brain health.
- Unrefined salt -Celtic or Himalayan salt used in moderation are excellent sources of trace minerals vital to your brain and whole body.
- Cinnamon – Scientists at UC Santa Barbara discovered 2 compounds found in cinnamon that show promise against Alzheimer’s. The compounds prevent the development of the filamentous “tangles” found in the brain cells that characterize the disease.
What to Avoid
- Reduce carbohydrate consumption, especially sugars and unsprouted grains.
- Stay far, far away from refined, over-processed, denatured, junk foods.
- Avoid antibiotics unless real emergency.
- Avoid chlorinated and/or fluoridated water.
- Avoid foods “fortified” with vitamins or minerals. This is a marketing ploy to pump up sales of foods robbed of nutrients in processing. The added single nutrients (usually synthetic) touted on labels lack essential synergism, are poorly absorbed and unbalancing to the body.
- Avoid genetically-modified organisms. GMO’s have been found to contain high levels of glyphosate, the active ingredient in pesticides like Monsanto’s RoundUp. Glyphosate increases chronic inflammation and is toxic to human DNA even when diluted to concentrations 450-fold lower than used in agricultural applications.
- Avoid factory farm meats (CAFO), pesticides and exposure to chemicals in the home.
Other Brain-Nourishing Tips
- Exercise – regular moderate physical activity stimulates biochemical changes that strengthen and renew your body and brain, especially areas associated with memory and learning. Aerobic exercise in particular (jogging, swimming, cycling, walking) helps reduce chronic inflammation and promote neurogenesis. Research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience concluded that regular exercise is even protective for older adults at high risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Brain Calisthenics – use it or loose it! Challenging your mind throughout life has a significant protective effect on brain health. Learn new activities like speaking a foreign language or how to play a musical instrument. Look for ways to add complexity to activities you’re already good at. Volunteer for community projects, like tutoring kids or planning events. Practice brain aerobics with crosswords, card games, chess, scrabble, jigsaw and other kinds of puzzles.
- Music – just listening to music prompts beneficial brain changes, like improved mental focus and cognitive function. Adding exercise to music, like dancing, multiplies these benefits.
- Sunshine year round – provides Vitamin D which is important for every cell in the body. In the brain Vitamin D increases nerve growth. Needed in abundance in the hippocampus and cerebellum, Vitamin D is vital for the processing of information and formation of memories. About 20 minutes of sun exposure, once or twice a day, keeps the brain supplied with healthy Vitamin D levels.
- Quality sleep – boosts brain power at all ages for improved learning skills and mental acuity.
- Sociability – maintaining regular friendships enhances quality of life and keeps the brain sharp and focused in the “now.”
- Mercury amalgam fillings removal – getting rid of mercury decreases the toxic load and allows the nervous system to heal. (You can find a dentist experienced in this delicate process at International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology: www.iaomt.com)
- Gingko extract – This herb improves oxygenation of the tissues. It’s benefit for Alzheimer’s has been well documented.
- Slant Board – Lying with your head below your hips for 5-10 minutes a day brings needed blood to the brain, countering the constant downward pull of gravity and invigorating all organs of the body.
- Meditation – regular practice of some form of meditation strengthens the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part responsible for memory.
Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers by David Perlmutter
“Key Strategies to Protect Yourself from Alzheimer’s” by Dr. Mercola
“Can Exercise Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk?” By Gretchen Reynolds
“Nine ways to Make Yourself Smarter” by Dr. Mercola