Nutrition and Brain Health
There are three main components of brain health: diet, exercise, and sleep. This should not be groundbreaking news, but the fact that these main contributing factors are not at the forefront of every conversation about preventing and treating Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other degenerative brain diseases, speaks volumes about our tendency to gravitate towards quick fixes. As we age, we tend to focus on aesthetic changes to our body. We obsess over gray hairs, new wrinkles, and other superficial features without stopping to think about what is going on inside our bodies
I think that part of the problem is that we tend to think in abstract terms about the brain. While the brain has very clear functions that we can clearly identify, it is also closely linked to our existential ideas of the mind and consciousness. The same organ that stores memories and creates dreams is also in charge of making sure that practical tasks, like regular breathing, are happening according to plan. It is a complex organ that we are not even close to understanding, but there is one fundamental fact that we do know for certain:
The brain is a part of the body, so whatever you do to your body will inevitably affect the brain.
Let’s say that you put on a few pounds over the holiday season. Chances are, your pants are fitting a little tighter and are feeling more tired and sluggish. In addition to physical symptoms, you may also notice that you are having more negative thoughts about your appearance, your self-esteem has taken a hit, and you may even be trying to hide the extra weight with baggy clothes. With all the noticeable consequences of gaining weight, what do you think is happening to your body internally?
Now, let’s imagine that it is more than just a few pounds. What if you are significantly overweight to the point that you suffer other health problems like Type II Diabetes and high blood pressure? Your body is clearly out of balance and working over-time to protect itself from the extra stress caused by poor lifestyle choices. Once again, if your body is struggling and way out of its comfort zone, imagine what kind of effects that is having on your brain!
The difference is that while we may see and feel the more immediate effects of disease on our bodies, it often isn’t until later in life that we notice or experience the negative effects on our brain health.
Again, I am sure that all this isn’t new information, but it is a good reminder. It is all too easy to lose awareness of what may be happening inside our bodies, especially if we are too focused on the outside. Here are some more facts to take into consideration:
- “As your belly grows, your brain tends to shrink.” Data shows that as you gain weight, your hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory, actually begins to shrink.[i]
- Your brain is the fattest organ in your body. This means that it needs fat to operate at an optimal level. Eating a low-fat diet is especially bad for your brain. Focus on eating natural food that contains good fats. Stay away from all forms or sugar. Your body and your brain will thank you.
- When you are asleep, the brain is working hard to clean out toxins and store all the memories from the previous day. Lack of sleep will cause inflammation, a build-up of harmful toxins, and prevent you from forming new cells.
- 75% of Type II diabetics develop Alzheimer’s later in life. High blood sugar and high levels of gluten cause inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. Inflammation is the main culprit when it comes to a long list of chronic diseases including heart disease and degenerative brain diseases.
What to Do?
First and foremost, change your diet. Stay away from not only processed foods and refined sugar, but also work on limiting your intake of carbohydrates, even the whole grain versions. Also, let go of the idea that eating fat will make you fat. For some people, improving their brain health may mean creating a new relationship with fatty foods. Embrace your old friend butter and discover the benefits of coconut oil. While you do want to limit your intake of animal based fats, look to all natural nut butters, avocadoes and other plant based fats to get the nutrition you need.
Exercise. The brain uses up 20% of your bodies oxygen supply. Regular exercise can help make sure your body is able to supply your brain with the oxygen it needs. In addition, studies show that exercise improves memory verbal skills, makes your brain more resilient to stress, and actually changes the shape of your neurons. Exercise isn’t just about looking good. The benefits are too numerous to even begin to list.
Establish a regular sleep schedule. As mentioned before, sleep is an essential component to brain health. Not only do you need to make sure that you are getting enough sleep, you should also try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Having a sleep routine will help you feel better tomorrow and protect your health years down the road.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia don’t happen overnight. They are the result of a lifetime of lifestyle choices that cause a gradual erosion of brain function. Don’t wait until you are experiencing negative symptoms to take control of your brain health. Use what we do know about the brain to make healthy choices that will protect your future.