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Fuel the Brain

By on September 2, 2015

When it comes to health, most people don’t give their brains a second thought. 

But, what we eat and drink directly influences the structure of our brain and in turn, its function both in terms of mood and cognition. 

Brain Nutrition
The brain needs a steady supply of the basics: carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Along with these essential nutrients, the brain thrives when it gets the added protection from phytonutrients; those compounds found in plant foods that provide antioxidants and lower inflammation. Carbohydrates are needed for fuel, the brain loves them; most of the dry weight of the brain is fat so all natural dietary fats play a role but notably omega-3 fats. Try to eliminate trans fats as they don’t do your brain any favours. Amino acids from protein are the building blocks of neurotransmitters and vitamins and minerals keep everything running smoothly.

Dietary Patterns
Researchers from the Taub Institute for Research in Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, Columbia University in New York, found that those who followed a Mediterranean-style of eating had 40% less risk for development of Alzheimer’s disease. While a bit of a misnomer since there’s no ‘one’ dietary patter in the Mediterranean region, the diet tends to emphasize higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans etc), fish, monounsaturated fats and moderate alcohol consumption with an infrequent consumption of dairy foods and meats. This eating pattern is rich in omega-3 fats, antioxidants such as vitamin E, C, and polyphenols too numerous to count, and minerals like magnesium and chromium; known to enhance the action of insulin which helps to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. 

Exercise
Physical activity is often called the best medicine in the world and for good reason: nothing has as much full-body health benefits as activity, or exercise does. No medication or food can increase insulin sensitivity as much, or for as long, as exercise can. It benefits nearly every system, tissue and organ not the least of which is the brain. 

Exercise as been shown to reduce the risk for vascular dementia (dementia associated with poor brain blood vessel health) and Alzheimer’s disease by making the neurons more resistant to oxidative stress, improves energy metabolism, memory and brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to adapt to injury). Exercise also improves the way the brain uses glucose and fats for energy by improving the action of insulin.

Supplements
B vitamins: all the B vitamins are needed for optimal mood and mental health given that they are involved in neurotransmitter production. B12 is especially important; it benefits the brain in multiple ways by lowering homocysteine, preventing brain atrophy (shrinkage), maintaining cognitive function and memory. B12 needs folate and vitamin B6 to work best; including a full B complex supplement ensures you’ll get all the B vitamins together.

Vitamin D: Several studies have found an association between vitamin D and Alzheimer’s disease, which is more common in people with lower levels of vitamin D. It’s not clear if low levels of vitamin D cause Alzheimer’s and dementia and therefore taking more D will prevent, treat or delay dementia. The inflammation from dementia may be lowering vitamin D levels as it does in other inflammatory diseases. As more research is done, it’s still prudent to ensure your vitamin D levels are optimal because vitamin D has other well-documented benefits. In Canada, even during the spring and summer, some amount of supplemental vitamin D is needed.

Curcumin: the natural pigment that gives the spice turmeric its yellow colour is curcumin; a superstar when it comes to food and phytonutrient supplements. It has been shown to have many far-reaching benefits including potential protection from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by reducing inflammation and improving blood flow. Research has demonstrated curcumin’s ability to reduce beta-amyloid protein levels, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s but it’s far too early to state that it can be used as a treatment. The good news is that it is largely safe and benefits overall health. Be sure to get brands that are designed for enhanced absorption as standard curcumin supplements are not; in the long run it’s more cost effective since you’re getting more bang for your buck.   

Vitamin E: this vitamin has been extensively studied for its health benefits and while most of those benefits have been attributed to its role as an antioxidant, the story doesn’t stop there. Vitamin E enables gene expression, improves cellular signal transmission, and more.  Research supports its many functions, antioxidant and otherwise, in delaying memory loss in Alzheimer’s. Vitamin E really refers to all 8 isomers, or different forms of the vitamin, not just alpha-tocopherol which should be avoided as supplement. 

Omega-3 fats: these fats work on a couple of fronts; they help to reduce inflammation and inflammation drives depression, anxiety and is associated with cognitive decline. Also, a large portion of the fat that makes up the brain is DHA, one of the omega-3 fats. While there are DHA-only supplements on the market, getting a brand with both EPA and DHA is best since it supplies both types of omega-3 fatty acids which the vast majority of Canadians aren’t getting enough of.

References:
Mediterranean Diet and Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease
http://tinyurl.com/q53u79u 

Curcumin. New Studies Support Brain and Cardiovascular Benefits http://tinyurl.com/oqtm9n9

Brain Atrophy in Cognitively Impaired Elderly: the importance of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamin status in a randomized controlled trial.
http://tinyurl.com/pc9zf8n 

Exercise Plays a Preventative Role against Alzheimer’s Disease http://tinyurl.com/k7qc5v3 

Vitamin D and Alzheimer’s Disease
http://tinyurl.com/q95ybl5

Doug Cook, RD, MHSc is a registered dietitian and nutritionist with a focus on functional medical nutrition therapy. He uses an integrative and holistic nutritional approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with the judicious use of nutritional supplements where appropriate. He is the coauthor of “Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies” (Wiley, 2008) and “The Complete Leaky Gut Health & Diet Book” (Robert Rose, Spring 2015). You can learn more about Doug by visiting his Facebook page, following him on Twitter, or by checking out his website www.dougcookrd.com.

 

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