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Dietary strategies for brain health

Health and wellness is a hot topic these days. Pick up almost any popular magazine and you are certain to find at least one article on the subject. Nutrition is a particularly prominent issue in media. An increasing number of Americans are beginning to value its importance in regards to quality of life concerns.

The dangers of obesity are better recognized than ever. When questioned, the general consensus is that our diet is critical in heart health, in the risks of developing diabetes, and a host of other metabolic diseases. But how often do you consider an essential element of wellness: cognition, a medical term for our ability to think and learn?

Our nutrition is often not a well-planned thing, with hunger leading to a quick meal, sometimes of less than optimal nutritive value. Someone’s stomach is making noises and another fast food establishment looms on the horizon. We eat what is handy, to satiate our appetite, or to satisfy some craving. Emotional issues are another common stimulus for random, irrational consumption.

But more and more, people are eating foods to be healthy. Still, not enough people consider the foods we ingest and the relationship to our thinking, our memory, and brain health as a general concept. Compelling evidence now exists suggesting our diet as being critical to neurologic function, ie our ability to think, to learn, to retain information.

Like your heart, your brain is always working. Continuously, it is performing all manner of tasks, including thoughts and movements, controlling your breathing and heartbeat, processing information gained by your senses. Even while sleeping, the brain is active, orchestrating our dreams. Naturally, your brain requires fuel to perform this essential “work.”

The foods we eat provide that fuel and what that fuel is composed of makes a tremendous difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.

Doctors and scientists have been examining this correlation between diet and neurologic conditions for many decades. While it should not be surprising that there is no one single ingredient that can magically cure any of these conditions (eg epilepsy, dementia in all its varied forms, or stroke), the treatment of neurologic diseases from a dietary approach has become a hot topic. Hard evidence now exists from a growing number of studies and trials suggesting diet is critical to brain health.

Until recently, the thinking was the brain’s only energy source was sugar in the form of glucose. We now know the brain can use ketone bodies for energy. Apparently, age reduces the brain’s ability to use sugar, but using sugar results in the accumulation of toxic plaque formation around nerve cells. In contrast, ketone bodies, an energy source derived from fat, represent an option which aids in restoring brain metabolism. Interestingly, the capacity to use ketones increases with age.

So what does the evidence, gathered to date, say about diet and prevention of dementia? Let’s focus on those foods which are indicated by studies as being most effective in these efforts. Vegetables, especially leafy greens, are at the top of the list. Surprising to some, fruits didn’t make the list except for berries. Additionally, fats are an “essential” part of this discussion. The role of dietary fat in dementia has aroused increasing interest.

We can learn something about brain health by looking at infants. We know that inadequate energy consumption and/or insufficient nutrients during the first stages of life have profound effects on the structural and functional development of the brain. The essential fatty acids (EFAs), particularly polyunsaturated fatty acids, are especially important for brain development, both when in the womb and after birth. Studies conclusively demonstrate brain structure and function are significantly altered if specific essential nutrients are lacking during development.

It seems quite logical: an individual’s nutritional status is associated with the health of their brain, and therefore their mind, as an elder citizen. And the evidence backs it up. At the latter stages of life, a diet with a sufficient intake of micronutrients, especially those previously-mentioned essential fatty acids, seem to be key to retaining good cognitive function.

In simpler terms, If you want to help ensure that you keep your thinking skills, that you don’t lose your memories, and, dare I say, don’t lose your mind, pay attention to your diet.

A particular study found elderly individuals who consumed seafood at least once a week were at lower risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s. In addition to providing protection to blood vessels, the fatty acids in fish oils appear to reduce inflammation in the brain. The latest evidence indicates the intake of EFA’s can aid in the regeneration of nerve cells. They are also increasingly seen to be of value in limiting the cognitive decline (reduced mental abilities) that is often part of the aging process.

The promotion of dietary strategies for treatment of disease has led to the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) as a common recommendation for controlling high blood pressure. The Mediterranean diet is even more frequently mentioned as a means of achieving heart health. When it comes to encouraging brain health, a combination of the two eating styles may be best.

This plan has become known as the “MIND” diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. This program stresses natural plant-based foods and significantly limits red meat, saturated fat and sweets. Observational studies indicate the diet can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 53 percent, slow cognitive decline, and improve verbal memory.

How does one go about instituting a similar dietary plan? Initially, try reducing your intake of carbohydrates to 50 grams or less per day. Add to your diet healthy fats like coconut oil, avocado oil or olive oil. Eat wild caught fish (for the omega-3’s), nuts, and include a supplement supplying magnesium and potassium. Pay attention to how eating differently makes you feel, and not just at that particular moment, but the next day.

Try eating a similar diet for a few weeks, not easy since it means cutting out all processed foods and sugar, very difficult for many Americans. Also, there is abundant evidence adding fermented foods to your diet, like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, or kombucha, is healthy. If you want a real challenge, try cutting dairy out of your diet. See how you feel after making these changes for several weeks. Follow this by slowly re-introducing the foods you cut out previously, one by one, and see how you feel. (It’s called the scientific method!)

Because of the burgeoning elderly population and the poor diet of so many Americans, it is critical we address age-related declines in brain function. Obviously, this will be increasingly important to preserving the autonomy and well-being of our senior citizens. Age-related cognitive decline is now one of the main causes of disability and loss of independence in people older than 65 years of age.

s a society, as a species, we need to find cost-effective interventions for promoting optimal brain function and preventing cognitive loss in older people. If not, we will increasingly be forced to pay the social and economic costs of our ignorance and our inaction.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with a move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments atdrcmclean@outlook.com.