LIFESTYLE ADVICE FOR A HEALTHY BRAIN
DR JOHN BRIFFA
To date, more than 99 per cent of dementia drug trials have ended in failure, and even the best conventional treatments do no more than slow the progression of the disease. These stark facts can give the impression that succumbing to dementia and cognitive impairment is, essentially, down to bad luck or bad genes – two things we can do nothing about.
In reality, modern neuroscience has identified several specific mechanisms that compromise cognitive function and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia). Crucially, research in this area has revealed a range of practical lifestyle approaches and several natural agents for supporting brain function and helping to preserve our mental faculties as we age.
1. DIET - IS THERE SUCH AS THING AS ‘BRAIN FOOD’?
One of the mechanisms known to drive dementia is inflammation in the brain known as ‘neuroinflammation’. Certain foods are recognised for their inflammatory potential, including so-called ‘omega-6’ fats that are commonly found in vegetable oils (e.g. sunflower, corn and soya oils) and many processed foods including margarine, baked goods (e.g. biscuits, pastries) and fast foods.
Other foods that can provoke inflammation are those that cause spikes in blood sugar – so-called ‘high glycaemic index’ foods. These include foods with added sugar, as well as many starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals.
Overall, a better diet for the brain is one rich in natural, unprocessed foods such as fish, eggs, meat, nuts, seeds, non-starchy vegetables and some fruit. Particular fruits that have value for the brain are berries such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries.
These are relatively low in sugar, but also rich in substances known as ‘flavonoids’ which are known to quell inflammation and promote ‘neuroplasticity’ - a process by which the brain can form new networks to support processes such as learning and memory.
Another dietary element that has particular value for the brain is what is known as ‘omega-3’ fat, found most plentifully in ‘oily fish’ such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring and sardine.
One other potential advantage of eating a diet made up of natural, unprocessed foods is that it will help ensure proper functioning of the hormone insulin and reduce the risk of ‘insulin resistance’. This is important as problems with insulin functioning is a known risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia.
2. WHY THE BEST ‘BRAIN FOOD’ IS SOMETIMES NO FOOD
Recent years have seen rising interest in a nutritional strategy known as ‘intermittent fasting’. One quite-popular approach here is what is termed ‘time-restricted eating’, where food is consumed within a relatively narrow window (typically 6 – 10 hours) each day or on most days.
Time-restricted eating generally helps to dampen inflammation, but can also enhance the production of a protein known as ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor’ (BDNF). This substance supports cognitive function, promotes neuroplasticity, and helps protect the brain from damage and degeneration in the longer term.
Another potential advantage of time-restricted feeding is that it tends to make the body more efficient at mobilising and metabolising fat as a fuel. When fat breaks down, it forms smaller fuel units known as ‘ketones’, which are generally readily and efficiently burned by both the body and brain. Time-restricted eating also tends to balance blood sugar levels and improve insulin functioning – two things that contribute to brain health.
Simple approaches to time-restricted eating is to delay or skip breakfast, and/or complete eating relatively early in the day. This can take some getting used to, and often a gradual approach is best. However, my experience is that individuals who employ and adapt to this strategy almost always experience benefits include enhanced energy, wellbeing and sleep, as well as improved mental function, mood, focus and concentration.
3. DON’T LOSE SLEEP OVER IT
Relatively short sleep is associated with an increased risk of dementia. One potential mechanism here involves something called the ‘glymphatic system’. This is the brain’s version of the ‘lymphatic system’ – the body’s network of vessels that takes toxins and metabolic waste from tissues.
One of the jobs of the glymphatic system is facilitate the elimination of proteins that typically ‘gum up’ the brain of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. These proteins are known as ‘beta-amyloid’ and ‘tau’ (rhymes with ‘cow’). Studies show that missing sleep very quickly causes the levels of these proteins to rise.
Sleep is also essential for basic brain functions including speed of thinking, memory, decision-making and mood. Ensuring sufficient quantity and quality of sleep is therefore important for how we feel and function day-to-day, as well as our long-term cognitive function.
4. EXERCISE THE MIND
Physical activity has a wide range of benefits for the brain. In the short term, it stimulates blood supply to the brain – something that generally helps cognitive function. Another potential effect of exercise is to stimulate the production of BDNF. Studies show that the most effective forms of exercise here are relatively short but intense bouts of effort such as with ‘high intensity intermittent exercise’ (HIIE). If you are fit and active and able to exercise at intensity then HIIE is probably worth incorporating into your exercise regime.
It is sometimes important to remember that, generally speaking, any activity is better than none. In one study, walking for a total of 3 hours a week was shown to improve cognitive function in individuals suffering from ‘vascular dementia’ (dementia associated with compromised blood supply to the brain).
SUPPORTING THE BRAIN WITH NATURAL AGENTS:
Certain natural agents have considerable potential to support brain function and ward off ´cognitive impairment´.
Some of the most important botanicals and nutrients in this respect include Lion’s Mane mushroom, cinnamon, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iodine and vitamin D. For more information on the science behind the role of these nutrients in the brain, click here.