My recent article on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Paleo Diet prompted a number of people to contact me to ask if I had any information on the kind of lifestyle habits – both in terms of, and beyond the paleo diet – which would boost brain health and help stave off neurological disorders. Clearly, many of us are interested in keeping “ze little grey cells” – to quote Hercule Poirot – functioning at their optimal level.
In addition to Alzheimer’s occurring (usually) in later life, all human beings are potentially at risk of several common brain-related issues throughout their lifetimes, including impaired IQ, learning disabilities, anxiety, insomnia, autism, brain tumours, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive behaviour, headaches, foggy brain, memory lapses, phobias, poor concentration, Parkinson’s disease, violent tendencies….the list goes on.
Given the remarkable complexity of the human brain, there is no simple solution to every possible issue we may face, and there are no guarantees of immunity from brain disorders. Nonetheless, it is possible to start from a position that provides a strong foundation for a healthy brain – for ourselves, for our aging parents, and for our growing children.
I’ve pulled together some information that I hope will be of help to you and your loved ones in getting started on the path to a healthier brain. Not surprisingly, everything here will help us to develop healthy bodies overall, too.
So, without further ado – what can we do to keep our brains healthy and disease-free?
1. Follow A Paleo Diet
This is the basis of brain (and bodily) health. Getting off a diet that consists of poor quality, highly processed junk foods – even in small amounts – will do wonders for the brain. If we are what we eat, our brains are too – so it makes sense to eat, fresh, natural foods like pastured meat and poultry, wild fish, and organic vegetables, fruits and nuts. These are nutrient-dense foods, rich in naturally-occurring vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and as free as possible from man-made toxins.
The paleo diet helps us to maintain a balanced metabolism, and – provided it’s constructed of good quality foods – helps reduce inflammation within the body and brain, which is the precursor to a whole host of ills, including brain dysfunction. Eating this way is good for body and brain composition, energy levels, sleep quality, and mental attitude.
In addition to consuming the right foods, don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids. Evidence shows that dehydration can significantly impair brain functioning.
2. Don’t Fear Nourishing Fats
The brain is made up of 60% fat (and 40% amino acids). With age, and through daily use, the braincells – like all of our cells – become damaged and need to be repaired and replaced. Naturally-occurring fats in our diet play a key role in providing the building blocks needed to support cellular structures, so it’s important to eat high quality fats. Rancid, industrially processed seed oils, and trans fats formed from the production of hydrogenated vegetable oils, are to be strictly avoided. If we eat them, we compromise the very integrity of our brains’ cellular structure.
Eating good fats – mainly saturated fats and monounsaturated fats such as those contained in butter, olive oil, lard, and tallow – as part of a nutrient-dense paleo diet, ensures our brains have the highest quality raw materials from which to build and rebuild. And don’t forget to include coconut oil, the possible particular benefits of which we’ve previously discussed.
3. Supplement Appropriately
To ensure an adequate supply and quality of essential neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers within the brain), it’s important to ensure that the correct precursors to neurotransmitters are present. These are the building blocks – such as amino acids – from which the neurotransmitters are made. A diet of whole, real, nutrient-dense food will help, but there are times when it may be useful to supplement. There is some evidence that certain precursors to neurotransmitters – such as L-DOPA (a precursor to dopamine) and L-tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin) – may help in cases of Parkinson’s disease and depression.
There are also indications that supplementation with essential fatty acids – particularly DHA (one of the two main types of omega-3 fats found abundantly in oily fish) – could also be useful, particularly in older people who are not yet at a point of advanced neurological decline.
Further, it has been found that higher serum vitamin D3 levels are associated with better cognitive function and test performance in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Why this should be so is not clear – it may be that the immune-boosting effect of vitamin D could kill a bacteria which may have some role in the development of Alzheimer’s – but ensuring adequate levels of vitamin D in the diet (with supplementation if necessary) and through sensible exposure to sunlight, could be an important part of your arsenal when it comes to nourishing and protecting the brain.
4. Stop Poisoning Your Brain
We’re constantly being exposed to toxins in our environment – and, if we’re eating ‘foods’ produced in factories – through our diet. Toxins can be poisonous in themselves, or cause damage by exposing us to free radicals which are generated by oxidation in the body. Free radicals are atoms, molecules, or ions with unpaired electrons on an open shell configuration. They are highly reactive and are known to cause cellular damage.
The brain is particularly vulnerable to free radical damage, because it consumes the highest concentration of oxygen of any of our organs – around 20% of our body’s total supply of oxygen is used by the brain.
Dr. Russell Blaylock, a neurosurgeon, and author of the book Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, has written extensively on the free radical damage that can be caused to the brain by additives such as MSG and aspartame, as well as fluoride in our water, mercury in our dental fillings, and pesticides in our food. Consequently, it’s important to eliminate as many of these as possible from our lifestyles.
However, it’s not just the obvious “poisons” that place our brains at risk. A diet that is high in carbohydrates compared to the other macro-nutrients could deprive the brain of cholesterol and increase its insulin resistance, putting it at a significantly increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Eat Your Greens
One of the most effective ways of ensuring brain health is to reduce inflammation in the brain caused by toxic overload and free radical damage. Dr. Blaylock notes that nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits play a critical role in protecting our DNA:
Special substances in fruits and vegetables, called flavonoids, are very powerful and versatile antioxidants that powerfully reduce inflammation and protect the DNA, something under increased attack as we age. Free radical damage to DNA after age 75 is 15 times higher than at age 25. Fruits and vegetables contain hundreds of flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals all in a perfect balance to protect the brain and the brain’s DNA.
The most protective for the brain include Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, collard, mustard and turnip greens, cabbage, garlic, onions, celery, asparagus, parsley, kale, and artichoke. Of the fruits, all berries, especially blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, pomegranates, black and red currants, apples, muscadine grapes, oranges, tangerines, cranberries, grapefruits, and sour cherries have the greatest brain health enhancement.
And it’s not just us that should be eating our greens – the animals we eat should be eating them too. Given that the balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats is influential in brain health (an excess of Omega 6 has been shown to cause inflammation in the brain and has been implicated in causing depression) it’s important to make sure that we’re eating meat that has the correct fatty-acid profile. In this sense, processed meats are best avoided, and pastured meats are always preferred when available.
6. Fast Intermittently
In their book Perfect Health Diet, Dr. Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet extensively discuss the benefits of fasting in terms of assisting the body and brain in fighting off infection and recycling waste materials. In particular, they note, there is a benefit in stimulating the body into autophagy, a catabolic process that plays a normal part in cell growth, development, and homeostasis, helping to maintain a balance between the synthesis, degradation, and subsequent recycling of cellular products. Dr. Paul Jaminet – who used diet to cure his own brain disorder – notes:
It’s hard to over-emphasise the importance of autophagy in fighting intracellular infections. A short fast turns on autophagy throughout the body. Neuronal autophagy has been found to be therapeutic for Alzheimer’s.
In addition, abstaining from all carbohydrates for a period of time has been found to be beneficial to the brain. Dr. John Briffa, author of Waist Disposal reports on a recent study in which a very low carbohydrate diet was tested in individuals with mild cognitive impairment:
In quite-extreme carbohydrate restriction the body will generally turn to ketones (created from the metabolism of fat and/or protein) as a fuel source. This results in a state known as ‘ketosis’.
Half of the group in this study were randomized to eat the ketogenic diet, the other half ate a diet rich in carbohydrate. The study lasted 6 weeks. The researchers found that those eating the ketogenic diet, compared to the other group, saw significant improvement in their ‘verbal memory’ (memory of words and other abstractions involving language). Also, generally speaking, the higher their ketone levels, the better their verbal memory tended to be.
The suggestion here is that ketones provide ready fuel for the brain, and may enhance ‘cognitive function’. Aside from memory improvement, those in the ketogenic diet also saw significant benefits in terms of weight loss and waist circumference reduction, as well as reductions in fasting blood glucose and insulin levels. Taken as a whole, these results suggest that carbohydrate restriction sufficient to induce ketosis offers, in the short-term at least, significant advantages for both body and brain.
7. Get Adequate Sleep
Everyone feels better after a good night’s sleep, but many of us seem to have forgotten that sleep is essential to repair a brain that has been active all day long. Our nervous system moves into the parasympathetic mode when we sleep. The parasympathetic system specifically is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” activities that occur when the body is at rest. In this mode, repair processes are activated and our brains can get to work making new cells, enzymes, and neurotransmitters. In addition, we give our glands opportunities to replenish their supply of essential hormones.
If we avoid sleep, we deprive our bodies – and our brains – of the opportunity to repair. The instruction “get adequate sleep” may sound familiar, because it’s one of Mark Sisson’s “Primal Blueprint Laws”. Here’s Mark’s take on the matter:
Despite being a critical component of good health and stress management, sleep is regularly compromised today due to the pull of technology and hectic schedules. Insufficient sleep can lead to numerous health problems and declines in cognitive function. Tips for optimum sleep include having a clutter-free bedroom, a calm, low-stimulation transition into bedtime, having consistent bed and wake times, and eating minimally (and consuming the right foods) in the hours before bed. Furthermore, occasional naps can produce many health benefits, including reduced risk of disease plus improvements in mood, concentration, and physical performance.
An ever-increasing number of studies show direct links between physical activity and improved brain function, as well as improvements in general mental state. Last year, Judy Cameron, a professor or psychiatry at Pitt School of Medicine, set out to demonstrate the link by conducting a study on cynomolgus monkeys, whose brain physiology is similar to that of human beings. The website LiveScience reported on the experiments, and noted:
Cameron and colleagues trained adult female cynomolgus monkeys to run on a human-sized treadmill at 80 percent of their individual maximal aerobic capacity for one hour each day, five days a week, for five months. Another group of monkeys remained sedentary, meaning they sat on the immobile treadmill, for a comparable time.
Half of the runners went through a three-month sedentary period after the exercise period. In all groups, half of the monkeys were middle-aged (10 to 12 years old) and the others were more mature (15 to 17 years old). Initially, the middle-aged monkeys were in better shape than their older counterparts, but with exercise, all the runners became more fit.
During the fifth week, the monkeys completed cognitive tests in which they had to choose which covered objects contained a food reward underneath. Monkeys that exercised were twice as fast at this task as those who didn’t exercise.
9. Get Plenty Of Sunlight
A reasonable amount of daily sun exposure can produce numerous health benefits. Lack of sunlight in the winter is a major cause of low mood (including Seasonal Affective Disorder) and low mental energy. It is likely that the beneficial effect of sunlight is both psychological (a sunny day can lift the spirits) and physiological (exposure of the skin to direct sunlight enables our bodies to synthesize optimum levels of vitamin D). Optimum vitamin D levels are vital for brain function. Caution created by widespread media reports of the risk of skin cancer have encouraged many of us to stay out of the sun, to the point where our health could be adversely affected, rather than protected. Mark Sisson again:
The dangers of sun exposure are overdramatized and many even suffer sun deficiency. Risks of skin cancer are greatly minimized if you avoid sunburn and eat a high-antioxidant diet. Clothing is the best protection.
Nancy Deville, author of Healthy Sexy Happy, discusses how best to achieve exposure to natural sunlight whilst protecting the skin from damage.
10. Stimulate Your Brain
Neuroplasticity means that the brain constantly builds new connections (synapses) and fibres (dendrites). New memory tracks are laid down as experiences happen, and connections are made which enable us to learn – and retain – new skills. Normal aging is associated with progressive functional losses in perception, cognition, and memory. However, because the brain retains a lifelong capacity for plasticity and adaptive reorganization, scientists have speculated that it should be possible to at least partially reverse or halt cognitive decline through the use of an appropriately designed training program.
Evidence is gathering to back them up. Recently, a randomized, controlled trial using standardized measures of neuropsychological function as outcomes demonstrated that “training” the brain of mature adults resulted in memory enhancements which appeared to be sustained after a 3-month no-contact follow-up period.
In other words: doing things which keep the brain active and having to adapt to new information – such as learning new skills, or carrying out challenging puzzles – are likely to maintain brain function and plasticity into older age.
11. Tune In To The Transcendent
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of finding a way to get “outside your own head” once in a while. Don’t we sometimes wish we had an “off” switch (or at least a volume control) for our brains? Calming brain chatter can be a great way of reducing stress, and giving yourself – and your brain – a rest.
Let’s finish with some specific ways you can use to transcend your immediate concerns and help heal your brain:
- Drop self-criticism. Evidence shows that doing so can result in better eating and lifestyle habits, resulting in improved physical and mental wellbeing.
- Meditate. Non-directive meditation yields more marked positive changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful relaxation than just resting alone.
- Play. The profound psychological benefits of play are essential to healthy individuals and have even been shown to improve work productivity. Most importantly, play can increase happiness and is a vital component of lifelong learning.
Here’s to a healthy brain!
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Brian Cormack Carr is a professional life and career coach, writer, and advocate of a real foods diet.
His home on the web is www.cormackcarr.com where you will find more articles, a free newsletter, and information about his online career-creation programme www.vitalvocation.com. You can follow Brian on Twitter: @cormackcarr