Let’s face it, most of us by the 50’s begin to notice less mental vigor, and it seems to progress more rapidly as we age into the 60’s and 70’s and beyond. My father had Alzheimer’s disease in his 80’s, and watching his decline first hand was gruesome. Fortunately, the research into Alzheimer’s is making significant inroads to understanding the progression of the disease. One of the things the research has shown is the connection between heart health and brain health, as well as, diabetes and the brain. The dietary advice is to eat a balanced healthy diet with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables; plenty of healthy fats from fish, grass fed beef, nuts and seeds, coconut, olives; and minimize sugar and refined foods to reduce inflammation, maintain level blood sugar, and improve brain and heart health.
The most cutting edge research now points to the negative impact that a high sugar, high carbohydrate, low fat diet has on the brain. The brain needs fats for fuel, not sugar. When given a high sugar, low fat diet, this can lead to high levels of insulin, creating inflammation in the brain and a reduction of mental function. The book Grain Brain by neurologist David Perlmutter, explores this concept, clearly showing the connection between the high carb diet and the observable injury to the brain. High blood sugar levels start a cascade of inflammation resulting in a reduction of neurotransmitters and ultimately the shrinking and stiffening of the brain. That sticky protein in wheat called gluten is one of the problems. It triggers significant inflammation, not just in the digestive systems of the sensitive, but in all of our brains. It bears doing a little experiment for a month of no sugar, no wheat to see if your mind is clearer. The wheat of today is much higher in gluten than that of the past.
Gut health = Mental Health. The healthy intestinal bacteria contribute greatly to our mental well being via the vagus nerve. A recently study with mice revealed that transplanting the gut flora from calm mice into nervous ones, made them calmer. Calm mice receiving nervous mice flora became nervous. We have know for some time that the majority of our immune responses/functions take place in the gut, but now we are seeing how much of a role that plays in mental health as well. I like to drink probiotic drinks like Kevita or miso soup for maintaining healthy intestinal flora. Yogurt, kefir, and cultured vegetables, like sauerkraut, will also replenish the gut flora. Probiotic capsules are available as well.
Do some form of healthy physical exercise 3-4 times a week. This aids with blood sugar maintenance and weight, as well as improving circulation to the brain and body.
Mental exercises like reading, puzzles, drawing, taking pictures…what ever lights up your curiosity, will keep the brain alive and functioning. Playing a musical instrument, learning a new language, anything “new” you learn helps the brain to heal. Start brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. In David Snowdon’s book, Aging With Grace, he describes a group of nuns who donated their brains for the study of Alzheimer’s. These women were very engaged and involved in their lives, and post mortum studies repeatedly showed degeneration in their brains, yet they were still functioning and having meaningful lives.
Social interactions are essential for brain health, connecting memories and emotions, and expanding one’s world. This was another health promoting factor in Dr Snowdon’s nuns’ study. With the aging population, isolation is the enemy.
Turmeric has been used for 1000’s of years in China and India for various ailments. The curcumin that it contains is thought to be responsible for the low rate of dementia in India, with the daily use of turmeric widespread there. I cook with turmeric regularly in curries, soups, and egg salad.
Gingko biloba is a gorgeous tree with butter yellow bi-lobed leaves in the fall. The fruit is harvested as a kidney and brain tonic in the Chinese tradition. The leaf has been extensively researched in recent decades for its benefit on circulation to the brain and memory aid. It is usually taken as a capsule.
Bacopa benefits clear thoughts and better focus. It is available in capsules.
Holy Basil is especially useful for anxiety and restless minds. It can be used in cooking or the oil used in an atomizer. The herb is taken in capsules or teas. In India this herb is considered to be a sacred, protective plant, they call Tulsi.
Ashwaganda benefits ones vitality and will assist in regulating the sleep cycle. Poor sleep or active at night patterns (“sundowner”) are often seen with dementia patients. This may help.
Sage and Rosemary can both be prepared as teas or used in cooking. Their aromatic oils are used to revive the senses and benefit the brain. Rosemary tea is used as a delightful hair rinse that invigorates the scalp. Sage tea as a rinse is good for dandruff. The scent of essential oil of rosemary is used in aromatherapy for dementia. With agitation, the scent of lavender oil is used.
Dan Shen/red sage root is a special variety of sage from China with potent healing properties for the brain, the heart and the liver. It is used to invigorate circulation and nourish the blood, while also calming the emotions and reducing inflammation. It is used in formulas by a trained herbal practitioner.
Prevagen is a supplement based on a jellyfish protein that illuminates in the dark. This protein reduces a mineral build up in the brain, allowing for more clarity in memory and thoughts. It really helped me last year when I feared that my mind was going…remembering Latin names of plants, which used to be easy for me, became a struggle. Prevagen made a huge difference for me. It also helped my sleep. It is available in your local pharmacy.
We have the power to change the course of mental decline if we stay vigilant to nourish and protect our beautiful brains. I learned recently that the brain has 100,000 miles of blood vessels. Keep it flowing!
Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, MD. The surprising truth about wheat, carbs and sugar –
your brain’s silent killers.
Wheat Belly Cookbook by William Davis, MD. No wheat, no sugar, yummy recipes.
Aging with Grace by David Snowdon, PhD. The beautiful story of the nuns’ brain study.