Optimizing Brain Health
Taking a preventative approach is one way to maximize your brain health. Working to keep your brain healthy and active throughout your life decreases the chances of experiencing cognitive decline.
Lifestyle factors well known to support the brain include exercise, adequate nutrition, restful sleep, ample social opportunities, stress reduction and limiting exposure to toxins (e.g., not smoking).
In addition to lifestyle factors and engagement in activities, there are many other ways to optimize brain health.
5 Tips for a Healthy Brain
There are many health benefits to being physically active, including supporting brain health. The evidence that exercise improves cognitive function is clear, and it has been consistently shown to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Aerobic exercise (i.e., strengthening the heart and lungs) improves global cognitive abilities, mood, balance and mobility.
A recent study at the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus (a brain area responsible for memory). In addition to aerobic exercise, resistance training (i.e., strength building) has also been shown to reverse cognitive decline in individuals who are already exhibiting symptoms of cognitive impairment.
Finding a form of exercise you enjoy and can continue to do across your lifespan is crucial. Current recommendations are 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity, seven days a week.
A naturopathic approach to diet involves acknowledging that the optimal diet will vary depending on an individual’s digestive system, genetics, and personal preferences.
The Mediterranean diet is the most studied and optimal diet for prevention of cognitive decline. This diet consists of a high consumption of vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, whole grains, fruit and olive oil, as well as moderate amounts of fish and seafood. Poultry, cheese, eggs and yogurt are encouraged in moderation, as well, while limiting the consumption of red meats and sugar.
High fat, low carbohydrate diets, promoting the production of ketones, are being discussed more frequently in the health community. This is because your brain has a unique ability to use ketones as fuel when glucose is unavailable and there is mounting evidence of the broad neuroprotective qualities of this diet.
Ketogenic diets have been used for decades to control seizures in patients with epilepsy, and are now being explored for delaying cognitive decline. In a recent study, individuals with mild cognitive impairment (a potential precursor to dementia) who ate a low-carbohydrate diet had improved memory function compared to those who ate a high-carbohydrate diet.
Since there are temporary side effects of the ketogenic diet, it is best to seek the guidance of a medical professional.
Low levels of vitamin B12 can contribute to cognitive decline and individuals with mild cognitive impairment have been found to have vitamin B12 deficiency. Absorption of vitamin B12 decreases as we age because hydrochloric acid production in the stomach decreases, and vitamin B12 requires an acidic environment to be absorbed.
Dietary sources of vitamin B12 are limited primarily to animal proteins. When considering supplementation, methylcobalamin is the most optimally absorbed form of vitamin B12.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are found most concentrated in small-sized seafood such as anchovies. There are two types; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although both are found throughout the body, high levels are concentrated within the brain.
EPA is anti-inflammatory while DHA is essential for brain development and aging. It has been established that diets rich in fish lead to less incidence of cognitive decline, while also having a positive benefit on mood, specifically depression.
When purchasing fish, ensure it is wild-caught, ideally within the Pacific Northwest. When purchasing fish oil supplements, ensure the product has been third-party tested for contaminants such as mercury and has at least twice as much EPA to DHA (ideally 800 mg of EPA to 400 mg of DHA). They are best consumed within 30 days of opening while kept in the fridge to prevent rancidity. Large quantities of fish oil can interact with blood thinners, so discuss with your doctor prior to initiating.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is present throughout the entire body in mitochondria (the energy powerhouses for all cells) and functions as an antioxidant. Research for the past two decades has demonstrated both the safety and efficacy of CoQ10. This antioxidant prevents damage to the cardiovascular system, by working to prevent damage by free radicals (e.g., toxins). More recently, it has been shown to reduce the plaque formations that occur in Alzheimer’s disease, and to slow cognitive decline that occurs in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Our ability to produce the active form of CoQ10 decreases with aging, and with limited food sources available, supplementation is often recommended. It is especially important if a statin is a part of your medication regimen, as they deplete the levels of CoQ10. If considering supplementation, 100-200 mg a day is a reasonable starting dose.
Dementia is becoming increasingly more prevalent, with rates of one in three for individuals over 85. Although the cause is unknown, the disease progression is slow, resulting in lots of opportunity for lifestyle interventions.
Stephanie Bayliss is a Naturopathic Physician practicing in Victoria, BC. Her practice has a focus on chronic disease, neurological conditions and mental health.