By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.
For decades, we’ve heard how to take care of our hearts. Eat healthier. Stay active. Control blood sugar, blood pressure and blood cholesterol.
We’ve heard little about how to keep our brains sharp as we age. The science of nutrition and brain function is relatively new and evolving. However, what is known is that if you follow the advice for a healthy heart, you’re helping your brain as well.
Scientists know certain nutrients and other key compounds are essential to brain function. For example, a deficiency in Vitamin B12 or iron can lead to impaired cognitive function. Other components deemed important to our brain health are phytonutrients and antioxidants, which are found in colorful fruits and vegetables. Some researchers estimate there are up to 4,000 phytochemicals but only a fraction have been studied closely.
Our Brains are Affected by what we Eat
One researcher, the late James Joseph, said our “loss of mental agility may be less due to loss of brain cells than to the cells’ failure to communicate effectively.” The brain has billions of neurons that communicate through neurotransmitter synapses. That system may short out when it doesn’t get the amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed to keep it functioning well. “Perhaps there is no better place in which to gauge the power of antioxidants than between the minute connections of the nerve and brain cells,” Joseph said.
Joseph served as director of the Neuroscience Laboratory at the USDA-ARS Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. One of his most significant findings was that diets supplemented with fruits, vegetables and nuts could forestall or even reverse age-related declines in cognitive and motor function. Joseph explained how vibrantly colored foods rich in phytochemicals protect against diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and memory and vision loss. He wrote a book, “The Color Code: A Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimum Health,” which outlines ways to improve our diets by including colorful fruits and vegetables.
We want to eat to help keep our neurons communicating effectively and build new brain cells. As we age, we can create new brain cells, just not as fast as we used to.
More advice can be found in the evidence-based Memory Preservation Nutrition Program, which Nancy B. Emerson Lombardo helped create. She is a founder of the National Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Disease International as well as a research assistant professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine. The program has shown strong associations between good nutrition and a decreased risk of cognitive decline in older adults.
Lombardo’s tips for brain-healthy eating include:
- Squelch the sugar. Avoid highly processed, refined carbohydrates. Improve blood sugars as pre-diabetes and diabetes increases risk of dementia.
- Decrease bad fats such as trans fats and saturated fats. These are inflammatory to the body and the brain. Use low-fat dairy and decrease red meat.
- Increase intake of good fats. Eat more fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil that are high in monounsaturated fats and omega 3 fatty acids.
- Spice it up. Many herbs and spices have amazing protective properties including cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, oregano, sage, saffron, turmeric and pepper.
- Eat your veggies and beans. Have three to five cups a day.
- Focus on fruits. Berries are nutrient-dense foods loaded with potent antioxidants that can help counteract inflammation in the body and facilitate signaling among brain cells. All berries are important and can be fresh or frozen. Apples help to increase memory. Aim for three to five servings or two to four cups of fruit a day.
- Choose whole grains because they are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. This includes brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole grain crackers and popcorn.
- Stay hydrated. Drink six to eight glasses of fluid each day, preferably water.
- Get your Vitamin D. Get outside this spring and summer to get Vitamin D from the sun. A growing body of research shows that Vitamin D is essential for brain health. Discuss a supplement with your doctor.
Lombardo’s diet sounds like a heart-healthy diet to me. The good news is that it also helps preserve your brain power.
By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health in Duluth.
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