God has given us amazing brains to help us learn His Word and other information to help us as we travel through this life! Did you know that there really are “brain foods” that can help boost your memory, keep your mind sharper, and potentially even lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease? Yes, our awesome Creator has provided us with so many and varied nutrients in our foods…and advances in technology are beginning to provide some insight into how these nutrients actually affect our brain function.
Did you know that an average brain weighs only about three pounds, yet it consumes 20% of the oxygen you breathe and 20% of the energy you take in from food? The front of your brain contains the cerebrum, which is responsible for your “thinking activities”. This area also stores memories and enables you to plan and carry out those plans. For instance, reading this newsletter, recognizing a friend’s face, planning/preparing meals and playing a board game are all evidence that your cerebrum is at work.
Thinking and other functions of the brain are controlled by cells called neurons. An adult brain contains about 100 billion of these! These neurons transmit signals to each other through junction points using special chemicals called neurotransmitters. Some diseases of the brain are associated with “malfunctions” of these chemicals. In Alzheimer’s disease, for example, reductions in the levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory, are a characteristic of the disease. Parkinson’s disease is linked to low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter important in controlling movement.
The health of your cardiovascular system affects your brain.
Every heartbeat carries about 1/5 to 1/4 of your blood supply to the brain; therefore, any alterations in your cardiovascular system can change brain function and behavior. For example, blood vessel damage to the brain can lead to something called “vascular dementia”, the second-most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. A stroke or series of strokes can cut off or restrict the flow of blood to brain cells, interfering with their ability to communicate with OTHER brain cells. That, in turn, affects everything from your ability to think to your emotions—it just depends on the area of the brain suffering the damage.
Because of the connection between your cardiovascular system and a healthy brain, this is another reason to develop a heart-healthy lifestyle. Below are some steps for improving your odds of protecting your brain by boosting your heart health:
- Don’t smoke. Smoking is the top risk factor for heart disease/stroke.
- Maintain a healthy weight. This is best accomplished through eating lots of vegetables, legumes, fruits, baked/grilled fish, whole grains, and olive oil as the primary fat choice. One study at Columbia University of people eating this way consistently (top 1/3 of group) was associated with a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease—40% less chance than those with the LEAST compliance to the healthy diet regimen. Another study compared the calorie intakes of 163 older people suffering from mild thinking/memory impairment with 1070 “normal” control subjects. Those consuming the most calories—more than 2143 per day—were almost TWICE more likely to have mild thinking/memory impairment than participants eating the least, fewer than 1526 daily calories.
- Control your blood pressure by reducing salt intake (and take prescriptions as recommended by your physician).
- Keep your blood cholesterol levels healthy by cutting down on saturated fats primarily in higher fat meats and full-fat dairy foods—go for lean meats and low fat/fat-free dairy!—and taking any prescriptions as recommended by your physician.
- Maintain healthy blood glucose levels by watching your weight and reducing intake of “refined” carbohydrates like table sugar.
- Follow good exercise guidelines. This is critical for weight maintenance and heart/brain health, as you probably already know; however, there is new research in abundance to show how this is associated with much better mental function and even a slowed “aging” process!
Before going into the potential specific “food protectors” for your brain, I want to stress that it is the OVERALL healthy lifestyle that seems to make the MOST difference in brain health, with special emphasis on the exercise component. However, if we can make healthier choices with our foods, that can possibly make an even greater impact, why not do it? Below are some suggestions:
- Eat plenty of VEGETABLES overall. One recent study showed that eating 2 servings (1 cup total) per day of vegetables prevented the equivalent of 5 years of mental aging, and those who ate at least 2.8 servings (1.5 to 2 cups) per day over a span of 6 years showed their rate of cognitive (thinking) decline by about 40% compared to those who consumed only ½ cup per day or less!
- Choose BERRIES regularly. There is now substantial evidence that consuming foods containing phytochemicals, like “anthocyanin” (found in many types of berries) can help reduce age-related memory loss. One study in 2012 showed that women who consumed at least one cup of strawberries or blueberries per week showed slower mental decline—equivalent to up to two and a half years of delayed aging!
- Include NUTS often as protein/snack choices. Studies have been done with several varieties, but almonds and walnuts seem to be at the forefront in regard to improving brain health.
- Eat FISH two to three times per week. Focus on those with the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids such as Arctic char (farmed), bluefish, Atlantic herring, mackerel, opah (Hawaii), sablefish, salmon (other than farmed Atlantic), sardines (Pacific), and albacore tuna. Be sure to use low-fat preparation methods such as broiling, grilling, or baking, and consume a “reasonable” portion, such as 3 or 4 oz.
- COFFEE and TEA. More and more studies link regular coffee and tea (black and green) consumption to improved thinking/memory. Be sure to monitor caffeine if you have high blood pressure or other health conditions where caffeine restriction is recommended.
“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at His coming” (emphasis mine) I Peter 1:13. Let’s do everything we can with the food (and exercise) choices we make to keep that “alertness” at its peak level, for the glory of God!
Charlotte Davis, L.D., R.D…………………….email@example.com