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Published on: May 4, 2014
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Most people know that diet impacts heart health, but fewer people realize that the brain is also affected by what you eat. As a part of your physical body, your brain relies on the food you eat to stay healthy, just as your heart does.
Research about nutrition is ever evolving, and sometimes the latest findings conflict with previous results, making it confusing to wade through all of the recommendations and determine what you should be eating. To shed some light on how to eat well for brain health, Leslie Beck, a Registered Dietitian and author of 12 books on healthy eating, shares the latest information to help you choose foods that will give your brain a boost.
“Many of the main contributing factors leading to cognitive decline and dementia can be addressed through food,” explains Beck. For example:
1. oxidative stress – eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help;
2. inflammation – consuming things like omega 3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats can help;
3. high blood sugar or diabetes – limiting sugar and choosing low glycemic foods that don’t spike your blood sugar are good strategies; and
4. risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure and cholesterol – eating foods that protect your heart and arteries will protect your brain as well.
Adopt a Mediterranean-Style Diet
On a broad scale, Beck recommends, “one of the best things people can do to keep their brains healthy is to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet.” Studies have shown that people who follow a Mediterranean-style diet closely experience slower cognitive decline as they age, reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and reduced risk of any MCI progressing into Alzheimer’s disease.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and fish. Red meat is eaten only a few times a month. The major source of fat is olive oil. Beck explains the benefits of this type of diet, “It’s low in saturated fat, and includes plenty of anti-inflammatory foods and lots of antioxidants as well.”
It is not clear exactly why following a Mediterranean diet may protect brain function, but researchers think that it may work by improving cholesterol and blood sugar levels as well as overall blood vessel health, all of which are factors that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Foods for Thought: Eat More of These Brain-Boosting Super Foods
Certain foods are particularly strong choices for boosting brain function and warding off cognitive decline. Beck recommends trying to include these super foods in your diet to give your brain a boost:
Oily Fish – To get more omega 3 fatty acids in your diet, consume oily fish such as salmon, trout or sardines on a regular basis. There is more than one type of omega 3 fatty acid. The one that is of particular importance for brain health is called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the fatty acid that is concentrated in the brain. It helps keep brain cell membranes flexible so that memory messages can pass easily between them.
To get your blood level of DHA to a concentration required for cardiovascular protective benefits, you should be eating about 12 ounces per week of an oily fish like salmon. If you’re not consuming that amount, take a fish oil supplement. If you’re going to buy an omega oil supplement, Beck advises avoiding the omega 3/6/9 products and choosing a pure omega 3 supplement made from fish oil, since omega 6s and 9s are pretty widespread in our food supply. If you are vegetarian, take a DHA supplement made from algae; note that this is different from the omega 3 that can be found in flax oil, which is ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
Leafy Greens – A large study, done with adults 65+, found that men and women who ate more than two vegetable servings per day had a 40 percent lower rate of cognitive decline. The most protective vegetables were found to be leafy green vegetables such as arugula, kale, rapini, spinach and swiss chard. So, Beck advises her clients to aim to have leafy green vegetables at least four times a week. Cooked is better than raw, making more of the antioxidants and minerals available for absorption. “Try adding them to soups or pasta sauces, or throw a bunch of baby kale in a pot of chili, all of those things that are so easy to do,” suggests Beck.
Berries & Walnuts – Berries and walnuts are rich in antioxidants called polyphenols which enhance the action of microglia cells in the brain. The microglia’s role is to help remove toxic proteins from the brain that accumulate with age. These toxic proteins, if left to accumulate, have a negative impact on brain function. Polyphenols seem to activate or enhance this natural housecleaning process that takes place in the brain. All kinds of berries are good sources of polyphenols but so are other fruits such as plums, pomegranate seeds, prunes and red grapes.
A walnut-rich diet was shown, in a US study, to reverse age-related motor and cognitive decline in aged rats. The researchers attributed these improvements to the polyphenols in the walnuts. While walnuts were the only nuts studied, Beck would also recommend almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts because of the vitamin E they contain. Consuming foods rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant, on a daily basis will help protect your brain cells from oxidative damage. Other foods high in vitamin E are sunflower seeds, sunflower oil, safflower oil and grapeseed oil.
Take a Daily Supplement
“The other thing I usually recommend is a multivitamin and mineral, just a broad-based low dose formula that gives you a little bit of everything,” advises Beck. “It helps ensure that you’re covered for your B vitamins, in particular, folate and B12.” This is important because deficiencies in some of the B vitamins have been linked to cognitive impairment and stroke. After the age of 50, it becomes more difficult to get your B12 from food because of reduced production of stomach acid, so it is advised that older adults get their B12 from a multivitamin.
Tips for Changing your Diet
Changing life-long habits, especially diet, is not easy. Beck offers these tips for helping with a transition to brain-healthy eating:
Start with one or two changes a week. Choose something that totally makes sense to you. For example, maybe you rarely have salmon but you really like it, so make a plan to include it in your diet regularly.
Set small goals and make them very specific. Don’t just say I’m going to eat a healthier diet. List off exactly how you’re going to do it. And then build on your plan, gradually over time.
Focus on adding healthy foods to your diet rather than setting a bunch of restrictions about what you shouldn’t eat. By the time you’ve eaten all the healthy new foods, you may find yourself with no appetite left for the less healthy options.
 www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/alzhei…(“Can Mediterranean diet lower my risk of Alzheimer’s? Answer by Glenn Smith, Ph.D.)
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