Unlocking a Sharper Mind: The Ultimate Guide to Brain Protection

Who would you be if you couldn’t recall your memories? As we age, the fear of losing our identity to mental decline becomes a more significant concern, and for a good reason: Rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive loss are on the rise. But with the right protective steps, we may be able to reduce these risks and increase our general health in the process. Healthy nutrition and lifestyle are our smartest defenses for overall brain health.

The Rising Crisis of Cognitive Decline

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans have the disease, the most common form of dementia. This number could triple by 2050. While the mortality rates for cancer, heart disease, and other conditions go down, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and cognitive loss are increasing.

A number of factors may be responsible, including genetics, but this relationship is far from conclusive. Many of the genetic risks are associated with rare, usually early onset, versions of Alzheimer’s disease. Cardiovascular health plays a large role, in part because the brain relies on a good supply of oxygen and nutrients to function properly. High blood pressure and cholesterol can also increase risks of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Additional risks include smoking, unhealthy diet, pollution, depression, obesity, and even diabetes.

Alzheimer’s: The “Diabetes Type 3”

Over the past several years, Alzheimer’s has earned the nickname “diabetes type 3.” Simply put, insulin resistance — a hallmark of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes — damages brain cells and aggravates memory loss and disorientation, along with other problems. Also, sugar and excess blood glucose fuel inflammation throughout the body, including the brain, furthering cognitive decline over time. So it makes sense that many of the steps we take to address diabetes and metabolic syndrome, such as a low-glycemic diet and regular exercise, can also support brain health.

Physical Fitness for Mental Sharpness

The relationship between regular physical activity and brainpower has been known for some time. Reduced blood flow is a factor in dementia. Aerobic exercise, such as walking and running, has been shown to be helpful. But don’t ignore the importance of strength training. A recent study by scientists at the University of British Columbia found that women with mild cognitive impairment improved their memory following weight training. The researchers conducting the study followed these women for several months as they lifted weights, performed aerobic exercise, or stretched. At the end of six months, the women in the weights and aerobics groups did far better on memory tests than the ones who simply stretched.

The Smart Diet for Your Brain

A low-sugar, low-glycemic diet can support brain health in a number of ways. Nutrient-dense foods such as lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates from vegetables, sprouted grains, and legumes offer sustained, healthy energy for the brain and keep inflammation in check. Emphasize green leafy and cruciferous vegetables in your diet, including items like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale. Some research has shown that these can reduce cognitive decline.

Foods that are rich in antioxidants are also important. These include berries, raw cacao, sprouted legumes, and nuts. Antioxidant foods provide significant anti-inflammatory support, and they help control harmful free radical molecules that wreak havoc throughout the body, including the brain. Antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E are also shown to reduce depression and support neurotransmitter activity in the brain.

As noted earlier, cardiovascular disease is a risk factor for cognitive decline. In other words, choosing foods that protect the heart — lean proteins, whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables — can also improve brain health.

Omega-3 fatty acids have also been found to support brain health. Fatty fish, like salmon, are a great source, as are nuts and flax seeds. Animal studies have shown that Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a form of omega-3, reduces beta-amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. DHA is essential for brain development and ongoing structural maintenance. DHA is primarily found in seafood but is also found in some species of algae. The healthiest seafood choices include salmon, anchovies, sardines, and herring.

Avoid the standard American diet (SAD), which is heavy in inflammation-fueling processed foods. Sugar, gluten, and unhealthy fats may be the biggest culprits in brain inflammation. Animal studies have shown that this type of diet reduces learning and memory.

Herbs, Nutrients, and Brain Health

Numerous herbs, compounds, and nutrients have been found to support neurons, boost blood flow to the brain, and protect against cerebral inflammation, among other benefits. For example, a recent study found that polyphenol chemicals found in cacao beans may protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Cacao is rich in antioxidants, so researchers originally attributed this neuro-protection to cacao’s actions against harmful free radicals in the brain. However, new research shows that cacao polyphenols also work by interacting with biochemical pathways that specifically protect against brain cell death.

Another protective compound is resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine and other herbal sources such as Japanese knotweed. Preclinical studies have shown that resveratrol reduces the amyloid plaque tangles found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease.

An important antioxidant shown to protect the brain is honokiol, which is derived from Magnolia bark. Honokiol has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a mild sedative, and it is 1,000 times more potent than vitamin E in its ability to neutralize free radicals. Importantly, honokiol crosses the blood/brain barrier, where it fights inflammation, modulates specific neurotransmitters, protects against beta-amyloid plaque deposits found in Alzheimer’s disease, and has other powerful benefits.

Considering the relationship between cardiovascular disease and dementia, improving circulation is essential. The powerful enzyme nattokinase, found in a fermented soybean product called natto, promotes healthy blood flow and reduces inflammation. Another good supplement for circulation is the amino acid L-carnitine, which is also an antioxidant.

Detoxification and Meditation for Healthy Brain Function

A growing body of research confirms the links between toxins, brain health, cardiovascular health, and overall wellness. A recent report linked air pollution with cognitive decline in older people. Other correlations between heavy metal toxicity and neurological damage have been noted. Healthy detoxification, done slowly and gently, may play an important role in protecting brain health over time.

Meditation is excellent for the brain in many ways. Research shows it helps control stress, maintains a positive mood, and improves memory. It even appears to alter the brain structure, increasing folding in the cerebral cortex, which improves the brain’s ability to process information.

Social Interaction for Lifelong Cognitive Health

People who volunteer, take courses, work collectively or engage in group activities appear to fare better cognitively over the long term. A number of studies have found that social connections can reduce dementia. One of the best things we can do for our brain and overall health is to maintain positive relationships as we age and build new ones along the way.

By incorporating these and other healthful steps, we can help keep our minds sharp over time and enhance our overall health in the process.