The Looming Brain Health Crisis
Science is teaching us that our brain health is highly dependent on the food choices we make. Though genetics can predispose us to many forms of disease, we should also give ourselves a little more credit when it comes to controlling the health of our brains (and bodies). What we all can and should do is be sure to take care of the brains we’ve been so gracefully given by nourishing them the best ways possible, which will naturally extend our chances of a longer, healthier life.
The Water of Life
Water is undeniably vital to human life and, as it turns out, also to our intelligence. Besides constituting most of its weight, water is involved in every chemical reaction occurring in the brain. In fact, brain cells require a delicate balance of water and other elements such as minerals and salts to work efficiently at all. These electrolytes (minerals and salts that help you stay hydrated, such as chloride, fluoride, magnesium, potassium, and sodium) flow in and out of your brain with every sip of water you drink. Further, water is indispensable for energy production—that’s because it carries oxygen, which is needed for your working cells to breathe and burn sugar to produce energy. Water also plays a structural role, filling in the spaces between brain cells, and also helps to form proteins, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste products.
The Skinny on Brain Fat
Whatever fat is found in our brains is a totally different kind of fat called structural fat. The rest of our bodies also contain plenty of this fat. Structural fat is just as essential to life as storage fat is to fueling us, but the way our body uses these two fats couldn’t be more different. For starters, structural fat is not utilized as energy. Second, it isn’t the type that floats around in our bloodstream or clogs our arteries. Instead, as the name indicates, it is used to structure our cells and as a sort of “technical” support
Omega-3s, omega-6s, phospholipids, and, to some extent, monounsaturated fats are the good guys the human brain has chosen as its allies—not to mention suppliers—over the course of millions of years.
The Benefits of Protein
Proteins come third in the lineup of top brain-healthy nutrients. Proteins are complex molecules that do most of the work in our cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the brain’s networks. They are made up of smaller units called amino acids that are attached to one another in smaller or longer chains. The number and sequence of amino acids used to build a protein determine that protein’s unique shape and properties.
Amino acids are essential for just about every function that takes place within the body and brain. This includes maintaining healthy tissues, assembling hormones, and powering all sorts of chemical reactions, for starters. But even more important for the brain, amino acids have long resided in the minds of all creatures on Earth. In fact, many of these nutrients act as neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that our brains use for signaling, communicating, and processing information. Neurotransmitters are responsible for how you think, talk, dream, and remember. They spur the impulses that wake you up, make you sleepy, keep you focused, and even cause you to change your mind.
Carbs, Sugars, and More Sweet Things
to make your brain happy, focus on low-glycemic/high-fiber foods as the main source of carbs in your diet, and indulge in high-glycemic foods only in small amounts and infrequently.
If you, like me, can’t go without an occasional treat, do not despair. Some foods that qualify as “treats” still possess an overall low glycemic load, making a better food for you than originally thought. For example, a square of organic dark chocolate (70 percent or higher) has a low glycemic load, which makes it satisfying without the sugar rush. Same for popcorn.
Making Sense of Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins play an essential role in our brains’ activity, growth, and vitality. Although they are not a source of direct energy, vitamins assist the brain in energy production. More specifically, they provide the key the brain needs to unlock the energy stored in the foods we eat and to activate a variety of metabolic processes that would be in danger of failing in their absence.
Much like vitamins, minerals are essential to our physical and mental health. They lend structure to our cells, particularly our blood, nerve, and muscle cells, as well as to those that form our bones, teeth, and soft tissues. Minerals also serve many functions specific to the brain. Some function as electrolytes to help regulate brain fluids and hydration. Others power our metabolism. Others yet have the very important task of regulating nerve transmission. Magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, iodine, selenium, manganese, and potassium are each essential in keeping our brains healthy and active as we age.
The World’s Best Brain Diets
What lessons can we learn from the world’s healthiest diets? How can we incorporate their principles into our everyday lives when we’re constantly tempted by processed foods and excess sweets during the long hours often spent at our desks, stressed and restless for something more?
While all these diets might at first glance have very little in common (seaweed in Okinawa, olives in Sardinia, curry in India)—they actually share a key common ingredient. With the exception of the keto diet, each of them provides an excellent example of a whole, nutrient-dense diet known to benefit the brain as much as the rest of the body.
Wild Fresh Greens Are Integral
In each of these diets, regular consumption of wild, fresh greens is integral. These greens come with an arsenal of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that brain cells need to stay healthy and communicative. Fresh fruit, picked ripe from the trees, is another excellent source of vitamins as well as natural sweetness that at the same time curbs cravings for refined sugars. Among all fruits, berries seem to be especially brain-supportive.
Although many of us love chocolate, few of us realize that raw cacao also comes from berries. Cacao is loaded with antioxidants like theobromine, a close relative of caffeine, and many powerful flavonoids. A recent clinical trial showed that consumption of cocoa drinks with a high flavonoid content of 500 to 1000 mg improved attention and memory in the elderly while reducing inflammation and insulin levels in as little as eight weeks.
What About Coffee?
Coffee comes from roasted coffee beans, which are again the berries of the Coffea plant. As most people are aware, coffee beans contain caffeine, a substance that keeps you awake at night but in addition possesses fierce antioxidants such as chlorogenic acid. It is worth noting that even though coffee and cocoa drinks are not consumed in all blue zone communities, those who do drink them regularly have even lower rates of diabetes and heart disease. While results are not always consistent, some research studies have shown that people who drink coffee daily in midlife are less likely to develop dementia when they get older. Again, everything in moderation. Too much coffee might affect your heart rate as well as your sleep quality.
Does Wine Help?
For those of us who love wine, we celebrate that grapes are berries, too. Red wine is a great source of resveratrol, an aromatic compound found in the skin of grapes (but also in raspberries and mulberries), which is well-known for its antioxidant and neurons-protective properties. Wine also contains flavonoids that protect blood vessels and heart health. While pretty much everybody agrees that one to two glasses of red wine a day are a key part of aging gracefully, clinical trials have so far failed to show the beneficial effects of resveratrol on cognition. Again, this raises the question as to whether taking in these benefits via our food (or better, our wine) is in fact more powerful than attempting to glean results via supplementation.
Drinking Tea Surely Helps
While not all centenarian communities drink tea, there is some evidence that this popular beverage might also help protect brain cells and fend off dementia as we age. Most people who consume tea regularly choose black tea as their favorite tea. However, the brain prefers green tea. Green tea contains twice the amount of antioxidants than black tea and is therefore a more powerful anti-aging ally. Green tea is also quite rich in a special flavonoid called EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate) that appears to protect the brain from accumulation of Alzheimer’s plaques.
Nuts & Seeds Are Staples
Nuts and seeds are another staple food of many centenarians. These pint-sized nutritional dynamos are loaded with healthy unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, and a variety of antioxidants. Walnuts in particular are well-known for their high level of PUFAs and antioxidants like vitamin E, melatonin, and ellagic acid. These nutrients act synergistically to enhance the effects of the PUFAs, all the while increasing absorption of their own protective compounds. The result is improved cognitive function, at least when tested in aged animals.
It Depends With Grains
Local whole grains, beans, and starches are also dietary staples of most longevity diets. These foods provide a slow release of brain-supportive carbs and fiber while reducing the meal’s glycemic load, avoiding sugar rushes and crashes. Sweet potatoes in particular are part of most longevity diets. Not only are they full of dopamine-enhancing nutrients, but they also contain high amounts of one of our brains’ very favorite antioxidants, beta-carotene, which we convert into vitamin A. A sweet potato alone provides 368 percent of the recommended daily dose of vitamin A, which our bodies can store away for times of need.
Don’t Forget High-Quality Oil
Unprocessed, high-quality vegetable oil and fish rich in unsaturated fat are also common in most longevity hubs. The nutrients contained in these foods help promote cholesterol transport, which protects the heart while ensuring a healthy supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Additionally, fatty fish like salmon is among the best natural source of brain-essential DHA. To date, as many as nine large-scale epidemiological studies have concluded that regular fish consumption is crucial for brain health. Most studies reported that middle-aged and older people who consumed fish regularly succeeded in delaying cognitive decline and reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 70 percent as compared to those who ate little to no fish. They granted themselves this insurance policy by eating high-quality fatty fish just once or twice a week.
It’s Equally About What You Don’t Eat
Another important lesson is that it’s not only about what you do eat, but also about what you don’t. With the exception of the keto diet, all longevity diets are characterized by infrequent consumption of red meat and dairy, thereby lowering the intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. This expedient alone might very well account for the centenarians’ lower risk of heart disease. When they do eat meat and dairy products, these come from pasture-raised animals (oftentimes goats and sheep), whose meat is leaner and higher in PUFAs than that of domesticated animals, and whose milk contains higher amounts of brain-essential nutrients like B vitamins and serotonin-boosting tryptophan.
Also dessert is considered an exceptional treat and never the norm. In addition, the use of natural sweeteners like raw local honey, molasses, and dried fruit renders refined-sugar products altogether unnecessary for these populations. Most centenarians as well as their younger family counterparts do not drink or even like soda, one of modern society’s most hidden sources of added, excessive sugar. To this day, I have never seen an Italian nonna (grandmother) drinking Coca-Cola—unless she’s up to some mischief!
Overall, tradition and science agree that there are common dietary principles that promote longevity, deeply rooted in the choices we make as well as our lifestyle habits as a whole.