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Nutrition and Brain Health

June 21, 2021

Your brain is your most important organ and controls almost all functions in your body. It controls your motor skills, memory, emotion, and thoughts. It gets messages from your body and your surroundings and decides the best way to respond. Think about the last time you were in a stressful situation. Maybe you were running late for work, or you were sick, or you were about to go into an important meeting or exam. Your heart probably started to beat faster, and you started to breathe more quickly. Your brain controlled this response by taking in messages from your surroundings and making changes in your body.  

While it would be ideal for our brain to work well for our entire lives, many diseases can affect it. One common disease that affects the brain is dementia. Dementia is a term for a group of brain diseases that can impact thinking and memory. They are caused by damage to brain cells and are often progressive, which means they start off mild and get worse over time. Some of the symptoms of dementia are getting lost in familiar places, having problems with tasks you do regularly, having trouble remembering appointments or important dates, and acting confused. As dementia gets worse, symptoms can include changes in personality, inability to dress or bathe, and loss of bowel and bladder control. 

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. In the United States, more than 6 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease. The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is increasing age. Alzheimer’s disease symptoms vary from person to person, but they often include the symptoms of dementia mentioned above. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but some treatments can temporarily slow the worsening of symptoms. However, these treatments do not stop Alzheimer’s disease from progressing. Because of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on people and their families, there is a worldwide effort to find a cure.

While there is no cure for dementia currently, proper nutrition may play an important role in keeping your brain healthy. The recent book, Brain Weaver, developed from the clinical and research knowledge obtained at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, describes dietary approaches that can help to keep your brain healthy:

- Mediterranean diet: This is a pattern of eating where you consume mainly vegetables, fruits, plant-based fats (nuts and olive oil), whole grains, poultry, eggs, and fish. With the Mediterranean diet, you consume moderate dairy and limited red meat. Sticking to this diet has been associated with a slower cognitive decline and reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

- Ketogenic diet: This diet emphasizes food choices that are low in carbohydrates and high in healthy fats. When you follow the ketogenic diet, your body uses an energy source called ketones. Normally, your body uses glucose as energy. The presence of ketones in the body may have a protective effect on brain cells. This means that the ketogenic diet may benefit people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. 

- Flexitarian diet: Flexitarian is a combination of two words: flexible and vegetarian. With the flexitarian diet, you consume mainly plant-based foods. You can eat some fish and poultry, but you should only eat a few ounces per day of these meats. One of the goals of the flexitarian diet is to consume as many colors as possible. This diet is protective for your brain because the foods you consume have many vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients. Additionally, the meats you consume on the flexitarian diet are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation. 

- Intermittent fasting: This means that you restrict your food intake to certain periods of the day. One common form of intermittent fasting is time-restricted eating such as restricting your meals to a 12-hour window in which you eat your first meal of the day at 8 am, and then you end your last meal of the day by 8 pm. Another form of intermittent fasting is alternate-day fasting, where you fast every other day such as limiting caloric intake to just 500 to 700 calories one day and then eat a normal meal the following day. Intermittent fasting can reduce inflammation in the body and has benefits for several health conditions, including neurologic disorders.

- Consuming a variety of vitamins, minerals, and supplements: 

- Multivitamins: It is most ideal to get the important vitamins and minerals from your diet, but when you cannot, a multivitamin will help you get the necessary vitamins and minerals. Some important vitamins and minerals for protecting your brain are B vitamins, vitamins E and C, selenium, zinc, and copper. 

- Omega-3 and fish oil: Unless you are consuming a diet that is high in oily fish, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may be protective for the brain. Fish oil supplements are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. 

- Green tea: Green tea is high in antioxidants, and some research has demonstrated a lower risk of dementia in populations that consume high doses of green tea.

Before beginning any of the above diets or supplementing with vitamins and minerals, speak with your doctor to decide what is best for you. He or she can talk to you about the best ways to make dietary changes. Additionally, if you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms of dementia, see a physician. 

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Authored by Eleanor Kane

4th Year Medical Student, Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University