June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Awareness Month. Worldwide, 47 million people are living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. No matter how common it may be, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging.
In addition to Alzheimer’s occurring (usually) in later life, all human beings are potentially at risk of several common brain-related issues throughout their lifetimes, including impaired IQ, learning disabilities, headaches, foggy brain, memory lapses, anxiety, insomnia, autism, brain tumours, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive behaviour, phobias, poor concentration, Parkinson’s disease and violent tendencies. To name a few
Clearly, many people are interested in keeping their brains functioning at an optimal level. Given the remarkable complexity of the human brain, there is no simple solution to every possible issue you may face, and there are no guarantees of immunity from brain disorders. It is, however, possible to start from a position that provides a strong foundation for a healthy brain and, not surprisingly, this will also result in a healthy body overall.
Most often, diet and lifestyle changes are most effective as a preventative or protective measure, and treatment requires diet and lifestyle changes as well as more specific and personalized interventions.
To understand how a Pale lifestyle is protective and nourishing for your brain it is important to understand the basic workings of the brain and what makes it vulnerable to modern diet and stress:
The brain is 60% fat (dry weight) and requires many fat precursors to function. This means it needs sufficient cholesterol and omega 3 fatty acids (specifically DHA). Both of these fats are abundant in a Paleo eating plan.
The brain requires a large amount of energy to function. Your brain weighs anywhere between 2.5-5% of your total body weight, but it uses around 20% of your energy. Thinking is very energy intensive. Keeping the brain primed and working at maximum efficiency requires a lot of fuel.
The majority of the brain is used constantly for involuntary actions like breathing or posture control. It is thus vital for brain health that your energy systems are working optimally and effectively. If you over-exert the systems, metabolic by-products build up. This results in in inaccurate brain signalling and inflammatory responses. Poor energy efficiency and metabolic garbage building up is thought to play a part multiple brain concerns, including psychiatric disorders, migraines, autism, and dementia.
The gut is an important regulator for overall inflammation, and a gut-friendly diet protects your brain by reducing overall inflammation. Gut-brain communication runs along a two-way street called the vagus nerve and gut and brain conditions are often closely related.
This is particularly evident in many gut disorders that are often accompanied by brain disorders. About half of all patients with irritable bowel syndrome also struggle with mood disorders, and antidepressant drugs are a surprisingly effective treatment for IBS.
The microbiome (the colonies of bacteria residing in your gut) also play a role in regulating mood and neurological function. Diets that increase gut bacterial diversity are associated with better mental health and cognitive function. Antibiotics, which kill the beneficial bacteria in the gut, can cause serious psychiatric effects, and raise long-term risk for depression.
Problems with the gut bacteria are also linked to serious psychiatric diseases and may have an effect on brain aging and memory loss.
A well formulated Paleo diet removes many of the major gut irritants and includes many nourishing foods for your gut and your microbiome, including well sourced proteins, healthy fats and lots of fibrous and starchy plants.
The Paleo diet promotes brain health even further by regulating your blood sugar
High blood sugar is not ideal for your brain. Poor blood sugar management results in diabetes and those struggling with the disease often have poor memory, reduced cognitive skills, and more rapid age related cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease is now often referred to as Type 3 Diabetes!
A Paleo lifestyle controls blood sugar by eliminating refined flour, processed and manufactured foods and simple carbohydrates.
Nutrients for a Healthy Brain
A healthy diet can support healthy brain function along with healthy gut function by providing sufficient appropriate nutrients.
There are many nutrients vital for optimal brain functioning and maintaining brain health. Ideally, one would aim to eat a diet that does not require minute detail and attention on each specific nutrient, but rather a diet that provides them all naturally - a nutrient-dense diet full of whole foods. This is the premise of the Paleo diet!
Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and important for brain health, for both the developing and the aging brain. Omega-3 fats are critical for brain development and learning in babies and young children. Omega-3s are also important for brain health in old age and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease have been shown to have lower levels of Omega 3 fats in their brains. Dietary Omega-3s are associated with reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Omega-3 fats may also help regulate mood through the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Eat Omega-3’s in:
- Fish, wild caught
- Pastured Eggs
B vitamins include choline, B1, B6, B9 (folate), and B12. Folate is particularly important for pregnant women as it supports the development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. B12 is important for supporting brain function as you age.
Eat B Vitamins in:
- Organ meats
- Pastured proteins
The minerals iron, selenium, and magnesium are important for a healthy brain.
- Iron deficiency is a contributor to fatigue and ‘brain fog.’ Women are especially prone to iron deficiency as they lose a significant amount monthly menstruation.
- Magnesium is important for managing stress.
- Selenium is an antioxidant mineral that helps reduce oxidative stress and may play a role in protecting against inflammatory brain disorders.
Eat Minerals in:
- Iron: Red meat. Plant sources are not as good and cannot be metabolized as efficiently.
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish and seafood, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus.
- Magnesium: Almonds, avocado, spinach, other nuts.
Fat & Cholesterol
Fat is required to support the brain in regulating mood and managing stress.
Cholesterol plays an important role in making connections between brain cells. This supports the preservation of brain function as you ago. Cholesterol is also critical for memory formation and learning.
Do not fear fat and cholesterol
Eat them in:
- Pastured, grass fed ruminants, especially red meat
- Organ meat
- Pastured egg yolks
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Everyone feels better after a good night’s sleep, and sleep is essential to repair a brain that has been active all day. During sleep, your nervous system moves into the parasympathetic mode which is specifically responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” activities that occur when the body is not working. During this time repair processes are activated and your brain is busy making new cells, enzymes, and neurotransmitters. In addition, sleep allows your glands the opportunity to replenish their supply of essential hormones. If you avoid sleep, you deprive your brain and your body the opportunity to repair.
Aerobic exercise raises your heart rate and increases blood flow to your brain. This leads to neurogenesis (the production of neurons) in certain parts of your brain that control memory and thinking. Neurogenesis increases brain volume, and this cognitive reserve is believed to help buffer against the effects of dementia. Exercise promotes the production of neurotrophins, leading to greater brain plasticity, resulting in better memory and learning. Exercise also results in an increase in neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically serotonin and norepinephrine, which boost information processing and mood.
Paleo and Brain Health
A Paleo diet and lifestyle promotes brain health. It is meant to mimic what your system has evolved to maintain optimal function throughout your life. The Paleo diet is, by default, anti-inflammatory that also supports gut healing and helps regulate blood sugar. A Paleo lifestyle encourages adequate sleep and lots of movement – both important for maintaining the health of your brain (and your body).
A healthy brain will leave you more focused, energetic, and motivated. You will be resilient and should be able to deal with and mitigate your stressors and relax easily. The first prescription for brain health is a Paleo lifestyle with whole, nutrient-dense food, avoidance of inflammation, appropriate exercise and sleep.