FIFTEEN BRAIN-BOOSTING FOODS

 

 

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.  It’s a progressive, irreversible disorder in which the brain’s nerve cells degenerate, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior.   Symptoms typically slowly develop, worsen over time, and interfere with daily tasks.  Yes, genes are involved, but fewer than 5% of Alzheimer’s cases are directly caused by genetics.  The medical community has yet to identify a cause, and there is no effective long-term treatment.  We do know this: The brains of Alzheimer’s patients contain abnormal deposits of proteins, called amyloid plaques and tangles.  The plaques build up around the brain’s nerve cells while tangles form inside the cells, leading to blocked communication between brain cells and, eventually, cell death.  Determining what causes this buildup of plaques and tangles is key to finding a treatment.  Two factors that appear to play a role are oxidative damage by free radicals and inflammation.  Both of these are symptoms associated with the natural aging process, but they’re also impacted by lifestyle.  In addition, a lack of adequate blood flow due to brain cell death slowly limits healthy cells from getting the oxygen and glucose they need to function properly. And there is speculation that insulin resistance may be contributing to this (type 3 diabetes).  Bottom line: Memory and cognition suffer.  So what can you do now to start preventing mental decline?  Focus on foods and habits that can boost your brain health.  The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neuro-degenerative Delay) includes foods that appear to play key roles in brain health.  Take a look!

 

 

Fish: Eating fish like tuna and salmon once a week has been shown to slow decline in those with the Alzheimer’s gene, thanks to the high content of omega-3 DHA fatty acids, which reduces oxidative stress and slows plaque buildup.  Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet have been associated with increased risk of depression and cognitive decline.  Suggested intake: at least 1 (4-6 oz) serving per week.

Blueberries: MIND researchers focused fruit intake solely on berries, all of which are packed with antioxidants.  Blueberries’ levels lead the list, appearing to help protect sensitive brain cells from harmful free radicals. Suggested intake: at least 2 cups per week.

Nuts: Walnuts are a top nut for brain health, but all nuts offer potential brain benefits thanks to the powerful combo of omega-3s, vitamin E and antioxidants.  Suggested intake: 1 ounce at least 5 days per week.

Beans: These are natural brain boosters, containing B vitamins and phytochemicals as well as a good supply of glucose, the brain’s top fuel source.  The brain can’t store glucose, so it relies on a steady supply of it from the body, which beans can provide.  Suggested intake: include with 4 or more meals per week.

Dark Leafy Greens: Eating them may be one of the best ways to maintain proper brain function and to slow dementia development.  They’re packed with folate and phytochemicals, both of which have been linked to a lower risk of mental decline.  Folate deficiency is associated with depression and possible cognitive impairment.  Suggested intake: at least 6 cups weekly.

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (cold-pressed): This contains oleocanthal, which boosts the production of key enzymes that help break down the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s.   Olive oil can improve learning and memory by reversing oxidative damage in the brains of mice.  Suggested intake: use daily.

Wine: Several studies link moderate alcohol intake with improved memory and possibly even lower Alzheimer’s risk: moderation being the key.  Red wine may offer more brain benefits due to resveratrol, a compound in red grapes that may help reduce amyloid buildup in the brain.  Suggested intake: no more than 1 glass a day.

Green Tea: This antioxidant-rich beverage appears to be one of the best ways to keep the brain hydrated thanks to compounds called catechins.  Not only do catechins appear to be some of the most effective antioxidants in preventing free radical damage, but some research suggests they can help block amyloid plaque formation. Suggested intake: drink regularly.

Coffee: People who drink 3-5 cups of coffee (regular or decaf) a day may have lower risk of developing neurological disease and type 2 diabetes.  Coffee lovers can thank chlorogenic acid, a compound in coffee that acts as an anti-inflammatory and decreases cells’ insulin resistance.  Caffeine also blocks adenosine, a chemical that inhibits the activity of nerve cells; several studies correlate caffeine intake with higher scores on memory tests.  Suggested intake: less than 4 cups per day.

Dark Chocolate: The satisfying bittersweet bite is rich in flavonoids, which help create neurons and have been shown to improve cognitive function.  It also encourages the release of endorphins, which elevate your mood.  For maximum flavonoid benefit, choose a dark chocolate that contains 60% cacao or higher.  Suggested intake: Enjoy a 1 ounce treat occasionally.

Fermented Foods: The exact impact that our gut microbes have on the brain is unclear, but adding bacteria diversity with diet is one of the best ways  to encourage a healthy gut.  Do this by eating more probiotics, prebiotics and fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut.  Fermented foods also contain concentrations of vitamin K, which may be a factor in slowing the development of Alzheimer’s because of its key role in the synthesis of important lipids.  Suggested intake: Eat several times a week.

Turmeric: This vibrant yellow spice from India is gaining popularity in alternative medicine.  It contains a compound called curcumin, which not only gives the root its bright orange-yellow hue but also lends a distinctly earthy, peppery flavor to curry powders.  Curcumin may reduce amyloid accumulation in the brains of middle-aged individuals.  Residents of India have low rates of Alzheimer’s, a statistic that some associate with the region’s high level of turmeric intake. Suggested intake: Incorporate 1-2 turmeric dishes (such as curry) a week.

Foods Rich in B Vitamins: Low levels of folate and B12 are associated with increased risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Some studies suggest that taking supplements of these vitamins may actually slow brain deterioration, but more data are needed.  Eating foods rich in folate and B12 is an easy way to protect your brain.  Make sure you’re getting lots of greens, whole grains, and lean protein, including shellfish (like clams).  Suggested intake: These foods have other benefits and should be diet staples.

Eggs: High in protein and low in calories (7 g protein and 70 calories per large egg), eggs are also a good source of vitamin D and choline, two nutrients key for brain health.  It’s estimated up to 75% of us don’t get enough vitamin D, a scary fact in light of a recent study that found that older adults who were moderately deficient in vitamin D had a 55% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.  Choline helps stimulate neurotransmitters and regulate metabolism.  Suggested intake: 1 egg per day.

Coconut Oil: This plant oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat that may boost ketone levels.  One theory holds that ketones may be a substitute energy source for glucose when brain cells become insulin resistant due to Alzheimer’s.  No research has proven the brain-boosting benefits of coconut oil, though anecdotal testimonials abound.  Suggested intake: Coconut oil is predominantly saturated fat, and saturated fat has been linked to increased dementia risk.  There is also no evidence that MCTs in coconut oil have an impact on brain health.  However, several clinical trials looking at potential effects on dementia and Alzheimer’s are currently being conducted, so stay tuned.

Sydney Fry, MS, RD