When it comes to health, the brain should get top consideration. Why? The brain is the leader of the symphony. All else depends on the optimal functioning of the brain. To focus on other things first is to put the cart before the horse. If the brain isn’t functioning correctly it is impossible to have everything else in the body operating at its best. If the brain is thriving, you thrive. The reverse is also true. If the body is suffering, the brain will be the first to also suffer.
The brain is no different than any other part of the body in that it needs certain ingredients to thrive. The brain is the most metabolically active organ in the body so it is very sensitive to getting its needs met to function optimally. The two main requirements for the brain are oxygen and glucose. 20% of all our oxygen is used by the brain. Anything that increases oxygen delivery to the brain is good. Of course the reverse is also true.
Diet has a major role to play in both oxygen and glucose delivery to the brain, but particularly glucose. The brain requires a steady supply of glucose and that is best accomplished with a whole food diet devoid of refined carbohydrates. If the glucose supply is erratic due to poor choices, ones emotions usually are on a roller coaster and their life is full of chaos. A few rules for eating for the brain.
1. Eat whole foods
2. Eat complex carbohydrates only
3. No carbohydrates by themselves
4. No refined sugars
5. No eating after dinner
Processed foods, even proteins, can leech valuable nutrients from the body. Mostly these are the same nutrients that have been removed from the food during processing. These foods can also have the effect of spiking blood sugar contributing to an unstable supply to the brain.
Sugar is a major problem. With over 150 pounds consumed per person in the U.S. (100 years ago it was 4 pounds) and rising, it contributes to many health problems like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc. There is a correlation between diet and behavior as well. Diet affects the part of the brain first that deals with learning, social skills, and civilized behavior. This part of the brain gets starved with a bad diet. S When people are stressed there are two ways to deal with it. One is a civilized response and the other is not. Diet can be the main factor which dictates the choice that predominates.
There have been studies done where probationers were put on whole food diets as a condition of their probation. Very few were repeat offenders. Conversely, there was a over a 70% recidivism rate amongst the probation population that didn’t make any dietary changes. It’s a shame that this information has gone ignored.
Some good foods to feed the brain are blueberries, Alaskan salmon, walnuts, spinach, and organic eggs. It is best to avoid hydrogenated fats, deli meats, corn and soy oil, MSG, artificial sweeteners and food colors and flavors. It is also best to avoid fluoride. One side effect of fluoride is the lowering of one’s IQ.
Exercise is mandatory for good brain health. Besides enhancing circulation, exercise actually increases the number of mitochondria within the cell. This is where energy is made so more is better. The number one complaint of people today is fatigue. Fatigue starts in the brain. A lack of exercise is a very common cause of depleted energy. Other benefits of exercise are an increase in decision making reaction time, improved self esteem and moods, a decrease in stress, a slowing of the aging process and better sleep. X-ray scans have proven that exercise increases circulation to the brain. It also can push back cognitive decline ten to fifteen years. It promotes production of nerve pathway protection and improves neuron development and decreases cellular deterioration.
Easy, prolonged exercise that you enjoy doing is best. Walking, cycling or whatever you enjoy is ok. The key is consistency. It is best not to over exert yourself, especially when first starting out. That could lead to rapid burn out or injury. The goal is to burn fat for energy and that is done with slower prolonged exercise. If you find yourself gasping for air or you cannot carry on a conversation while exercising, you are probably burning sugar, not fat, for energy. Exercise can add as much as two hours of productive time per day. The challenge is to start. Commit to five minutes a day the first week and build on that. If you are already exercising, add five minutes to your routine.
In addition to the bad food items previously mentioned, other enemies of the brain are toxicity and inflammation. I put them together because toxicity can be a cause of inflammation. Inflammation is caused by free radical production in the brain. Free radicals are unstable electrons that create heat which damages surrounding tissue. In the brain the fat cells are affected. The brain is 60% fat so there is a lot of potential for problems here. Rancid fats and oils are a major concern but so is the exposure to certain chemicals. Pesticides, insecticides, MSG, cleaning agents, etc. can be dangerous. Combining an exposure to these common toxins in the absence of adequate antioxidants can have negative consequences. It is known that spraying insecticides inside your home increases your risk of Parkinson’s Disease by 70%. Spraying outside your home also raises the risk factor but not quite as much. Many medications decrease the body’s antioxidant reserves as well. If you’re taking prescriptions, I’m not suggesting you stop. However, do a little research and if they lower your antioxidants, simply start supplementing with them.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are on the rise at alarming rates. 10% of the U.S. population at age 65 has Alzheimer’s. By 2030, eight million Americans will have this debilitating disease. The statistics for Parkinson’s are as grim. As I write this one in fifty children are diagnosed as autistic. 14% of school age children are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorders account for a large part of the prescription drug market and growing exponentially.
There are some valuable lab tests that can provide useful data. Here’s a few:
1. Oxidative Stress Test. This test provides an accurate marker for free radical activity in fatty tissue. Remember, the brain is 60% fat. This test measures the degree of free radical assault that is taking place and also the antioxidant defense status of the individual.
2. Homocysteine. This is a normal byproduct of the breakdown of the amino acid methionine. The body should neutralize it quickly but if not, it can build up and create inflammation, especially in the arteries. High levels are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. If homocysteine is high in the brain, it can contribute to depression, stroke, and cancer. Certain nutrients are needed to neutralize homocystein like Vitamins B6, B12, folic acid and magnesium. Drugs are not the solution here.
3. C-Reactive Protein. This has long been known as a cardiovascular risk factor but it can also be indicative of brain inflammation.
4. Glutathione. One of the best markers for health. It is a powerful cellular antioxidant. Generally, the higher the levels, the healthier one is. There are precursors to glutathione. One is lipoic acid. Another N-acetyl cysteine. There are two enzymatic processes that synthesize glutathione. One is selenium dependent and the other is riboflavin dependent.
To keep the toxic load from accumulating in the brain it is important to aid the functioning of the liver. What the body can’t eliminate it will store, even in the brain. One of the main functions of the liver is to filter out toxins and turn them into a form that the body can eliminate. N-acetyl cysteine and lipoic acid are very good liver supports, but there are many other supplements that help as well. Milk thistle, dandelion, celery and safflower are a few herbs that aid the liver. Foods that help are broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrots, lemons and limes.
There are several supplements that can support the brain. Here’s a few:
1. Coenzyme Q10. A necessary nutrient for energy production and is also an antioxidant and enhances the immune system.
2. Acetyl L-carnitine. Helps with cellular detoxification and heals nerves.
3. Phosphatidylserine. Promotes healthy cell membranes, improves memory and increases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
4. Resveratrol. A potent antioxidant and helps oxygenate the brain. Decreases neurodegeneration and increases the development of new nerve pathways.
5. Grape seed extract. Helps injuries heal. A potent antioxidant and increases brain glutathione.
6. B vitamins. B6, B3, and B12 are all good for the brain and nerves. B3 has shown promise aiding Alzheimer’s. B12 deficiency is missed a lot because the lab normal values are too low.S
7. L-carnosine. Helps with nerve repair. Increases activity in the frontal cortex and lessens stress induced damage to the brain and kidneys.
8. Pregnenolone. A natural hormone which is the precursor to all the other hormones. It can boost memory and moods. It helps with learning, reduces stress hormones, increases energy, and boosts immunity.
9. Turmeric. A great anti-inflammatory. Has been shown to be effective at lowering C-reactive protein.
Beyond foods and nutrients, there are other lifestyle components necessary for the brain to thrive. Here are some important ones:
1. Movement with focus. Doing things automatically and routinely does not stimulate the brain. Focus promotes the growth of new nerve pathways. Doing movement slowly with focus is even more powerful.
2. Learning new things is rocket fuel for the brain. Taking classes, visiting new places, learning new recipes, etc. forms new brain patterns which equates to an increased sense of aliveness.
3. Gentleness increases our vitality, awareness, and sensitivity. Force does the opposite.
4. Have fun. A childlike playful attitude is good for our brains.
5. Take drugs only when necessary. Cognitive decline can be a side effect of drugs.
6. Get enough rest. In the U.S. forty million people suffer from a sleep disorder. They also work longer and take less time off than the rest of the industrialized world. Fatigue can have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol.
7. Control your stress. Stress increases free radical production which causes inflammation. It causes an increase in stress hormones that are toxic to our memory center of the brain and also decreases the production of neurotransmitters which are necessary for cellular communication.
8. Do something you love for your work. If that is not possible right now, do something you love while you do your work (like singing).
9. Surround yourself with beautiful music, colors, smells, and other things that delight you. This makes you feel good and the brain loves it. Where you spend most of your time should be heaven to your senses.
10. Do new, different things regularly. Most people do the same things daily. They eat the same ten foods, watch the same television shows, drive the same routes, etc. Habitual living is a death sentence to the brain. Living with awareness and trying new things is invigorating to the brain.
The first symptom that the brain is struggling is usually the inability to retrieve information. Along with the suggestions already mentioned, the brain can be exercised specifically. Here’s one way to do that. In the morning pull one card out from the deck and look at it. In the evening before retiring recall what the card was. If this can be done successfully six days out of seven, then repeat by pulling two cards out in the morning. Again, recalling successfully six days out of seven add another card. When this can be done with six cards start adding a first name and eventually a last name. This exercise also makes one focus and provides a quantifying measure of how severe the problem is. My suggestion is if this is really difficult get the lab tests mentioned earlier done and start supplementing with some of the nutrients. You can improve the results jut like you were rehabbing any other part of the body. Remember, the brain is dynamic, metabolically alive, and can lay down new neuronal pathways at any age as long as the appropriate stimuli is applied.
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