Brain Power Through Nutrition
Mental decline is not inevitable. Neither is depression or anxiety, although for some it may seem that way. Balancing brain nutrients coupled with exercise, avoiding toxins, and getting sunshine, can keep us sharp, balanced, upbeat, and purposeful, right through hormone surges and into old age.
The most critical organ of the body is our brain. Without a healthy brain, we can’t take care of ourselves or anything else. Mental health, memory, independence, happiness, and the ability to feel comfortable in our skin all require a healthy, well-nourished brain.
The following impact our memory, mind and mood:
Food choices, nutrient imbalance, supplements
Drugs (prescription and recreational)
Community, social support
Genetic tendencies, DNA
All these are impacted by our diet.
It is clear that alcohol, drugs, stress, endless winters, and even genes can prompt mental instability. Much of this however has to do with effects on brain nutrients including B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, and essential fats.
Alcohol, for instance, can deplete zinc and folate, two key mind and mood nutrients. Antacids can block absorption of protein, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium, nutrients involved with balanced brain neurotransmitters.
Antibiotics not only reduce assimilation of brain nutrients, they wreak havoc on our second brain, or gut. The beneficial gut bacteria destroyed by these drugs can leave us anxious and depressed. Joanne, a client of mine in her late 60’s is generally content and calm, however the last three times she was prescribed an antibiotic, she became anxious and depressed and stayed that way for months.
Many blame their genes for depression, dementia, heart disease or other family ills. In reality genes simply code for our nutrient needs. For example, folate is needed in higher than normal levels in up to 80% of the population. In other words the government’s RDI for folate is not enough for many. Failure to get optimal levels can lead to depression, dementia, strokes, and cancer.
Some maladies might appear to run in the family, but in reality it is a greater than average need for specific nutrients. For many, high doses of folate relieve depression, especially when antidepressants fail. Patients aren’t depressed, they’re deficient in folate!
Your genes might code for a higher need for B12 or omega 3 fats, for protein or for zinc to stay mentally and physically balanced. Supplements and the right foods can go a long way to sustaining both physical and mental health.
Andy, an active, fit 73-year old, recently came to see me about overwhelming brain fog and irritability. It settled in each afternoon and often in the late morning. Andy was upset this was impacting his real estate business and social life.
Andy’s low-fat, low cholesterol and often low-protein diet was depriving his brain of zinc, protein, important fats and fat-soluble nutrients while allowing his blood sugar and important neurochemicals to plummet. Desperation motivated Andy to change his food choices and to supplement; within two weeks, Andy regained his youthful mental sharpness, energy, and sense of humor.
How? Andy replaced his vegan tofu-rice bowl lunch with beef and chicken based meals including stir-fries and stews with plenty of leafy greens and less rice. He dumped his morning wheat cereal biscuits with skim milk and instead started cooking up eggs with spinach and nitrite-free bacon, a breakfast rich in good fats, folate and magnesium.
He stopped limiting butter, nuts, and egg yolks, foods that nourish the brain with important fats and fat-soluble nutrients. Oysters a few times a week helped restore low zinc levels, and cod liver oil with its rich omega 3 fats and vitamin D content, further enhanced his cognition and mood. A B complex with the right forms of folate and B12 further enhanced Andy’s energy, cognition, and health.
Andy was so happy with the changes, he gave me one of his own lovely framed watercolor paintings.
Much of the confused thinking we see with age is due to medications.
Eileen, a self-employed 63-year old, recently contacted me about memory loss. I am forgetting everyday words, she said, like umbrella. I can’t recall people’s names. I’m losing it. Help! Eileen was taking a statin for her “borderline high” cholesterol. Statins (cholesterol lowering drugs) are associated with memory loss and cognitive decline. Ironically higher cholesterol levels as we age are associated with better cognition and a longer life, including less atherosclerosis and reduced risk of infections, two common killers in older age.
I mentioned this to Eileen, clarifying this was a discussion to have with her doctor, but Eileen promptly dropped her statin. She called me two days later and said her memory was noticeably better. One week later she reported her memory was back to normal. (Always check with your doctor before dropping a medication.)
My father used antacids most of his life. These drugs block acids needed to digest our food and extract brain nutrients. They also disrupt the bacterial community often referred to as our second brain. He went from being a sharp senior partner in his law firm to experiencing significant cognitive decline and fatigue in his 70’s. He showed clear signs of deficiency in iron, magnesium zinc and folate, nutrients commonly depleted by antacid use. Damage to his GI tract and ongoing prescriptions left little room for nutrition to restore his health.
Dizziness, fog brain and fatigue are also common with fluid loss. A friend, Joan, complained to me she felt faint and disoriented after walks, especially on hot days. The diuretic she was taking for her blood pressure was dehydrating her while depleting her potassium. Common symptoms include dizziness and cloudy thinking. After discussing this with her doctor, Joan was able to replace the diuretics with alternatives for controlling her blood pressure, including extra magnesium, which helped her feel balanced.
Hormones can trigger for a full range of mood swings, yet they do not function by all by themselves. Hormones are affected by toxins and our intake of sugar, alcohol, and bad fats. Deficiencies of zinc, omega 3’s, and vitamin A can also fuel hormone imbalance.
I see many examples of memory loss, anxiety and depression, and yes, even hormone imbalance, transformed through diet and movement.
Here are 7 tips to support memory, mind and mood.
Move. Duke University research found exercise works as well as an antidepressant in staving off depression while also improving cognition as we age. Exercise creates new brain cells, leaving existing brain cells more youthful. Exercise also helps balance hormones. Aim for 30 minutes a day.
Beef up Your B’s: B vitamins are among our most important brain nutrients, with deficiencies leading to dementia, depression and fatigue. Consider a good B complex, one with folate, not folic acid, which is an inferior synthetic form. Avoid cyano-cobalamin, a less effective and, for some, a toxic form of B12. Eat more leafy greens, nuts, and liver.
Zinc up: Zinc plays a role in memory, cognition, and mental calm, as well as hormone balance and immunity. Oysters and red meat are good food sources. Too much whole grain fiber can bind up and thus deplete zinc.
Balance blood sugar: Skipping meals, feasting on sugary foods or failing to get enough protein and good fats can leave your blood sugar swinging too high or too low, both contributors to adrenal fatigue and mental decline. Alzheimer’s disease has been called type 3 diabetes for a reason.
Get your omega 3’s. Wild salmon, deep-water fish, grass fed beef, and pastured eggs, are sources of brain-stimulating omega 3 fats. A supplement or diet rich in omega 3’s can prevent or reverse depression, mild cognitive decline, teenage anger and depression, and memory loss.
Sun Yourself. The vitamin D we create out of UVB light from the sun on our skin promotes mental well being and improved cognition. In winter, consider more egg yolks, pastured butter, liver, and cod liver oil.
For more on this, check my previous post on sharpening memory.