Far too many of us these days have had some experience with friends or loved ones who are dealing with Alzheimer’s and it’s heart-breaking physical, emotional and mental impact. Though many of us witness the disease at arm’s length, it’s hard not to think about the frightening specter of Alzheimer’s possibly affecting our own brains someday. How to side-step this scourge? Though we don’t have all the answers yet, we do know that a healthy lifestyle can have a big impact on reducing risk, slowing the progression of the disease and possibly even torpedo it all together. My advice? Start turning the tide and try incorporating these 10 do-now, brain-health habits to help keep yours in top form and trouble-free for years to come:
In addition to setting you up for obesity and type 2 diabetes, sugar may also be destroying your brain cells! In fact, many scientists are now calling Alzheimer’s the ‘diabetes of the brain’ or ‘diabetes 3’ – making avoidance of all that sugar and excessive carbs endemic to the Standard American Diet (SAD) absolutely essential – that is, if maintaining a healthy brain is your goal. Other key brain-health killers to avoid: the cocktail of chemicals, industrial seed oils (aka vegetable oils), processed foods, and factory-farmed meats, which are, in addition to carbs and sugar, are cornerstones of the aptly acronymed ‘SAD.’ They too are robbing your brain and body of health by perpetuating the kind of disastrous, almost non-stop inflammation that sets the table for life-altering neurological problems and disease.
Trading sugars, industrial oils, processed foods, and factory-farmed meats for real, whole, nutrient-dense foods will give brain-health a boost by supplying your brain-protecting ‘glial’ cells with the nutrients they need to thrive. When you feed yourself, also think about feeding your glial cells well too. What’s good for them is also great for the rest of you, so make sure you’ve got these brain-boosters on your plate:
When your microbiome is healthy, the 100 trillion or so mostly friendly bacteria that live in your gut work together to keep immunity strong, aid digestion and metabolism and manufacture key nutrients. They also produce neurotransmitters and other chemicals which are transported to the brain, helping to stabilize mood and maintain healthy brain function, when all is well. But, when the microbiome’s intestinal flora are thrown out of balance by things like sugar, processed foods, antibiotics, stress and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory meds (like Advil), that imbalance opens the door to the one-two punch to both your gut and your brain: you encourage leaky-gut-triggered inflammation throughout your body, plus in your brain. It has been shown that gut bacteria can release significant amounts of amyloid into the bloodstream, which can then cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain in the form of amyloid plaques. These plaques are thought to play a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
I don’t use non-stick cookware and neither should you. Even though it does make clean-up easy, the potential cost to your brain makes it a poor trade-off. Unfortunately, non-stick cookware has been linked with neurological problems, so you’re better off steering clear. Instead, cook with healthier options like cast iron and glass.
Movement helps increase blood flow to the brain and supports its health. The Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation reports that regular exercise cuts the risk of neurological problems by half, so, get off the couch and shake a leg! If you’ve got a sedentary office job, find ways to move around more throughout the day. Set a timer on your computer screen and have it ping you every 30 minutes or so to remind you to do a lap to the water cooler and back to boost blood flow. On days when you’re short on time, do a “micro session” instead, and by that we mean dedicating a few five-to-ten-minute blocks of time to movement over the course of the day (instead of doing it all in one longer session).
To keep your brain healthy, you simply must sleep. While you’re asleep, your brain’s glymphatic system is, in effect, cleaning your head – flushing cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and removing the protein detritus that accumulates between the cells. When you cut corners on sleep, the cleaning crew can’t do their job, the proteins and waste products accumulate, and the thinking is that the build up contributes to neurological decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s. So be good to your brain and help it ward off disease by giving it the time it needs – at least 7 hours a night — to take out the trash, restore, replenish and repair.
Meditation is a fantastic way to give your brain a break – think of it as a simple and free brain-preserving treatment for your head. Why is it so important? Because meditation can help reduce and relieve much of the stress that can lead to brain shrinkage in the area responsible for memory. As much as your brain needs to be stimulated, it also needs down time to recharge and stress-busting meditation does that beautifully.
Making time to be with others – in real time and face-to-face – does wonders not only for your soul but also for your brain. Research shows that those who are socially active and continue engage as they age tend to have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. One more reason to ‘keep in touch’ with friends, loved ones and your community – it’s good for your brain!
In addition to eating a clean, anti-inflammatory diet, I also recommend a few key supplements to help fill in nutritional gaps and strengthen the body’s ability to ward off neurological decline. Here are some of my favorite brain-supporters:
Knowledge is power, so I recommend everyone get the APOE gene test done. Your Doctor can order it as a blood test or you can try one of the many of the home gene testing kits, like 23 and Me, that do it. If you have one copy of the APOE 4 (E3/E4) or 2 copies (E4/E4), it increases your risk for Alzheimer’s. But it is essential to remember that the APOE gene does NOT cause Alzheimer’s, but it is a good indication that you are susceptible to the disease. It only becomes a problem when you combine the gene with an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. Though you can’t change the gene or eliminate it, you can change how the gene is expressed. You have considerable control over how that gene presents itself and how it behaves, depending on how well or poorly your treat and feed your body. Knowing your susceptibility will hopefully inspire and empower you to make the positive, brain-supportive lifestyle choices I suggest above.