Nutrition and the brain

The more we know about the brain, our genetics and nutrition, the more nutrition becomes suspect in either the creation of or the worsening of cognitive decline. Research has some new theories about those pesky plaques in the brain called beta amyloid plaque. It appears that beta amyloid plaque may initially be a protective mechanism but when left unchecked, can lead to irreversible or, at least, damage that is difficult to reverse or slow down. This is similar to the formation of artery plaque. Plaque is laid down in an attempt to quench inflammation in the arterial wall. But over time, if the inflammation remains, this continuous building of plaque blocks off the artery from adequate blood flow, starving out the cells that depend on this blood flow to maintain their health. What causes this inflammation? A diet too high in carbohydrate that maintains higher blood sugar. This higher blood sugar may well be hovering at the upper end of the normal range, but over time sugar causes inflammation that creates a cascade of events that alert the immune system of danger, make blood cells sticky and hijack LDL cholesterol using it to form a plaque. In the brain, this creates beta amyloid plaque, which initially acts to help the cell by outsourcing energy production, keeping glucose out of the cell and reducing damage. But this shift has its cost. It limits available fuel within the cell and relies on valuable fat for fuel that would otherwise become part of the protective layer of neurons. This same inflammatory process can occur virtually anywhere in the body and can affect anyone. If you have diabetes, you are 2 to 5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to go there!

Foods that rapidly digest to sugar: refined grains, sweets, soda, and alcohol all contribute to unhealthy blood sugar levels. Alcohol is particularly troublesome. Here’s what happens when we imbibe. Since we can’t store ethanol, it it’s the first fuel used before the other carbs, protein, and fat we consume. That means that some of the additional calories you consumed are more likely to become fat in your fat cells. This is because alcohol turns down the metabolic rate by limiting each cell’s ability to burn fuel. That’s like putting a speed limiter on your car’s engine. Your cells simply can’t burn fuel beyond a certain rate. A diet simply too high in carbohydrate can have the same effect. Not carbs from vegetables, whole fruit, dairy and modest amounts of whole grains, but those coming from sweets, soda, refined, processed foods and alcohol.

So what’s the best fuel for your brain? While experts like Dr. David Perlmutter recommend a grain free diet, and Dr. Michael Greger recommends a vegan diet, most experts agree that reducing the amount of sugar you eat is the first step. What do I tell my patients?

  • Limit grain products like bread, cereal, and crackers, choosing more beans, legumes, and root vegetables.
  • Plan your meals around vegetables and protein:
    • Sweet potato, spinach salad with walnuts, 1/2 an artichoke
    • Minestrone Soupmade with butternut squash and beans
    • Main dish salad with roasted root vegetables and salmon
    • Falafels wrapped in lettuce, kale or chard
  • Limit sweets to fresh fruit, or in moderation, dried fruit
  • Avoid soda completely: regular and artificially sweetened (those sweeteners affect your gut bacteria and disrupt the brain)
  • Include healthy fats every day: nuts, seeds, fatty fish, avocado, coconut oil (in moderation)

It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you start soon. Your brain will thank you with better concentration, improved sleep and less risk of Alzheimer’s.