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5 Steps We Can Take to Protect our Brain Health

brain healthI recently attended a seminar on the subject of brain health and it was a real eye-opener.  How many times have we heard “you are what you eat” and just brushed it aside?  Well, it’s true and the impact on our brains is immense.

At this time Alzheimer’s Dementia is estimated to affect 5.4 million Americans and by the year 2050, the number of people 65 and over to have Alzheimer’s may triple to 13.8 million Americans.  Shocking numbers!

I don’t want Alzheimer’s disease, no one does.  Genetics does play a role in our risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I know we can’t change that, but what we need to realize is the role our nutrition and other lifestyle choices are influencing the disease.  An incredible amount of money is put into research on finding a cure and yet no cure exists.  Right now, doing everything we can do to prevent the disease is our best option.

brain health

Diet

Our bodies need whole foods. I read somewhere that we should eat food with one ingredient… itself.  In other words, we need to be eating more whole foods; fiber, fruit, vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids (fish) and lean protein. Our Western Diet is full of overly processed foods with high amounts of refined carbohydrates or sugars and saturated or trans fatty acids. It’s linked to obesity, poor health and damaging effects on the brain.

Our highly processed food is made to be very tasty, it’s cheap and it’s readily available and advertised. Eating these foods can actually affect the self-regulatory system within our brains that tell us when we are hungry and when we are full, leading to obesity.

brain health

Our diet impacts our brain structure and function and it’s being bombarded by unhealthy additives in our foods. Our blood-brain barriers can’t protect us from everything!

Following a traditional Mediterranean Diet is associated with improvements in cognitive function, slower rates of cognitive decline and reduced Alzheimer’s disease. Since attending this seminar I’ve been looking for Mediterranean style recipes on Pinterest and also plan to buy a good cookbook.

The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is also a healthy diet that appears to slow rates of cognitive decline as well as lower blood pressure.

(Check with your physician to find out what type of diet he or she feels is appropriate for you.)

Concentrate on eating healthy whole foods and cutting out the overly processed junk. As often as you can, think “food with one ingredient… itself”. That’s not always possible, but we can work on making those wise food choices as often as we can.

Check the list of ingredients in your food before you buy.  The longer the list the more unhealthy additives.

brain health

5 Steps you can take now to protect your brain health! #healthyeating #brainheath #diet #exercise #stresss #sleep #nature Click To Tweet

Sleep

Scientists have found that a buildup of two proteins found in the brain, amyloid-beta and tau are key indicators of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Our bodies have a built-in system to cut down on the buildup of these proteins and other junk.  While we sleep our brains basically “power cleanse” themselves.  Our wonderful bodies have a system called the glymphatic system that washes neurotoxins from our brains. Cerebrospinal fluid flows through the spaces between the neurons in our brains and flushes out proteins and other neural waste into our circulatory system and away. This system is 10 times more active while we are asleep than awake. This cleansing that takes place while we sleep, removes the amyloid-beta plaques in our brain.

brain health

Exercise

Regular physical activity improves our cognition, reduces cognitive decline and lowers our risk of developing dementia. As we get older, the birth of new brain cells slows and our brain tissue actually shrinks. The portion of our brain associated with memory and learning is the hippocampus and it’s larger in people who exercise regularly.

Researchers looked at 18 different studies that were done on adults aged 55-80 to determine the effect of exercise on cognitive abilities such as being able to focus on complex tasks, to organize, and to plan for future tasks. They also looked at their working memory such as the ability to retain a phone number while you dial the phone or the ability to retain the ingredients needed in a simple recipe while you gather them. The study showed that the control groups who did regular exercise performed four times better on cognitive tests than the control groups who didn’t exercise.  Substantial benefits occurred in as few as four weeks of exercise though the greatest effects were seen among those who exercised 30 to 45 minutes each session for longer than six months.

Cardio exercise boosts blood flow to the brain which delivers the much-needed oxygen required by our brains. Our brains soak up 20 percent of all the oxygen in our bodies. Our brains are oxygen hogs and they need it to stay fit.

Exercise lowers cortisol levels which improves our cognitive function.  It also helps to reverse insulin resistance. Our insulin sensitivity is increased for at least 16 hours after exercising, which in turn stabilizes our blood sugar. The better your blood-sugar control the more protected you are against age-related cognitive decline.

Let’s switch gears to depression for a moment. Exercise is a natural therapy for depression.  It does this by cranking up our body’s production of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals crucial to feeling happy. It also boosts levels of endorphins, which are considered the feel-good chemicals.

Getting outside and gardening can also improve your mood. There is a substance called, mycobacterium vaccae found in soil and research has shown that it stimulates the production of serotonin which makes us happier and more relaxed.

brain health

Stress

Stress causes an increase in the level of the hormone cortisol in our bodies and brains.  Cortisol has long been thought of as the stress-hormone and too much of it is damaging to our brains. Forgetfulness and scattered thinking are caused by stress more often than we realize.

Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone. Our bodies are wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect us from aggressors and dangerous situations.  Even though we may not face aggressive wild animals trying to eat us or (God forbid) an attacker in our home, that doesn’t mean our life is stress-free.

Our bodies response to stressors is meant to be self-limiting.  Once the danger has passed our hormone levels return to normal, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop and our heart and blood pressure return to normal levels.  But much of the stress we deal with today doesn’t just stop, it’s long-term, i.e. how to pay the bills, job loss, caring for elderly parents, job stress, commuter stress, etc.  So our fight or flight mechanism stays turned on causing long-term exposure to elevated cortisol and other hormone levels causing, in addition to all kinds of other health problems, cognitive decline.

Strategies for managing stress:

  • Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep
  • Take time to do things you enjoy such as reading a book, listening to music, going for a walk in the woods
  • Have a sense of humor – don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Spend time with friends (as long as it is a healthy relationship)
  • Find a relaxation technique that works for you – yoga, getting a massage, meditating
  • Volunteer in your community

brain health

Nature

Trees and plants secrete natural phytoncides that are associated with human stress reduction and immune system benefits.  So get outside and breathe!  Of course, we’re losing all of our leaves now, so not sure how we can work this one out!  Seriously though, many studies have shown that spending time outside improves our mood, relaxes us and helps us to become more calm and balanced.  It also contributes to our physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.  Which in turn helps the brain!

Diabetes

I wanted to mention type 2 diabetes because researchers have found that insulin resistance speeds up cognitive decline.

We can improve our bodies use of insulin by living a healthy lifestyle, which means if we do all of the things we should be doing for our brains, it will also help in controlling our diabetes which in turn will slow cognitive decline.

In closing….

Have you seen the commercial on TV where the woman is talking about her mother saying something that goes kind of like this, “about a year ago my brother and I noticed that Mom was searching for her words.” And then she goes on to talk about how they started looking into getting help at home for their Mom.  When I see that commercial I always think, “oh my gosh, there are lots of times I can’t think of the word I want to use”. I know it, it’s on the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t think of it. Of course, later on, it pops into my brain out of nowhere!

Wow, I need to start taking this whole idea of living a healthier lifestyle more seriously. Eating healthy, exercise, stress reduction and getting out into nature. For the most part, I don’t have an issue with sleep yet, unless you consider sitting up way too late at night on my computer a sleep issue. And I guess it is if I’m only allowing myself 5 or 6  hours of sleep a night.

I’m going to be working on these things and I hope reading this has encouraged you to look at your lifestyle and start doing the things you need to do to preserve that brain of yours!

Have a great day!

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I’ll be sharing this at some of the lovely link parties found on my “Where I Party” page!

{ 11 comments }
Amy November 10, 2017, 9:13 am

Great tips! I think I do all of these!
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Teresa November 10, 2017, 8:32 pm

That’s wonderful Amy! As years go by you will be very glad you did! Thank you for stopping by.

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Dr. Aletha Oglesby November 10, 2017, 12:25 pm

Straightforward and sound information. No need to chase prevention with unproven supplements or vitamin overdose. I would add avoiding tobacco use and excess alcohol use.

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Teresa November 10, 2017, 8:32 pm

Thank you Dr. Oglesby for your comments and yes, I agree those should be added to.

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Natalie A November 12, 2017, 2:40 pm

Thank you for this post and for these important reminders. I take these seriously and I need to work on some of these. My mom was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia 4 years ago, and I have been her caregiver. I write a blog about our journey. I had a stroke a year ago, too. You don’t realize how important the brain is, until it’s not working properly anymore. Thank you again for this post!
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Teresa November 12, 2017, 9:54 pm

I am so sorry to hear about the struggles you’ve faced with you and your mother’s health. I know we often take our health for granted until we lose a portion of it; I know that I have. God bless you both! I will be stopping by your blog to read about your journey. Thank you for stopping by and reading here.

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Christie Hawkes November 14, 2017, 2:39 pm

Thanks for the important reminders, Teresa. I’m doing fairly well on most of these, but I struggle with the whole foods. I confess I eat a lot of processed foods. Something to think about for sure. My mother has recently been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s and her father had it as well. If there are things I can do to protect myself, I should start now. I found your post on the GRAND Social.
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Teresa November 14, 2017, 6:49 pm

Thank you for reading Christie! It is difficult; I know I’ve become so used to all of the processed foods too, so I’m trying to just keep moving forward making small changes. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and it was so sad. The younger we start taking care of ourselves the better!

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Matt @ Pickleball November 16, 2017, 11:07 am

Great article. I found that for my aging parents, physical activity is a top priority for maintaining their quality of life. After retiring and moving to FL they took up pickleball.
Apart from being low-impact, there is a great social aspect – they’ve got a whole new circle of friends now- and that is another critical part about aging, keeping socially active and engaged to ward off loneliness -which has lots of negative effects.
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Krystal Herrera November 22, 2017, 5:13 am

Thank you for sharing such an informative post. As much if you’re still young it’s important to know how to take care ourselves. Anyways, this is something will surely share with my parents. They are some signs that are showing already and as a daughter, I will definitely get concern. Will share this. Thank you again for this post. Cheers!

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Teresa November 22, 2017, 6:39 pm

Yes, the younger we start living a healthy lifestyle the better for our brains and bodies! Thank you for stopping by, reading and commenting.

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