The incidence of early onset-dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s and brain-based disorders is increasing rapidly. Understanding what our brains need to remain fit and function well is a key element to remaining healthy into our old age. What do our brains need to stay healthy and prevent deterioration?
Inflammation in the brain has most recently been linked to the development of depression. It has also been implicated in autism and other neurodegenerative disorders. There are a number of factors that can increase inflammation but perhaps the key one is to choose the right fats. The brain is around 60% fat, so it is unsurprising that fats would be important to it’s function. Omega 3 fatty acids can lower inflammation as well as making neurotransmitter communication more effective. The problem is the prevalence of inflammatory fats in our modern diets. These are hydrogenated or damaged fats that are in many shop-bought products, snack foods and fast foods. Having excess omega 6 oils from seeds oils in your diet and too little omega 3 from oily fish can contribute to inflammation. Hydrogenated fats can actually block the uptake of omega 3 by the cells. People eating vegetarian and vegan diets may have to pay specific attention to their zinc and magnesium levels to ensure that the omega 3 from plant based sources (seeds and nuts) can be appropriately lengthened and used by the body.
The Organic Acid Test measures some metabolites that give an indication of levels of brain inflammation.
The ability to develop new pathways
Neural plasticity is what allows severe brain injury patients to make remarkable recoveries. Given the right rehabilitation and nutrients the brain will try to find new ways to do old things. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s also have an element of loss of neural plasticity to them. Maintaining neural plasticity can help keep our brains functioning well. Magnesium, choline and omega 3 fats play an important role in this.
Methylation is a simple biochemical process that affects the function and health of a number of body systems. To perform this action the body requires good levels of folate, B6 and B12. Often people require specific forms of these vitamins to support methylation. When methylation is sub-optimal it can lead to a rise in homocysteine levels. High homocysteine levels have been associated with dementia, Alzheimers and an increased incidence of stroke. Identifying homocysteine levels and possible methylation issues are key to maintaining optimal brain health. You can order a postal, blood spot homocysteine test here.
Antioxidants help to reduce the damage done by oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a result of normal body processes but when it increases due to environmental and dietary exposure to aggravating factors it can cause damage to the brain and it’s functions. Factors that can lead to excessive oxidative stress include eating burnt foods, damaged fats, exposure to heavy metals and pollutants, a high sugar diet, overeating and nutrient deficiencies. Food intolerances, if not detected can also lead to increased oxidative stress. Early signs of oxidative stress include poor cognition, headaches and fatigue. There needs to be some focus on internal sources of oxidative stress too. A disrupted gut flora or harbouring potential pathogens can contribute to ongoing oxidative stress as can poor liver function or low level, chronic infections. As a first step, you can antioxidant nutrients especially fat soluble nutrients like vitamin E and A. Anthocyanidins from berries and carotenoids from brightly coloured vegetables would also be a good addition.
Balanced blood sugar
High levels of advanced glycation end (AGE’s) products can affect brain structure and function. These are formed when sugar binds with protein and can cause damage by increasing both oxidative stress and inflammation. With this mind, it is important to take into account role of anti-oxidants and omega fatty acids to counter this effect. As well as ensuring blood sugar is well balanced through intake of adequate protein and avoidance of sugary foods. The active form of B6 may also have a protective effect.