Look after your little grey cells

Natural ways to protect the health of your brain

We’ve all done it at some point in our lives – misplaced the car keys, forgotten someone’s name or walked into a room and realised you can’t remember why you went in there. Lapses of memory are quite normal, particularly when you are juggling several tasks or preoccupied with stress. But for millions of people across the UK, symptoms such as memory loss, confusion and problems with speech and understanding can be a result of dementia.

Dementia is a general term which refers to various brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. These conditions tend to be progressive and eventually become severe. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting 62 per cent of those diagnosed. Other types of dementia include vascular dementia and mixed dementia.

Dementia is a terminal condition but research is constantly being uncovered on ways to protect the health of your brain and reduce the risk of developing this condition. Good dietary choices, the right supplementation and even lifestyle changes have been shown to reduce your risk of developing dementia. Here we speak to the experts to find out the best natural ways of supporting the health of your grey matter.

Follow the Mediterranean diet

“What you eat can have an enormous impact on brain health,” says leading nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville PhD, author of Natural Alternatives to Sugar www.marilynglenville.com. “The largest study looking at the association between the Mediterranean diet and memory was published in 2013 in the medical journal Neurology. The research showed that eating a Mediterranean diet is linked to a reduced incidence of cognitive decline. The study suggests that what you eat affects your brain health. The advice is to increase the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil and eat more oily fish. People with Alzheimer’s have been found to have a shortage of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, and drugs which mimic acetylcholine are often used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. Acetylcholine is critical for memory and brain function. Choline is a precursor (starting block) for acetylcholine and is contained in high amounts in egg yolks and is also found in soya and nuts. So these are good foods for boosting memory and brain function.”

Reduce refined sugar

“It has now been suggested that Alzheimer’s is, effectively, ‘diabetes’ of the brain,” says Dr Glenville. “Some researchers claim that the two illnesses are so similar that Alzheimer’s should really be called ‘Type 3 diabetes’. Up until a few years ago, it was thought that insulin simply regulated blood sugar but it is now understood that it has a number of other functions as well. It regulates neurotransmitters, brain chemicals like acetylcholine, which are important for learning and memory. Insulin is also important for the growth of blood vessels which help supply the brain with oxygen and glucose. This role is important for vascular dementia when the blood supply to the brain is restricted. Insulin is also important for promoting plasticity, whereby your brain can change over your lifetime, making new connections. It is therefore recommended to reduce your intake of refined sugar – either added to drinks or in your food – as this can negatively affect your brain health. Also, include more unrefined carbohydrates and less of the refined ones like white pasta, white rice and so on as these are broken down into sugar quickly.”

Supplement with omega-3s

“Omega 3 EPA and DHA from high quality fish oil exhibit neuroprotective properties and may support a variety of neurodegenerative and neurological disorders,” says Kay Ali, head of nutrition for Bare Biology (www.barebiology.com). “Specifically, DHA is concentrated in the brain and has unique and indispensable roles in neuronal membranes. It has been shown to protect the synapse and nerve growth cone, two structures that are crucial for foetal brain development and repair of the nervous system during old age. However, what’s really exciting is that new research is showing us that both EPA and DHA can help grow parts of our brain back in adult life, something which was previously believed to be impossible. Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are made. The process slows down as we age and is related to the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. DHA has consistently been shown to promote adult neuron development, but most recently EPA has too. The research suggests that we could preserve our brain health simply by consuming more omega-3.”

Top up on brain-boosting nutrients

“Vitamin B12 or cobalamin is a water soluble vitamin and plays a key role in brain function,” says Emily Whitehead, a nutritional therapist and brand ambassador for BetterYou (www.betteryou.com). “There are numerous benefits associated with vitamin B12 that may help brain health including an improvement in mental clarity, concentration, memory and mood. It may even reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Without sufficient B12, symptoms may include brain fog, depression, mood swings and a lack of concentration. Foods rich in vitamin B12 include cooked clams, chicken, beef, sardines, salmon, lamb, yogurt, crab, oysters, trout, cheese, low fat milk and fortified cereals. An effective and convenient method to obtain your daily dosage is via a sublingual spray, which is sprayed underneath the tongue or on the inner cheek within the mouth. These areas are highly absorbable areas due to the soft tissue and a rich vein system just below the surface. This enables the B12 to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream quickly. The daily allowance of vitamin B12 recommended by the NHS is 0.0015mg or 1.5mcg for a healthy adult.”

Dr Glenville adds: “Another helpful nutrient for brain health is an amino acid called acetyl-L-carnitine, which increases the brain receptors that would normally deteriorate with age, making it helpful for brain fog, memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s and depression. In addition, acetyl-L-carnitine works with coenzyme Q10 and alpha lipoic acid to maintain the function of the mitochondria. The mitochondria are the power houses of your cells and they provide the energy for your cells to function and survive.”

Cut out stress – and caffeine!

“Long-term stress can be a factor in memory loss,” explains Alison Cullen, nutritional therapist with A.Vogel (www.avogel.co.uk). “This is because cortisol, which is produced in increased quantities during periods of chronic stress, shrinks the hippocampus – the memory centre of the brain. Initially stress sharpens up recall, but this very quickly diminishes if the stressful factors are ongoing. Minimising stress and maximising sleep will redress the balance in favour of better memory. If long-term stress has been an issue then give yourself time to recover – don’t expect to see impressive results after a week of easier circumstances. Caffeine and alcohol intake, if high, can cause stress reactions. Reduce caffeine intake and increase the amount of plain water you drink daily.”

Train your brain

“Meaningful and engaging activity is a key tool in improving the quality of life for people with dementia,” says Ben Atkinson-Willes, founder of Active Minds (www.active-minds.co.uk). “Research has clearly shown keeping the brain active helps to reduce depression and sleeplessness as well as encouraging conversation and connection with family and friends.” Keep your brain fit and active by playing cards and chess games, reading books, doing crosswords or learning an instrument or new language.

Take up exercise

“There has been a great deal of research in the last 10 years to show that physical activity can help brain function,” says Dr Glenville. “One study of a group of women tracked their level of physical activity over eight years. The researchers found that those women who were the most active had a 30 per cent lower risk of cognitive decline. What was interesting was that it was not the intensity of the exercise that made the difference but the amount. So, with walking, the distance the women walked was more important than how fast they walked.” Yoga has also been shown to benefit the health of our brains. Research published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health revealed that 20 minutes of yoga practice can help to improve brain function. A group of 30 people took part in a 20-minute session of hatha yoga before performing a series of tests designed to monitor their ability to focus and retain new information. The yoga practice was found to “significantly improve” their speed and accuracy during the tests.

Try a herbal remedy

“Turmeric is obtained from the root of Curcuma longa,” explains Dr Anthony Booker, Research Associate at the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy at UCL School of Pharmacy. “Curcumin is regarded as the main ingredient responsible for its therapeutic effects. Current research has focused on turmeric’s antioxidant, liver-protective, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-microbial and neuro-protective properties. Curcumin may be of use in the prevention and treatment of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The mechanisms for this remain unproven but apart from its anti-inflammatory action, curcumin has been shown to protect cells from oxidative stress, reduce cholesterol, reduce levels of metals that may cause neuro-toxicity and reduce beta-amyloid plaques, the most prominent characteristic feature found in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr Booker adds: “Ginkgo biloba is used principally for the treatment of problems associated with the peripheral circulation and to improve memory and cognitive function. Much research has been conducted on the ability of ginkgo to prevent and treat poor memory, cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The findings have been mixed but generally suggest that ginkgo may be more effective used in the treatment of dementia than as an aid to memory. In particular, a standardised ginkgo extract, licensed as a medicinal product in Germany, has given promising results, in several clinical trials. Specifically it has shown to stabilise or improve the symptoms in patients with mild/moderate Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.”

For more information on herbs for health conditions contact The British Herbal Medicine Association: www.bhma.info

Chocolate pecan crunchy balls

Pecans have high levels of the antioxidant vitamin E that protects fat cells from oxidation, as well as choline, which ensures optimal brain function and boosts your memory. Raw cacao has been shown to increase levels of specific neurotransmitters in your brain that help promote a positive outlook, facilitate rejuvenation and lift your spirit.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup raw pecan butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 tbsp coconut nectar
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 1½ tbsp cacao nibs

Method

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well with a spatula. Form into bite-size balls on a serving plate or parchment paper. Put in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes to firm up. Take them out and enjoy!

Recipe taken from Eaternity: More than 150 Deliciously Easy Vegan Recipes for a Long, Healthy, Satisfied, Joyful Life by Jason Wrobel (£16.99, Hay House).

Read previous Your Experts articles here...

Read articles from our latest issue here...

A top buttonTop