As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, my clinical training is primarily focused on the use of healthy whole foods and nutrients to help improve mental well being. With June being Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, I’d like to share more on this important condition as well as methods of caring for, and preserving, brain health through diet. A type of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a disease in which the brain cells that govern memory, thinking and behavior degenerate over time, while tangles of misfolded proteins accumulate in the brain forming the plaque that is one of physiological hallmarks of this disease. While there is no known cure, treatment is generally focused upon reducing inflammation and slowing this neurodegeneration, while addressing the symptoms that arise along the way. From the lens of Nutritional Psychiatry, research has shown that optimizing our diet can support a healthier mood, healthier brain, and reduce the inflammation that is associated with the neurodegeneration that underlies Alzheimer’s disease, as neuroinflammation is now considered a key factor in the progression of this disease. Read on to learn about how food affects brain aging – and, perhaps most importantly, what we can incorporate into our diets to promote a healthy brain and memory!
Our Gut, Our Brain, and Our Plate
Have you noticed that how we feel often translates to gastrointestinal symptoms or an immediate boost in energy or feeling of sluggishness? Perhaps you’ve noticed how feeling distressed makes you feel queasy, or how trouble in the gut is often reflected in a troubled mind. In my book This Is Your Brain On Food, I speak at length about the profound connection between our gut and our brain – I lovingly refer to this as the “gut-brain romance!” The importance of this synergy has immense consequences for our mental health, as well as our intellectual and cognitive function. When we eat a healthier diet, we nurture our gut microbes and allow them to function at their peak.
In my book, I also discuss the relationship between our gut and memory. While there are lots of factors at play, it’s vital to understand that many of the chemicals that control the brain and body are regulated by the gut. The composition of gut bacteria is actually drastically different in patients with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Therefore, a nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory diet including probiotic-rich foods can improve the gut microbiome in a way that resists the development and progression of Alzheimer’s.
Below are foods to limit or avoid when looking to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, sharp memory, and optimal cognitive health:
Western diet: Numerous studies suggest that consuming a “Western diet” – that is, a diet high in processed, sugary carbohydrates and trans fats – is linked to detrimental effects upon our memory, cognition, and even our emotions. It is understood that such a diet promotes inflammation, alters the gut microbiota, and contributes to chronic stress (physical and mental) that may lead to these negative effects.
Added/Refined Sugars: It’s no longer just type 2 diabetes we need to worry about, as these also impact our cognitive health. Added and refined sugars have been shown to feed unhealthy gut bacteria and increase inflammation in both the gut and brain, one of the drivers of cognitive decline and dementia.
Gluten: For people with celiac disease, or a gluten intolerance like non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten may be linked to neurological problems, including cognitive impairment, which may only get worse over time.
Meanwhile, the following are examples of foods that support a healthy gut and a healthy brain, and have been associated with maintaining memory and cognitive longevity:
Olive Oil: Extra-virgin olive oil is incredibly brain-healthy and its consumption is linked to lower incidences of Alzheimer’s disease, by way of encouraging autophagy – our own process of cellular “clean up!” Adding extra virgin olive oil to homemade salad dressings or drizzling over a green salad packed with a rainbow of veggies is a great way to reap these benefits!
Spices: It only takes a pinch! Adding spices like turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, saffron, rosemary and ginger add color and flavor to our food, while each possesses brain-healthy and even mood-boosting properties. A tip: using black pepper with turmeric significantly increases its availability in the body and brain.
Omega-3’s: The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of omega-3 fatty acids show great promise in improving thinking and memory. Fatty fish such as wild-caught sock-eye salmon and anchovies, as well as various nuts and seeds, provide these essential nutrients.
Leafy greens: Leafy greens are an incredible source of the vitamin folate. Where a deficiency of folate may underlie some neurological conditions, improving folate status has beneficial effects on our brain health and cognitive age. Leafy greens, such as spinach, Swiss chard, and dandelion greens are an excellent source!
Berries: By way of their powerful antioxidants and phyto-nutrients, bright-colored berries and colorful veggies can boost memory and promote healthy brain aging. The high amount of fiber in these vitamin- and mineral-packed foods also shows our gut some love, supporting a healthy microbiome, reduced inflammation and good moods. I love having fresh blueberries or raspberries in the morning to start my day with lots of brain-boosting antioxidants!
What we put on our plate can have powerful outcomes on our physical and mental health, especially as we age. By using the principles of Nutritional Psychiatry, I hope that you feel empowered with the knowledge and resources to eat for your optimal brain health!