If you know someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Dementia, or any other degenerative brain disease, then you understand how seriously it can affect the individual and their caretakers. Many people entering their senior years worry about their brain health as they see their peers begin to slow down, or experience their own short-term memory fading. It can be scary, but the good news is you can take action early by eating food for brain health.
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Have you ever heard of encephalopathy? It's the word for any neurodegenerative disease or disease of the brain (like dementia or Alzheimer's disease). One of the best things you can do to prevent developing such a disease? Take a look at your lifestyle and the foods you eat.
So how exactly does weight affect the brain? Studies find that there are neuro-structural differences between overweight and healthy weight individuals due to more frontal gray matter atrophy amongst those with a larger BMI. As a result, this excess gray matter causes the brain to age faster and it's even seen in children with obesity, so it can occur at any age. The good news? Your brain health improves when you reach a healthy weight.
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Oxidation is a normal process that happens in the body when atoms or molecules become unstable because they contain unpaired electrons. These unstable, oxygen-containing molecules are called “free radicals.” Free radicals cause damage to cell structures and DNA by taking electrons from other molecules in order to stabilize themselves.
High antioxidant food can stabilize free radicals without causing harm, so it's important to add them to your diet for longevity. Free radicals, when not met by antioxidants, interact with and damage other molecules in the body, causing large chain chemical reactions, which we call oxidative stress.
A lot of things bring on oxidative stress, but some of the biggies are:
- alcohol use
- toxins in the air and on your skin
- sun damage from UV rays
To put it in simpler terms: think of your body as an apple.
If you slice up an apple and leave it on the counter for half an hour, it quickly browns because of its exposure to oxygen.
Want to prevent that apple from turning brown, or oxidizing? Toss it in a little bit of lemon juice, a high antioxidant food, so that it can stay nice and white.
Voila! Your apple stays fresh. No brown spots or "aging." The antioxidants from the lemon juice stabilizes the process of oxidation and neutralize free radicals.
Pretty cool, huh?
The same process happens in your body, so that's why lifestyle is so important! The more high antioxidant food you eat, the more likely you are to preserve your cells.
Antioxidants are compounds that stop oxidation (like the lemon stops the apple from turning brown).
Fun fact: every living thing on the planet, including humans, produces their own antioxidants.
When it comes to choosing antioxidant-rich foods, you can't beat plants. They are the best food for brain health! They've got the greatest concentration of antioxidants, like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and flavanoids, all of which balance oxidative stress. Why does that matter for brain health? Well, our brains have a lot of fat and because of this high fat content, the brain is especially at risk and vulnerable to free radicals. Inflammation in the brain is a major risk factor in brain aging. Antioxidants slow the aging process and reduce inflammation.
Wondering which foods are the most antioxidant-rich? Look at the color of your food to determine which ones are best for brain health! High antioxidant food is usually dark and colorful. These fruits and veggies store the most vitamin C, especially red peppers.
For brain health, we want to focus on the antioxidant, lutein. Lutein is related to better cognition, for people of any age. Essentially, increased amounts of lutein present in a person's brain directly relate to enhanced brain function and neuron connectivity. Children with higher lutein actually perform better in school, and Alzheimer's patients have decreased lutein in their brains, blood, and eyes.
But wait, how can you tell how much lutein is in someone's brain? By looking at their eyes. The test for macular degeneration (an eye exam with a light) indicates how much lutein is in a person's eyes, blood, and brain. This is why macular degeneration may be associated with cognitive decline later in life.
There is good news: macular lutein is modifiable. Read that again. It can be modified with dietary intake. The intake of Lutein can actually improve visual processing speed.
8 ways to add more lutein to your diet: food for brain health
- Kale and other dark leafy greens like mustard greens and collard greens. (This is the best source of Lutein, and cooking them activates the antioxidant even more.)
- Bell pepper
The best method for avoiding encephalopathy is prevention. Eat your leafy greens, folks!
Did you know dairy consumption is consistently associated with a greater risk of developing Parkinson's disease? Yep! Dairy consumption is linked to lower neuron density in people of all ages. Those who drink two glasses of milk a day present pathological alterations in the brain cells which resemble those of people with Parkinson's. And it's not due to the fat content of milk because even skim milk showed similar results.
So what's going on with dairy and brain health? The brain degeneration may be due to the presence of galactose. Galactose is what lactose breaks down into in our bodies. Galactose is also what scientists use in labs to accelerate brain aging during tests and studies on lab animals. The presence of galactose causes oxidative stress, which we know causes inflammation.
The takeaway? Avoid inflammatory foods like dairy, and also meat and highly processed or refined foods. Instead, load up on whole antioxidant-rich plant foods. Your brain will thank you.
- The best way to keep your brain strong and healthy is prevention!
- Oxidation causes inflammation. Inflammation causes neuron damage.
- Enjoy antioxidant-rich plant foods because they're good for your brain!
- Avoid inflammation-causing foods (like dairy, meat, and processed foods) because they can accelerate aging.
Ready to start your brain-boosting diet?
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By MamaSezz Team
MamaSezz Team includes, a plant-based chef, a recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition writers and educators who are Plant-Based Nutrition Certified from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.