HEALTH

Want to stop feel­ing slug­gish and tired, while at the same time de­creas­ing your risk of de­men­tia? Here are 5 foods to achieve that.

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We all in­tu­itively ap­pre­ci­ate that the foods we eat shape our thoughts, ac­tions, emo­tions and be­hav­iour. When you are feel­ing low, you reach for choco­late; when you are tired, you crave cof­fee. We all use food to soothe our moods and clear our heads with­out seem­ing to think much about it.

Yet the fo­cus of most di­ets is on the way we look rather than the way we think. This is in part due to western so­ci­ety’s fas­ci­na­tion with ap­pear­ance, and medicine’s bias to­wards drugs and surgery. In fact, con­tem­po­rary medicine of­ten dis­re­gards the ways that our diet helps shape our cog­ni­tive health. Med­i­cal stu­dents are not trained in nu­tri­tion. And, for what it is worth, nei­ther are sci­en­tists.

When I was a neu­ro­science stu­dent, I would mar­vel at how ap­par­ently sim­ple sub­stances such as sodium, potas­sium, mag­ne­sium and sug­ars de­ter­mine whether our brain cells fire or not, grow or not, form new con­nec­tions or wilt and die. It only be­came ob­vi­ous in ret­ro­spect: the sodium, potas­sium, mag­ne­sium and sug­ars ref­er­enced were the same nu­tri­ents as in diet books or on food la­bels. To put it sim­ply, the hu­man brain is made of food.

In con­crete terms, this means that what­ever you just ate will be part of what you will think. For any­one lucky enough to use their brain for a liv­ing, this has im­me­di­ate pro­fes­sional out­comes. In the long term, this af­fects every one of us, be­cause food af­fects not just our moods and thoughts but also the way we age.

This has been the fo­cus of my work as the as­so­ciate direc­tor of the Alzheimer’s preven­tion clinic at the Weill Cor­nell med­i­cal college, New York City. For the last 15 years, we have been do­ing long-term stud­ies to demon­strate the ways that diet pre­vents, de­lays or leads to cog­ni­tive con­di­tions such as Alzheimer’s. The good news is that we have learned so much about what every one of us can do to op­ti­mise our brain health day to day.

Stud­ies us­ing next-gen­er­a­tion imag­ing and ge­nomic se­quenc­ing, both cen­tral to my work, have helped re­veal that some foods such as veg­eta­bles, fruit, fish, whole­grains, nuts and seeds are neuro-pro­tec­tive. They not only shield the brain from harm, but also sup­port cog­ni­tive fit­ness over the course of a life­time.

It comes per­haps as no sur­prise that other foods such as fast food, fried food, ex­cess fatty foods and re­fined sugar are down­right harm­ful in­stead, slow­ing us down in gen­eral, mak­ing us feel slug­gish and tired, while at the same time deeply in­creas­ing our risk of de­men­tia.

These ef­fects are par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent by look­ing at brain scans of peo­ple on dif­fer­ent di­ets. For ex­am­ple, when we com­pared the scans of mid­dle-aged peo­ple who had eaten a Mediter­ranean diet most of their lives with those of peo­ple of the same age who ate a western diet with pro­cessed food, pro­cessed meats, sweets and fizzy drinks, we saw the way the lat­ter group’s brains had shrunk pre­ma­turely. Sub­se­quent stud­ies provided even more alarm­ing ev­i­dence that peo­ple on the western diet had started de­vel­op­ing Alzheimer’s plaques al­ready in their 40s and 50s. These are all signs of ac­cel­er­ated age­ing and in­creased risk of fu­ture de­men­tia.

The bot­tom line is this: the more pro­cessed, pack­aged and re­fined foods that you con­sume on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, the higher your risk of cog­ni­tive de­cline fur­ther down the line.

In terms of the food that helps, there is no sin­gle mir­a­cle food or sup­ple­ment that will keep us young, healthy and bright-eyed with a per­fect me­mory (and be­ware any­one who tells you there is). There are, how­ever, some im­por­tant and ur­gent best prac­tices that we need to get into peo­ple’s kitchens.

My top five brain foods:

Fatty fish (sal­mon, mack­erel, blue­fish, sar­dines, an­chovies) con­tains a blend of nu­tri­ents that are per­fect for the brain, in­clud­ing omega-3 fats (a brain-must), choline (a B vi­ta­min needed to make mem­o­ries), vi­ta­mins B6 and B12 (needed to sup­port the ner­vous sys­tem), min­er­als such as iron and mag­ne­sium (needed for healthy blood and tis­sues) and a good amount of pro­tein.

Re­search shows that con­sum­ing fish only once a week is as­so­ci­ated with a 70 per cent re­duced risk of Alzheimer’s in old age. Of all the nu­tri­ents present in fish, the omega-3s seem to be par­tic­u­larly pro­tec­tive against de­men­tia. For those who do not eat seafood, al­ter­na­tive sources of omega-3s in­clude flax seeds, olive oil, al­monds, av­o­ca­dos and other plant-based foods.

Dark leafy greens (spinach, swiss chard, kale and all sort of greens) and cru­cif­er­ous veg­eta­bles (broc­coli, cauliflower, cab­bage) are all full of vi­ta­mins, min­er­als, fi­bre and dis­ease­fight­ing nu­tri­ents that are cru­cial for a healthy ner­vous sys­tem. Large-scale stud­ies show that peo­ple who con­sume one or two serv­ings of these veg­eta­bles every day ex­pe­ri­ence fewer me­mory prob­lems and cog­ni­tive de­cline than peo­ple who rarely eat greens. Sim­ply eat­ing a salad every day keeps your brain 11 years younger.

Berries (espe­cially black­ber­ries, blue­ber­ries, straw­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries but also dark cher­ries, goji berries, mul­ber­ries) are packed with an­tiox­i­dants that help keep me­mory sharp as you age. They are also a great source of fi­bre and glu­cose, the main en­ergy source for the brain. They are sweet but have a low gly­caemic in­dex so they help reg­u­late sugar lev­els.

Ex­tra vir­gin vegetable oils, espe­cially olive oil

and flaxseed oil, are loaded with anti-age­ing nu­tri­ents, such as omega-3s and vi­ta­min E. Olive oil is also rich in mo­noun­sat­u­rated fat, a kind of fat that is good for the heart. What is good for the heart is good for the brain.

Com­plex car­bo­hy­drates, such as whole­grains, legumes and sweet pota­toes, are packed with brain-sup­port­ive nu­tri­ents from pro­tein to B vi­ta­mins to a bounty of an­tiox­i­dants and min­er­als. They are also a good source of glu­cose com­bined with a high fi­bre con­tent to sta­bilise blood sugar lev­els. The more fi­bre, the lower the food’s ef­fects on in­sulin. As a re­sult, these foods en­hance your me­tab­o­lism, sup­port a healthy di­ges­tion and boost the im­mune sys­tem too.

In ad­di­tion, I al­ways rec­om­mend drink­ing wa­ter as the main source of flu­ids. Even though wa­ter is not usu­ally con­sid­ered a food, it is def­i­nitely a ma­jor source of nu­tri­tion for our thirsty brains. More than 80 per cent of the brain’s con­tent is wa­ter. Every chem­i­cal re­ac­tion that takes place in the brain re­quires wa­ter, espe­cially en­ergy pro­duc­tion.

The brain is so sen­si­tive to de­hy­dra­tion that even a min­i­mal loss of wa­ter can cause symp­toms such as brain fog, fa­tigue, dizzi­ness, con­fu­sion and, more im­por­tantly, brain shrink­age. Why is this im­por­tant? Be­cause peo­ple of­ten do not re­alise that the ‘wa­ter’ they are drink­ing is not ac­tu­ally wa­ter.

Pu­ri­fied wa­ter, fizzy wa­ter – all these bev­er­ages were stripped of the pre­cious nu­tri­ents and nat­u­ral elec­trolytes the brain needs to stay hy­drated and work ef­fi­ciently. The brain needs more than some­thing wet; it needs the es­sen­tial nu­tri­ents that real wa­ter car­ries with it.

These foods and nu­tri­ents are valu­able at all stages of life. While the di­etary needs of the rest of the body vary some­what with age (more pro­tein is needed when we are younger; more cal­cium and vi­ta­min D when we are older), this does not seem to be the case for the brain. How­ever, like every diet, the ef­fects and ef­fi­cacy of these foods will vary mas­sively from in­di­vid­ual to in­di­vid­ual.

My cur­rent re­search is look­ing at the dif­fer­ences be­tween the ways that male and fe­male brains need and metabolise spe­cific nu­tri­ents. Of note in the re­search thus far: women’s brains seem to need more an­tiox­i­dants, espe­cially vi­ta­mins A, C and E (which can all be found in the plant-based foods listed above), as well as the anti-in­flam­ma­tory omega-3s found in fish, nuts and seeds.

In the end, a brain-healthy diet op­ti­mises your ca­pac­ity for keep­ing a healthy, sharp and ac­tive brain over a life­time – while re­duc­ing the risk of de­vel­op­ing age-related cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments and de­men­tia. As in­di­vid­u­als and as a so­ci­ety, we must re­fo­cus at­ten­tion on how our food choices shape our brains, as surely as they shape the rest of us.

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