Best ten strategies to get the most out of your Brain
Unfortunately, the typical American diet is not conducive to creating and supporting superior brains. On the other hand, a look at what we eat suggests that we are doing virtually everything to ruin our brains.
We eat the wrong type fats guaranteed to cause disruption in the functioning of our brain cells, perhaps ending in neuronal death. We overeat sugar, dumping excessive glucose—over and above that needed to feed and energize brain cells—into the brain where it reacts with free radicals to literally burn brain cells to death.
We eat so many calories and get so little exercise that half of all adult Americans are now categorized as obese. Such calorie overloads create more free radical activity in the brain, condemning brain cells to dysfunction and death. We have turned our brains into a wasteland of free radical activity. We shun exercise that energizes the brain. We skimp on fruits and vegetables, full of antioxidants, that might save our brain cells from malfunction and destruction. With our deficient diets, we cheat ourselves of precious nutrients, such as B vitamins and vitamin E, essential for good mental functioning.
We induce subtle and serious damage to our brains because of avoidable clogged blood vessels, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and high homocysteine. We cheat our infants and children of brain-building foods. We fail to stimulate our brains or those of our children with mental activity that prods the growth of brain cells and their interconnections.
The frontier research that makes up this website dictates that it is imperative to consider the severe jeopardy in which we put ourselves and society by ignoring the health of our brains. Of course, not all the scientific information is in, but more than enough is known to point to the right foods and supplements that can make a dramatic difference in preserving the magnificence of our most precious human asset. The evidence, I think, compels all of us to look on our own brain with new respect and optimism, knowing that its power and destiny are truly up to each of us.
Based on the extensive research, here are ten crucial actions you can take now to preserve and enrich your brain’s functioning and health:
1. Take multivitamins.
The evidence is utterly compelling that taking modest doses of a variety of vitamins and minerals is excellent brain insurance: They can preserve and improve intellectual functioning and emotional well-being, most likely at all ages. Pregnant women should take multivitamins with their doctors’ advice to help guarantee healthy babies. As many as one-half of ordinary schoolchildren might improve IQ scores by taking multivitamins, according to Dr. David Benton, leading British researcher.
Many adolescents and adults eat diets lacking basic vitamins and minerals essential for proper brain function, such as folic acid and selenium; a multivitamin can fill in deficiencies. Remember: Suboptimal brain functioning from such deficiencies is usually subtle and unnoticed, often taken for granted; nor are the deficiencies always apparent on blood tests. A combination of vitamins and minerals, found in multivitamin formulas, can help restore optimal intellectual function and lift mood at the same time.
A multivitamin is absolutely essential for older people who tend to need more nutrient help to support an aging brain. Studies show that older people who take a range of vitamins and minerals, especially for a number of years, have better cognitive function and feel better as they age. B vitamins, especially, are critical in preserving aging brains and preventing dementia and depression in old age. Again, subtle deficiencies, easily corrected by a multivitamin, can rob older people of optimal brain functioning and even help bring on brain disease, including dementia.
2. Take antioxidant vitamins.
Usually taking only a multivitamin-mineral pill is not enough. Most do not contain sufficiently high amounts of powerful brain-protecting vitamin E and vitamin C, for example, let alone important alpha lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10. In some studies, people who took only multivitamins showed a decline in cognitive function with age whereas those who took high doses of individual antioxidants, such as vitamin E, did not. In one recent study, not a single elderly person taking individual tablets of vitamin E or vitamin C developed Alzheimer’s disease.
Four antioxidant supplements are absolutely essential: vitamin E, vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q10, says antioxidant authority Dr. Lester Packer at the University of California, Berkeley. He also recommends gingko biloba and PycnogenolTM as powerful brain protectors. It’s far smarter to take several antioxidants instead of just one, he says, because they do not work in isolation; their brain-protecting powers are much stronger when they work together.
Should children take antioxidants in addition to a multivitamin? Yes, says Dr. Packer. He recommends half the usual adult dose of antioxidants for children. After all, the earlier the brain gets antioxidants, the less the expected free-radical damage through the years which may be reflected in old age as memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Antioxidants can also help stave off chronic diseases such as diabetes, clogged arteries, and high blood pressure, which also over time can harm the brain.
3. Eat foods high in antioxidants.
This means fruits and vegetables, loaded with various antioxidants, some probably not yet even identified. Thrilling new animal experiments at Tufts give a glimpse of the power of antioxidant-packed foods on the brain. Feeding animals common high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, spinach, and strawberries, has slowed down brain deterioration, revved up mental faculties and even reversed memory and learning losses in old animals. Its mind-boggling to think such fruits and vegetables can rejuvenate the brain!
Virtually all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants. Its not difficult to take in high doses of antioxidants in modest amounts of fruits and vegetables. Just three prunes, one cup of mixed blueberries and strawberries, plus 1/2 cup of cooked spinach would put you far over the top for the very highest antioxidant daily intake recommended by authorities.
Generally, highest in antioxidants are brightly colored fruits and berries and green leafy vegetables. Snacking on berries, cherries, grapes, apples, prunes, raisins—instead of or even in addition to the usual chips—could make all the difference in intellectual power and emotional wellbeing.
4. Drink tea.
Its hard to say enough about the fantastic powers of such a common beverage as plain tea in protecting cells, including brain cells, from damage. As Dr. John Weisburger, renowned scientific researcher, now at the American Health Foundation, has said often: “Tea should be the national health beverage.” Its one of the easiest, quickest ways to infuse the body and brain with antioxidants. Put one tea bag in a cup of boiling water. Let it brew for five minutes and drink it. In an instant you have taken in about 1200 ORAC units of antioxidants—about one-third to one-fourth the total daily recommended amounts, according to Tufts University researchers.
Iced tea counts, too. You can simply pour the cup of tea over ice. However—and this is important—you do not get any significant amounts of antioxidants in herbal teas, commercial bottled teas, or powdered tea mixes, according to Tufts analyses. The tea must be made from “real” tea leaves, loose or in bags. Further, you can use either plain black tea (yes, the stuff you see on supermarket shelves, such as Lipton’s, Twinings, Bigelow) or more exotic Asian green tea. Although green tea has received much hype for its anticancer chemicals, black tea actually has more total antioxidant activity than green tea, Tufts researchers found. So you don’t have to go to green tea to get the benefits.
Suggestion: Try substituting at least one cup of tea a day for your regular coffee. Drink iced tea instead of soft drinks. Order iced tea at restaurants, after asking if it is freshly made from real tea.
5. Avoid bad fats.
You can take the perfectly good brain you were born with and screw up its communication circuits by feeding it the wrong type of fat—at any age, from birth, through childhood and adolescence, middle age and old age. Your brain cannot function optimally on a diet of the wrong fats. Few people realize how critical fatty acids are at the molecular level of brain cells in fostering clear and rapid message transmission and energy production that keeps cells alive and vital. Probably the most dangerous to brain cells is saturated animal fat—so pervasive in fast foods, such as hamburgers and shakes.
Unquestionably, animals fed diets high in saturated animal fat are dumber, with impaired memories and learning ability. Animal fat, other research shows, distorts the normal configuration of nerve cell membranes, stifles the growth of synapses (communication junctions), and disturbs the biochemistry of neurotransmitters, the message carriers. Such fat also tends to promote “insulin resistance” later in life, even in youngsters, which leads to abnormal metabolism of insulin and blood sugar, which the brain depends on as its sole source of energy.
Also detrimental to cells: too much polyunsaturated vegetable oil, such as corn oil (so-called omega-6s), that can set up chronic inflammatory responses in brain tissue, thought to eventually lead to subtle brain damage, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Eating trans fatty acids, in processed foods such as most margarines, donuts, and fast-food french fries, also can foster blood vessel damage that is detrimental to blood circulation in the brain.
6. Get omega-3 type fish oil—from eating fish and/or taking supplements.
The fat your brain most needs is so-called omega-3 found in fish oil. It’s the evolutionary stuff that formed your brain, and without it, brain cells cannot possibly function at optimal levels. Developing brains—in the womb, infancy and childhood—especially require omega-3 type fish oil to construct the best neuronal architecture and biochemical wiring. Failure to get enough omega-3 in the early developmental periods can result in lower IQs later in life. Nor can adult brains achieve top cognitive potential without adequate supplies of omega-3 fatty acids. Such fat is needed to spur growth of dendrites and synapses, the neuron’s mechanisms for processing messages throughout the brain. One fraction of fish oil, called DHA, has been shown to enhance brain power, memory, and learning and may even prevent and possibly treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Omega-3 fat also tells your brain to feel good. It is a mood elevator, preventing and even relieving major depression. It can also help prevent brain damage from alcoolism, and may even be a preventive and treatment for some cases of schizophrenia. Kids and adults with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia may suffer from omega-3 deficiencies, which when corrected, lead to better brain functioning.
Eating fatty fish a couple of times a week—or an ounce or two a day—is enough to keep brain cells happy. The alternative: Take fish oil supplements, especially DHA type supplements.
7. Take brain-boosting supplements.
As you age, your brain may need a boost to counteract subtle declines in memory, possibly from a drop in neurotransmitter activity or damage to neurons from disease or routine attacks by free radical chemicals. Some over-the-counter supplements can help rejuvenate brain cell activity. A favorite is ginkgo biloba, taken by many prominent brain researchers to try to ward off age-related memory loss. Another supplement is phosphatidylserine or PS, reputed to stimulate production of the “memory” neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which may decline as you get older.
These are worth a try as a way of preventing or overcoming short-term memory problems, which are a part of normal aging, according to brain researchers. They may or may not work, depending on the nature of the problem and biochemical individuality. Their great upside: Unlike potent pharmaceutical drugs which have severe side effects, over-the-counter brain-boosters have no or only minor side effects. Still, if you are under treatment for disease or are taking medications, you should consult your doctor before taking such supplements, especially to rule out potentially hazardous interactions.
8. Watch sugar, including blood sugar.
Eating too much sugar, and certain other carbohydrates, is not a good idea for brains of any age. Sugar overloads can inspire “insulin resistance,” throwing blood sugar (glucose) levels out of whack, as well as causing permanent damage to brain cells, leading to malfunction and death. However, since the brain runs on energy derived mostly from carbohydrates, it’s essential to have the right amount of blood sugar available to the brain at every instant to promote memory, learning, other cognitive functions. Best carbohydrates for an optimally functioning brain: those that are digested slowly.
9. Restrict calories—lose weight.
Being overweight is not good for your brain. It can foster insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and possibly diabetes—leading to impaired memory, accelerated aging, and subtle damage to brain cells. The one sure-fire way to slow down the aging process, rescuing the brain as well as other organs from increased free radical damage, is to cut back on calories.
10. Take good care of yourself.
A more gentle approach to life can reduce chronic mental stress, which floods your brain inappropriately with adrenaline and other stress-activated chemicals that can actually inflict damage on neurons. Physical exercise, new research proves, improves blood flow to the brain and even perks up mental activity in specific parts of the brain. Keeping your blood vessels free of clogging and damage is essential to preserving brain function. That means controlling blood pressure, bad-type cholesterol, and the blood toxin homocysteine, all of which promote strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Stimulate your brain by learning and doing new things; such mental gymnastics actually encourage growth of new brain cell connections, enlarging memory and learning capacity.
The most important thing to remember is that your brain is growing and changing every instant. It thrives on stimulation, exercise, education, and the right diet and supplements. It is never too early or too late to decide to shape your own brain’s destiny.