My great aunt grew up on a diet of fatty meat, dumplings and potatoes. Vegetables were usually cucumbers doused in bacon grease. She smoked for 80 years and loved her scotch. When she was in her mid-90’s, she collapsed at a casino and was admitted to the hospital. After a few tests, she insisted that she be taken home or else she would call a cab. She had a dinner party on Friday night. She was released. On Friday, she went to the party, enjoyed herself as always, and died Saturday morning in her bed in the house she had lived in for decades.
Except for the exercise she got enjoying herself, she defied all the laws of what we now know as the standard guidelines of health: Exercise, no smoking, moderate alcohol, and a diet of fruits, veggies, and lean meats. This aunt of mine was lucky and she probably had resilient genes. Maybe she also had less overall stress than the typical person has today.
Current research shows that small but measurable declines in brain function begin in our 20’s. In the age 85+ population, 40% show signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Anxiety is common in developed in countries and the lifetime risk for significant depression is 20%, whereas 100 years ago, it was 1%. It’s been suggested that stress, lack of sleep, obesity, lack of exercise contribute to declining brain health.
How do we keep our brain razor sharp?
Here are 5 tips:
1. Exercise. Regular exercise improves circulation, increases pulmonary capacity and lessens anxiety and depression. What’s more, exercise produces BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which creates new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, which is critical to memory functions and spatial navigation.
2. Keep inflammation in check. Inflammation can come from infections, injuries and poor dental health. What has emerged lately is the role of excess weight, poor lifestyle, and lack of sleep in the onset of the inflammatory process.
3. Reduce or eliminate sugar. There is an emerging evidence that sugar is a significant cause of chronic inflammation. Seventy percent of our immune cells are in the digestive system. Anything that irritates these cells, irritates the immune cells including those in the brain.
4. Watch for food sensitivities such as gluten intolerance. They also disrupt the intestinal immune system, ultimately affecting inflammation in the brain. If your digestive tract feels unwell after eating something, your brain probably isn’t happy about it either.
5. Supplement with omega 3 capsules or eat food rich in omega 3 such as salmon and flax. Not only will they insulate the nerve cells with high quality fat, they also reduce inflammation.
The brain and belly are intrinsically connected. Not only are they connected by immune cells, the vagus nerve directly connects the two organs. Therefore, an additional benefit for eating well is that your “gut feelings” are likely to be more clearly interpreted by brain. A happy brain is a happy belly and a happy belly is a happy brain. More on that next time!