Keeping My Brain Sharp
Now that I am 40 its time to up my game when it comes to keeping my cognitive (brain) function top notch!
After spending a weekend immersed in learning about cognitive decline I have realized that the best time to start working on preventing this is NOW.
Cognitive decline is a broad term used to describe when your brain starts showing signs of dysfunction. This includes slower processing, difficulty retrieving information, difficulty remembering events and it can continue in severity up to and including Alzheimers disease. Like most conditions it exists along a continuum and some of the symptoms are considered a normal part of aging (I think the more appropriate term should be common not normal).
By the time we are 85 years old 40% of us will have Alzheimers Disease and 2/3 of all people with Alzheimers are women. We need to change this.
The beginning of the changes in the body leading to cognitive decline happen at least twenty years before the onset of symptoms. It often starts as an inflammatory process that will eventually lead to the production of plaque in the brain. The plaque actually seems to protect our brain from inflammation but the side effect of the plaque formation and depositing itself into the brain is cognitive decline.
The causes and contributing factors leading to cognitive decline (really inflammation in the brain) is multifactorial. It can be triggered by a poor diet high in processed and packaged foods, chronic infection, changes to gastrointestinal health caused by antibiotics in our food supply and when we need to take them for infection, living a sedentary lifestyle, environmental exposures and genetic predisposition. Treating and managing cognitive decline requires finding all the causes or contributing factors of inflammation and addressing them ALL.
This year I turned 40 and I have become much more aware of my brain. I have to work a little harder to remember and retrieve information. I used to blame it on my children, who are 7 and 5. But truthfully they sleep well, they ask me brain challenging questions all the time, they keep me on my toes running after them and they are my inspiration to make healthy meals so….. maybe I should be thanking them for my good brain health, not blaming them.
Now don’t get me wrong just because I have to work harder to learn I continue to voraciously learn and read but it isn’t as easy.
After spending this past weekend at The Institute for Functional Medicine annual conference on neuroplasticity these are my take homes.
These are ways to SHIELD your brain from inflammation and therefore cognitive decline:
1. Sleep. Sleep is when we clean our brains. Our brains work hard to process and store our new memories from the day, help us learn new information so we can keep up with our children’s rapidly expanding knowledge of technology, find our keys and remember our commitments . We need 8 hours of continuous sleep to best keep our brains clean and efficient.
2. Handle stress. Stress hormones cause our brains to shrink and they reduce our ability to fight infections. Making stress management a priority is so important. This can be accomplished by avoiding stressful situations when you have choice, meditation, going for a walk, have a conversation with someone you love and respect or watching mindless television (with no guilt).
3. Interact- Interacting with others and feeling part of a community has incredibly positive impact on our health. We know that the habits of our friends has an impact on our habits so try to surround yourself with people who make healthy choices. This might mean joining a running group, a book club, your child’s school association or really any group that makes you feel good.
4. Exercise is the most important things we can do for our brains. Exercise increases a chemical in our brains that leads to brain growth and rewiring. (Remember stress shrinks our brain.) It also produces a chemical in our brains that helps break down the plaque that is associated with cognitive decline and Alzheimers’ disease.
5. Learn Now this one is an easy one for me. I LOVE to learn. Read books, read articles (and not just the first 3 paragraphs) talk to interesting people, go to talks or conferences, stretch your mind!! The process of learning continuously lays down new neural pathways in your brain. This neural pathways allow our brain to grow and repair.
6. Diet. A diet high in sugar and carbohydrates leads to increased production of insulin and insulin is toxic to our brains. A diet that is good for our brains is one based on whole, real foods. This means lots of different kinds of vegetables (ideally at least 5 cups), best quality protein, fruit and good fats including avocado, nuts and seeds.
Now if you want to take it up a notch and figure out if you are showing early signs of risk for cognitive decline you should have the following measured in your blood:
Insulin- insulin is toxic to the brain and is elevated when we eat too many sugary foods.
Vitamin D- Vitamin D is involved in turning off inflammation and fighting infection. Remember plaques are formed when our brain is inflammed.
Vitamin B12- B12 is a very important nutrient needed to protect our brains. It is found in almost all animal products but the ability to absorb it is more challenging as we age and if we are taking an acid blocking drug.
hsCRP- C reactive protein is a marker of inflammation in our bodies. If this is elevated the inflammation is likely our brains too.
Good lifestyle habits have never been more important!!