My good friend Glenn Lehrer’s mother lived for 104 years and Glenn described her as ‘bright as a button’ until the very end. Why is it that some people can keep their brain in excellent working order for their entire lives while others, including some of the most intelligent people on our planet, have their brains start to fail at a very young age?
Before I jump into the detail, I would like to thank Dr Perlmutter for the vast amount of research he has done connecting so many neurological disorders and diseases with what goes on in our gut. I found his first book, Wheat Belly, extremely informative and brilliantly researched, but his subsequent book Brain Maker ranks as one of the most insightful and life-changing books I have ever read. The fact you have read this far tells me that you are serious about your health, and therefore let me recommend that you get hold of a copy of these books, in which you will discover exactly what goes on inside our guts.
As a neurologist, on a daily basis Dr Perlmutter is confronted with the outcomes of Westernised brain disorders. He has the devastating task of informing patients about their diagnosis. Through his research and subsequent books, he works relentlessly to try to prevent disorders of the brain from causing more damage. He is very open about what fuels his desire to rid the world of these debilitating diseases as his own father, who himself was a neurologist, is now suffering with advanced Alzheimer’s. For me, a highly qualified expert in a field, driven by such personal emotional connection, is the ultimate individual to take advice from.
In Brain Maker, Dr Perlmutter writes, “New, leading-edge science coming from the most well-respected institutions around the world is discovering that to an extraordinary degree, brain health and, on the flip side, brain diseases, are dictated by what goes on in the gut”. Yes, you read that right. Science is now connecting our gut with the vast majority of disorders and diseases of the brain.
From multiple sclerosis to schizophrenia, from bipolar disorder to migraines, from ADHD to Alzheimer’s, from headaches to Parkinson’s, from autism to depression, scientists are now starting to look at the gut as the primary root cause and the place to start the fight back against these potentially avoidable conditions. In the USA, more than one in four adults suffer with a diagnosable mental disorder, and globally the number one disability is said to be depression. What’s extremely worrying is that the number of people being diagnosed with depression and being put on medication is spiralling out of control. Some go as far as saying it is one of the fastest growing illnesses ever!
We have already discussed that we can remove brain fog by limiting our CARBS, intermittently fasting and by exercising. But here I want to go beyond a foggy brain and look a little deeper. Let’s first start by looking at a protein that is synthesised (created) in the brain, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). While it was once believed that we are born with all of our brain cells and we can’t make more of them, BDNF is able to make them grow and help them better connect with one another. A better-connected brain makes us more intelligent and helps improve our memory. The best ways to support our brain’s production of BDNF is:
- Intermittent fasting
- A good night’s sleep
- Sunlight exposure
- Move more
- Max out
Why does intermittent fasting synthesise BDNF? It’s logical really. Picture the
scene: caveman is sitting in his dwelling getting more and more hungry because he hasn’t been able to gather any food, and he has also forgotten where he last saw that apple tree. He’s been moving around a lot recently and his mental mapping of his surrounding is a little hazy. Now Mother Nature doesn’t want him to go hungry, so as he sleeps, he begins to connect more and more cells together, and when he awakes, he experiences a eureka moment and remembers where he last saw the tree. It’s not that Mother Nature doesn’t want our caveman to starve, but unless he is of older years, she needs him to still create offspring – if he were to starve then the species would soon die out. When he is awake and sitting down chomping on a bone or eating his hoard of apples, nature has no concerns about our caveman fulfilling his procreation duties and switches her attention from brain building to digesting food and extracting nutrients.
If you want to be smarter and remember where you left your car keys, make sure you intermittently fast and get a good night’s sleep too.
Nine primal things to keep our brain in good working order:
- Intermittent fasting – increases neurogenesis.
- Omega 3 – whether it is from organic oily fish or a quality supplement, omega 3 is simply food for the brain.
- Use it or lose it – cognitive stimulation increases neurogenesis.
- Exercise – follow the MOMMS principle to keep the brain healthy.
- Dark chocolate or a glass of red wine – both are rich in healthy flavonoids.
- Turmeric – is said to help in the regeneration of damaged brain cells.
- Coffee – contains polyphenols that are powerful antioxidants that increases neurogenesis.
- Green tea – the epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) found in green tea increases neurogenesis.
- Go out in the sun – vitamin D increases levels of BDNF in our brain.
Dr Emer MacSweeney
One of the really big misconceptions that a lot of people do have is that you reach maybe the age of 65, then you think ‘better worry about my brain health’. Actually, we have to be thinking about our brain health from when we’re very young, it’s actually exactly the same as our heart or anything else and probably more important because the brain is a more complex organ.
The things that we do on a daily basis that positively or negatively impact on brain health are effectively what we call our lifestyle. So, the big things that have been identified as significant factors in terms of brain health are exercise. There are now really big studies which have demonstrated statistically and scientifically that undertaking a certain level of exercise every week does have an impact on risk factors for diseases such as Alzheimer’s affecting the brain.
The other thing for the brain particularly is to remember that the brain is a muscle and like any other muscle in the body, it has to be well exercised. So, from the outset learning multiple languages, learning things like musical instruments and just generally keeping the brain active, learning new things, being very sociable - all of this is just very good exercise for the brain.
Diet is really important for the brain. On a macro level, the types of things which are important in the diet are to avoid those things which are bad for us — too much artificial sugar, inappropriate fats and then obviously too much alcohol, smoking etc. But the important thing is to focus on a healthy diet which is really in this context defined as really a Mediterranean diet. So fish oils, nuts, pulses, natural sugars and the right type of fats.
Sleep is very important as well, having an appropriate amount of sleep and an appropriate amount of cognitive stimulation can reduce risk factors for neurodegenerative cognitive diseases in the future by about 33%.
Deborah Colson MSc
There are lots of ways that diet impacts our mental health. There are numerous studies now that show that a diet which is high in refined carbohydrates and sugar really increases things like inflammation and can increase the risks of dementia by 20%.
In a nutshell, food for a healthy mind is good proper fresh, colourful food. There isn’t one single food that people should be eating, and there isn’t one single diet that people should be on. However, it should not be a lot of beige carbohydrates; it should ideally be fresh vegetables, good quality protein (ideally if possible organic), plus free-range and grass-fed is going to give you a much better-quality protein than intensively reared. Plenty of good fats too, things like olive oil, coconut oil, organic goose fat and butter, which are all good fats. Moderate amounts of fruit too. Fruit has got some health benefits, but it also has sugar so we should look at it as a healthy alternative to sweet treats.
Dr Robert Lustig
Not only is metabolic syndrome related to depression, but it is also related to cognitive decline – and nothing will make you more depressed than losing your intelligence. We’ve known for a long time that people with type 2 diabetes demonstrate cognitive decline, and that brain insulin resistance correlates with dementia (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease).