In an earlier post, I discussed Alzheimer's disease and introduced groundbreaking research of the past few years. Namely, Alzheimer’s can be detected by doctors 30-40 years before any symptoms show up. In other words, it does not pop up out of nowhere once we are old. It is a progressive disease. In fact, many of you currently reading this could have Alzheimer's!
As discussed, genetics do play an important role in this disease, but there are many other factors that can influence a person’s risk. Genetics alone do not cause Alzheimer’s. The factors of most importance are diet, sleep, exercise, stress, cognitive activities, and environmental factors. Today I will talk about how diet and exercise play a crucial role in this discussion.
We learn in school that glucose is needed for brain energy. We are told by many doctors and government food agencies to eat plenty of carbs every meal- this provides the brain with more energy, right? Well, the picture is actually a bit more complicated. Though this is not false, recent studies have come out concluding that the brain runs significantly better on fat than on sugar; the brain itself is 60% fat! Why is this important and how does it tie into Alzheimer’s? “Type 3 diabetes.” This phenomenon, dubbed by many doctors, gets its name from the insulin resistance that occurs inside the brain. Insulin resistance leads to increased inflammation, aging and, eventually, brain degradation. The condition is directly linked to Azheimer’s disease;the risk increases by 10-15 times.
It is thus crucial to keep insulin levels as low as possible. This can be done by avoiding refined sugars and carbohydrates. Your body produces too much insulin in response to a heavy carb load, and this problem becomes worse as time goes by. This can create a vicious cycle, where you become increasingly resistant to carbs, and consequently need more insulin. By eating more carbs, your cravings for them increase. Higher consumption then spikes levels of insulin even higher. In addition, this chain of circumstances slows metabolism, increases belly fat storage, stimulates hunger,and leads to heart disease, dementia, cancer, high blood pressure, and kidney failure–just to name a few–diseases that are all too familiar in this country and all very common in patients with Alzheimer’s.
So what comprises a brain-healthy diet that produces low insulin levels? One with plenty of plant- and nutrient-dense foods? Research has shown that eating lots of healthy fats and foods with high omega 3 fats is great for cognitive health. This includes fatty fish (but not those loaded with mercury, like tuna), avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Eating plenty of plant based foods and nutrient dense foods is key, especially dark leafy veggies. A diet rich in choline, fiber and B Vitamins is also beneficial (eggs and sardines for instance). Spices are great too, and have been shown to reduce inflammation. Cutting out those starchy foods, sugars, and processed foods as much as possible is crucial.
Exercise is another important tool that can reduce the risk of dementia and slow aging. Studies have shown that simply walking everyday alone puts the brakes on aging and mitigates the risk of cognitive decline. Patients that exercise several times a week show the most benefits. Exercise improves insulin resistance, reduces hormones that shrink the brain, and stimulates molecules (such as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor [BDNF]) that grow and regulate the brain. Like improving diet, exercise is a powerful drug that can benefit your health immensely.
In my experience, applying these changes to your diet and lifestyle will go beyond reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Eating healthier and getting exercise has helped increase my energy and moods, helped with my stomach problems, and stabilized my mental health. It’s not always easy or cheap to apply such changes, but by doing so we can invest in our future and expect to live longer, younger, and healthier. Next week I will talk about sleep and stress. Take care.
Sources: CDC; Alzheimers.org; Alzheimer’s & Dementia; The Doctor’s Farmacy Podcast with Mark Hyman, M.D.
The Doctor’s Farmacy Podcast with Mark Hyman, M.D.