[Originally Written and Published for Natural Awakenings Magazine, January 2019]
How a Healthy Brain Avoids Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s
From students to seniors, having a sharp mind is greatly valuable. Thoughts, experiences and senses drive our mental state in a process called cognition. Our cognition involves memory and learning—allowing for the successful completion of everyday tasks, making decisions and understanding information.
Having minor memory shortfalls that do not significantly impact daily functioning is termed mild cognitive impairment (MCI). According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is estimated that up to 20 percent of people over 65 years of age have MCI, and people with MCI are much more likely to develop dementia. Dementia involves serious deviations in memory, personality changes or compromised reasoning which interfere with the ability of an individual to live independently. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, and every 65 seconds an American is diagnosed with this disease.
In a study published in The Lancet in 2017, “Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care”, it was estimated that two out of every three cases of dementia could be prevented through natural health strategies. A natural approach to improve life-long cognitive function involves reducing risk factors and optimizing health through natural medicines and lifestyle adjustments. There are various aspects of our health and wellness which influence the ability to attain and maintain a sharp mind.
Individuals with high body mass index (BMI) are more likely to develop dementia than those with normal weight, according to a 2018 Alzheimer’s & Dementia study of 1.3 million individuals. Confirmed by abundant evidence, physical activity improves cognition in people of all ages, increases memory in older adults and results in anti-aging changes to the brain structure.
Cardiorespiratory activity includes any movement that increases breathing and heart rate, such as speed walking, jogging, running, martial arts, swimming, rowing, boxing, skiing, snowboarding, dancing or biking. Engaging in two hours of moderate cardiorespiratory activity per week can help to protect memory and cognition.
Sleep is essential for healthy cognitive function. Extensive research published in Sleep journal in 2017 reveals that individuals with trouble sleeping have almost double the risk of cognitive impairment, and estimates that 15 percent of AD may be a result of sleep problems. Identifying and addressing the cause of sleep disturbances is preferable to sleep medications, since the majority of prescription and over-the-counter sleep medicines are associated with increased incidence of dementia.
Between seven and eight hours of nightly sleep has shown to reduce risk of chronic diseases like dementia. Practicing good sleep hygiene is crucial in fulfilling these recommendations. Good sleep hygiene includes having a regular bed time, avoiding eating meals or viewing any screens at least two hours prior to sleep and sleeping in a completely dark room.
For occasional sleeplessness, there are a number of natural remedies which also support healthy mental status. Glycine is a compound with plenty of anti-aging benefits and roles in brain and immune function. Glycine is made in the body, yet intake may also come from food sources or a supplement. Three grams of glycine amino acid supplementation prior to bedtime has been shown to increase sleep quality, as well as memory and daytime alertness.
Studies found honey to have brain-protective and memory supporting properties. One teaspoon of raw honey, before bedtime, can also aid in the production of sleep-assisting hormones such as serotonin and melatonin, and minimize nighttime wake-ups. Melatonin is not only essential for restful sleep, but also has strong protective properties for brain cells. Melatonin supplementation has been found to be especially helpful in those with mild cognitive impairment or AD.
Nutrition is required for everyday bodily functions and research also demonstrates that nutrition is useful in both the treatment and long-term prevention of disease. Although fresh vegetables and fruits are essential to maintain cognitive health, so are healthful dietary fats. Sixty percent of the human brain consists of fat. The type of dietary fat determines the influence on cognitive and overall health.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have shown to have the greatest benefit on cognition. Optimal sources include nuts (almond, cashew, hazelnut, pecan, pistachio, walnut), seeds (chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower), olive oil, some fish (anchovies, herring, trout, salmon, sardines) and avocado. According to studies in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, a diet high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats has been found to enhance learning, slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of AD.
Similar to nutrition, herbs have many therapeutic applications. Herbal medicine can be consumed in the form of teas, pills, liquid extracts or used in cooking. There are a large number of herbal medicines that have been studied for their positive effects on cognitive function. As with all herbal medicines or dietary supplements, consult with your practitioner for safe usage and individualized dosing recommendations.
Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) is widely known for its stress-relieving properties, yet research in The Journal of Dietary Supplements finds ashwagandha also aids memory in those with MCI, increases attention, and enhances the ability to process information. Many studies have shown that Curcuma longa (turmeric) plays a role in the prevention and treatment of AD by enhancing cognition through various cell-protecting, inflammation-reducing and toxin-eliminating properties.
In addition, Bacopa monierri and Ginkgo biloba have been studied for memory boosting benefits. Research reveals Cannabis sativa (hemp) to have extensive brain regenerative properties, contributed to its medicinal parts, including cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabinoids.
Cholesterol & Hormonal Balance
About 25 percent of the body’s cholesterol is found in the brain. Cholesterol is made in the liver and required to build every human cell and hormone. Hormones are chemical messengers which influence our ability to think clearly and remember information. Having blood cholesterol levels that are too low can result in a measurable loss in cognitive functioning. When reviewing data from the Framingham Heart Study, individuals with the lowest levels of cholesterol had the poorest memory and concentration.
Declines in hormones such as estrogen and testosterone are associated with cognitive decline, whereas elevations in the “stress hormone” called cortisol are associated with poorer cognitive function. Also known as the “anti-aging” hormone, lower amounts of a hormone called pregnenolone is associated with AD. A hormone called DHEA-S, the “youth hormone”, supports various functions in the brain, including brain cell protection and regeneration. A study in The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology found that low DHEA-S has been seen in those with cognitive impairment.
It may be helpful to have hormonal assessment through blood or salivary tests. If cholesterol is elevated, more detailed blood tests are available to determine the particular type of cholesterol, as this relates to disease risk. There are many natural strategies which serve to re-establish both cholesterol and hormonal balance to improve mental functions and prevent cognitive decline.
The exposure to environmental toxins is inevitable. Aluminum, cadmium, lead and mercury are some of the most common toxic metals associated with cognitive decline. Long-term exposure to moderate air pollution was found to damage brain structures and impair cognitive function, in a 2012 study in Archives of Internal Medicine.
Utilizing a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration and water purification system can help to reduce exposure to some environmental toxins. Other ways to reduce exposure to environmental toxins include: minimizing dietary intake of high mercury-containing fish (tuna, swordfish, tilefish, mackerel, bluefish, shark), avoiding tobacco use and using glass or stainless-steel cookware instead of aluminum. Testing of toxic metals can be done with urine or hair samples, and a variety of natural therapies exist to support improved elimination of toxins from the body.
Just like our body, our mind requires proper care for longevity. There are many aspects of health which influence cognition, some of which were briefly reviewed in this article. Physicians can assist in identifying risk factors for cognitive decline such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, hypothyroidism or chronic stress. Naturopathic physicians implement natural therapies and encourage beneficial lifestyle habits, which show promising results in prevention and treatment of cognitive decline.
For more information on cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, visit Alz.org.
There's no better time like the present to preserve your mind and maintain your memory. If you or someone you know is interested in taking a preventative approach to their health, please get in touch with my office to set up a free holistic health consultation. You can easily schedule online, just include SHARP BRAIN along with reason for visit.
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