Power Foods for the Brain
By Life Extension
An Effective 3-Step Plan to Protect Your Mind and Strengthen Your Memory
Losing memory and brainpower is not just “a part of life” that everyone must endure as part of the aging process. Just as diet, environment, and lifestyle play an integral role in the health of the body, the same goes for the brain. Researchers from around the world have uncovered specific nutrients that either endanger or offer protection to the brain. New imaging techniques have been developed that allow scientists to study the brain as a living system—to learn how it functions and how the brain is affected by time, nutrition, and lifestyle. Cutting edge testing has begun to offer clues as to who is most at risk for cognitive disease as time passes. As this body of research has amassed, it has become clear that specific foods, eating behaviors, lifestyle, and environmental factors can have a powerful effect on the function of the brain.
The following is an exclusive Life Extension® interview about Dr. Neal Barnard’s new book, Power Foods for the Brain—An Effective 3-Step Plan to Protect Your Mind and Strengthen Your Memory, which unifies this growing body of data and offers a groundbreaking 3-step plan to safeguard your brain function now and in the future.
LE: Early in your book, you explain the concept of building a “shield” for your brain and you mention it when talking about protecting your brain from toxic metals. What metals would people be surprised are actually found in the brain and what negative impact do they have?
NB: Many people experience memory lapses from time to time. And memory problems grow more severe as the years catch up with us. Alzheimer’s disease attacks half of Americans by age 85. It is financially devastating, of course, but the personal costs are incalculable. We need to be able to shield ourselves from the threats to brain health. These include toxic metals, as well as unhealthy fats, certain prescription drugs and their side effects, as well as many other things. Metals are particularly important. When researchers study individuals who have died with Alzheimer’s disease, their brains contain beta-amyloid plaques. Under the microscope, they look a bit like tiny meatballs in between the brain cells. When researchers tease these plaques apart, they find not only beta-amyloid protein, but also certain metals. Iron, for starters. Of course, we need a certain amount of iron. Traces of iron are part of the hemoglobin molecules that your red blood cells use to carry oxygen in your bloodstream. If you didn’t have iron, you would be anemic. But excess iron threatens brain health. That is also true for copper. Aluminum is also under suspicion. Back in the 1980s, researchers in England noticed that Alzheimer’s disease cases tended to be clustered in those counties that had more aluminum in the drinking water. They had as much as 50% higher risk of Alzheimer’s compared to the lower-aluminum counties. Studies elsewhere had similar findings. This area remains controversial, but while researchers fight it out, it makes sense to protect yourself.
LE: What are “rusty brain cells” and how did you come up with that description?
NB: If you were to leave a cast iron pan on your backyard picnic table for a day or two and a bit of rain happened to fall, what happens? Iron rusts. That’s oxidation. And iron oxidizes in your body, too. When that oxidation process occurs, it tends to produce free radicals. A free radical starts out as an innocent molecule. It could be oxygen—oxygen that your body needs for health. But if the oxygen molecule loses an electron or an electron gets into an unstable orbit, it becomes a free radical. Free radicals form in your bloodstream, in your cells, and even in your brain. And each one is like a spark, burning holes in your brain. As iron oxidizes, it encourages free radicals to form. Most Americans get too much iron, because of the meaty diets that are part of the culture. The iron in meat is called heme iron, and it tends to be a bit too absorbable; it can overload you with iron. The very best foods for iron are our neglected friends, beans and green leafy vegetables. These foods have a special form of iron called non-heme iron, which is more absorbable when your body needs more and less absorbable when your body has enough iron already. They help prevent the lows and highs in iron that can be bad for your brain.
LE: While we’re talking about this, are these metals lurking in everyday use?
NB: Well, let’s start in the kitchen. Is there a cast-iron pan on your stove? How about copper pipes. They became popular in the early part of the 20th century, and if your drinking water has been sitting in copper pipes overnight, there is copper in the water you’re drinking. Red meats tend to be high in metals, especially iron. And the mother lode of copper is a plate of liver. It might surprise you that one of the biggest sources of metals is a typical multiple vitamin. Now, the vitamins themselves are fine. But in many formulations, manufacturers add iron that you may not need. It pays to look for a vitamin without added metals. Beans and greens, along with fruits and grains, give you the iron and copper you need, without the risk of overdoing it. When water passes through a municipal treatment plant, aluminum is typically added as part of the process of making impurities settle out. And unfortunately, traces of aluminum remain. You turn on your tap and out comes the water mixed with aluminum. Aluminum pots and pans can leak some aluminum into foods. The baking powder used in the pancakes you may have had for breakfast probably has aluminum in it, unless you used aluminum-free baking powder, which is available at any grocery store. Frozen pizzas may have aluminum in the cheese or the crust. Those little single-serve salt and sugar packets often have aluminum to keep the salt or sugar from caking. If you buy antacids, read the labels. Some have aluminum; others are aluminum-free.
Editor’s Note: There is a debate as to whether people should take a small amount of copper in their multi-nutrient formulas. Deficiency of copper can create serious problems, including loss of communication (synaptic transmission) between brain cells. Once copper is used to facilitate synaptic transmission it can turn into a neurotoxin that the brain must buffer against. Protection against copper toxicity to brain cells can be obtained by supplementing with 1,000 milligrams a day of carnosine.*
*Available at: http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2001/jan2001_report_carnosine_4.html. Accessed January 29, 2013.
LE: Turning our attention to the American diet for a second, how do saturated fats negatively affect the brain?
NB: In 2003, researchers with the Chicago Health and Aging Project found that saturated fat—the kind of fat that predominates in animal products—is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Some study participants ate a lot of saturated fat—about 25 grams a day. Others ate only about half that amount, about 13 grams per day. It turned out those who got about 25 grams of saturated fat each day had more than 3 times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared with those who ate less “bad fat.” If you add it up, it is easy to get to the 25 grams of “bad fat” per day that was a problem in the Chicago study: a couple of eggs, one strip of bacon, one chicken thigh (without the skin), a glass of milk, a small pizza. All together, that’s more than 25 grams of saturated fat. Trans fats—partially hydrogenated oils—are a problem, too.
LE: So why do these fats cause problems for the brain?
NB: Well, we’ve known for a long time that “bad fats” tend to increase your cholesterol level. And if you have too many cholesterol particles flowing through your arteries, they can lead to artery blockages, not just in the heart, but in the arteries to the brain, too. California researchers studied a group of 9,844 people, measuring their cholesterol levels in the 1960s and 1970s when their average age was around 40. Then three decades later, they looked to see who developed memory problems. It turned out that the higher the cholesterol, the higher the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. But there is more to it. Fatty diets and high cholesterol levels seem to cause the brain to produce more beta-amyloid. A team of researchers took blood samples immediately after death from individuals who had had Alzheimer’s disease, and then at autopsy they looked inside the brain. They found that the higher the level of cholesterol in the blood, the more beta-amyloid was inside the brain. The best advice for protecting your brain—not to mention your heart and your health overall, is to avoid animal products. I did not grow up with a vegan diet, but having seen its power—not to mention how delightful the foods can be—I’ve adopted an entirely vegan diet, and I only wish I’d done it earlier.
LE: You are quick to point out that some fats are essential, namely the omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid. Why is that so important and how do they play a role in brain function?
NB: Alpha-linolenic acid is one of two essential fats. In our bodies, it is lengthened to other fats that are essential to brain function. The healthiest source is green leafy vegetables, surprisingly enough. We don’t think of broccoli or other green vegetables as having any fat. And they don’t have very much—not nearly as much as beef or chicken breast or salmon. But about 8% of the calories in broccoli are from fat, and proportionately, they are high in ALA. The take-home message is that there are traces of good fats, not just in broccoli but in kale, collards, and other green vegetables. There is more of it in walnuts and flaxseeds, and in certain oils, especially canola oil, and even supplements that you can buy at the store. If you include green vegetables and nuts in your routine, you’ll get good fats for your brain. Also, it pays to avoid other fats, because they can tie up the enzymes that lengthen ALA to the other forms. So overall, you want to reduce your fat intake, especially the “bad fats,” but you want to get traces of good fats from healthy sources.
LE: At the beginning of Chapter 5 in your book, you list a few vitamins and nutrients that play crucial roles in building a “vitamin shield” for your brain. Can you name a few and why they’re so vital?
NB: Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant. That means that it knocks out free radicals. It is in spinach, in mangoes, in sweet potatoes, and in much larger amounts of nuts and seeds. It makes a real difference. Earlier I mentioned the Chicago Health and Aging Project, which looked at how foods affect the brain. In that study, those who got more vitamin E had less than half the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, compared with people who were missing vitamin E. So vitamin E plays a huge role. The bottom line is that iron and copper make sparks—free radicals. Vitamin E is the fire extinguisher that blows all those sparks away. Three B-vitamins play key roles, too. At the University of Oxford, researchers tested folate, B6, and B12 in a research study. Half the participants got these vitamins, while the other half got a dummy pill—a placebo. The people who received the placebo had the usual problems with memory as the years went by. But those who got the three B-vitamins did much better; they generally preserved their memories as the years went by. The researchers also did an MRI scan to actually measure the brain, and found that those who were getting a dummy pill had continuing brain atrophy, something that is often seen in older people. They lost about 2.5% of their brain volume per year. But in the B-vitamin group, atrophy was reduced to just 0.5% per year. The vitamins work, we believe, by knocking out a toxic chemical called homocysteine, which can be very rough on the brain. Your doctor can check your homocysteine level, and if you’re high, these vitamins can remove it and that can make a big difference. Folate is in green leafy vegetables. Vitamin B6 is in beans and bananas, and many other foods. Vitamin B12 is supplemented in many foods such as cereals. It is also in vitamin supplements. These vitamins protect you.
LE: Since our diets influence more than one part of our bodies, how does something as common as excess blood sugar affect the brain? And how important is managing blood sugar for brain health and what would be a solid blood glucose management strategy?
NB: Some researchers have begun to speak of a role of insulin in memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease. While that research is underway, it certainly makes sense to control blood sugar. But the way to do this is not to avoid natural sugars or starches—the usual naïve approach that has gotten a lot of attention. Rather, the answer is to avoid animal products and other fatty foods. As fat enters the cells, it interferes with insulin’s ability to work. So it pays to emphasize vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fruit, and skip animal products and greasy foods in general. Avoiding fats is a much more powerful step than avoiding healthful carbohydrates.
LE: How important is exercise to maintaining a healthy brain? What have studies shown?
NB: It protects the brain, just as it protects the heart. At the University of Illinois, researchers asked 120 adults to take a brisk walk for 10 minutes, 3 times a week. And then they increased the length of each walk to 15 minutes the next week, then to 20 minutes the following week, and so on, until they got to about 40 minutes, three times a week. Over time, this simple exercise program actually reversed the age-related shrinking of the brain that occurs in most sedentary people. Memory improved as well.
LE: Aside from supplements, what are a few ways that people can actually strengthen their brains?
NB: These are the key steps:
- Avoid bad fats. That means saturated fat and trans fats.
- Emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans.
- Take a vitamin B12 supplement daily.
- Be on the lookout for excess iron, copper, and aluminum.
- Get plenty of exercise—physical and mental.
- Get plenty of rest and sleep.
LE: And finally, Power Foods for the Brain is an outstanding resource for anyone interested in improving mental health through their diet. If people followed your guidance, could we prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia?
NB: Evidence suggests we could cut the risk of these conditions dramatically. In the same way that the previous generation learned how to use foods to tackle heart disease and reduce cancer risk, the current generation is learning that foods can protect the brain, too.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.
Dr. Neal Barnard is president of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, a faculty member of the George Washington School of Medicine, and the founding member of the Whole Foods Medical Advisory Board. He is a New York Times best-selling author and a monthly columnist for the Vegetarian Times. He is featured in the new, nationally released documentary, Forks Over Knives, and has previously appeared on Today, Good Morning America, Ellen, and Dr. Oz. For more information visit: http://www.nealbarnard.org/.
Order Power Foods for the Brain.