Mental Health
Natural Health

7 ways to improve brain health

By Sharon Pendlington, R.H.N, RYT

a healthy brain in an abstract image

The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada states that half a million Canadians are living with dementia, and 56% of us are concerned about being affected by Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).  

The good news is that there is plenty we can do ourselves to maintain and improve our cognitive health as we age. 

Cognition is our ability to acquire, store, manipulate and retrieve information. By following a healthy lifestyle, we can support the brain to heal, grow new neurons and synapses and continue to respond to stimuli. 

Dr. Dale Bredesen, neuroscientist and expert in neurodegenerative diseases, has created a multifactorial lifestyle treatment plan (the Bredesen 7) that addresses many of the factors contributing to cognitive decline, provides optimal conditions for cognitive health, and that has recently been shown to actually reverse cognitive decline. 

1. Nutrition 

A whole food, highly plant-based, clean Mediterranean-style diet is recommended. This way of eating provides energy for the brain; improves blood sugar regulation, vascular health and detoxification, and reduces inflammation —all contributors to cognitive decline. 

The diet should be high in healthy fats (found in raw nuts and seeds, avocado, olive and coconut oils) and non-starchy vegetables, with limited grains and avoidance of inflammatory sugar, alcohol, refined carbohydrates and damaged oils. 

Fish and seafood are optional, and organic meat and poultry are considered a condiment rather than the main staple of the diet. 

Detoxifying foods such as cruciferous vegetables and herbs such as cilantro, ginger, turmeric and parsley are encouraged. 

If you are currently eating a standard diet that is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, your first step is to eliminate these, and replace them with more vegetables, good quality protein and healthy fats. 

Fasting for a minimum of 12 hours per day (this includes your time sleeping) and avoiding eating within 3 hours of bedtime is also recommended. Longer fasting of 16 hours may be necessary for those with cognitive impairment. 

Periods of mild ketosis may be desirable in some individuals to enhance autophagy (or removal of damaged cells). During ketosis, the brain relies on fat for fuel rather than glucose. The betahydroxybutyrate produced in the process increases the production of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factors (BDNF), which acts like fertilizer for the brain. 

BDNF keeps brain cells functioning and growing and stimulates the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis). Evidence suggests that it needs to be present in sufficient quantities for the brain to properly process and encode memories. 

2. Detoxification 

Avoiding toxins that affect cognition is vital. Mold exposure and poor oral hygiene are predictors of cognitive decline. We can also ensure that we are not exposing ourselves to environmental toxins in the food we eat or the household cleaning and personal hygiene products that we use daily. 

3. Physical activity 

Exercise is associated with an increase in gray matter in the brain and reduces hippocampus atrophy, it increases BDNF and enhances neurogenesis. Movement works alongside diet and fasting to create ketones as an alternative source of energy for the brain, and it also supports detoxification. 

A minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise, 4 to 6 times per week, has the most evidence for improving cognition. 

4. Sleep 

Sleep is an essential repair time for the brain. Sleep is needed for memory consolidation and glymphatic cleansing of brain toxins and it reduces inflammation. Evidence supports an ideal sleep time of 7 to 8 hours/night, with a consistent sleep/wake schedule. Sleep apnea should be ruled out if it is suspected, as it has been estimated that 70 to 80% of people with AD have sleep apnea. 

5. Stress and anxiety          

Although moderate, short-term stress or stimulation can improve some of our cognitive abilities, high chronic stress impairs all cognitive function. 

High cortisol (one of the stress hormones) affects our memory and learning as well. We can all benefit from improving our ability to cope with stress and making time for relaxation.

Aim to do something that you find relaxing every day, whether that is listening to music, art, reading, enjoying a cup of tea, walking in nature, cooking, meditative exercise such as yoga, or spending time with a loved one or a pet. 

Social and spiritual connection helps us manage our stress, so find creative ways to expand your personal connections, engage in social situations and explore what gives you meaning in your life. 

Mindfulness is at the cornerstone of making any lifestyle change. As we learn to become more present in our everyday moments, we increase our ability to make conscious decisions and respond to situations, rather than reacting habitually. 

Mindfulness and meditation apps and classes can teach us how to live more mindfully, treat ourselves (and others) with acceptance and compassion, and cope with stress.  

6. Lifelong learning and stimulation 

It is important to challenge your brain with new activities that will build new brain neurons and synapses. You may choose to learn a new language or play a new instrument; take up any opportunities to try something new! 

Brain training apps such as BrainHQ, Lumosity, and Posit are very popular-dedicate yourself to practicing these exercises for 20 to 30 minutes each day. 

7. Nutraceuticals & botanicals for brain health 

Certain supplements have been shown to enhance cognitive function. Magnesium Threonate, high DHA Omega-3 essential fatty acids, activated Vitamin B complex, and Vitamin D3 with K2 have shown promising supportive properties to brain health. Please discuss the possibility of starting these with your healthcare provider. 

These seven lifestyle interventions are all within your personal control. Small, consistent changes to your everyday routine can improve your cognition and form a significant part of your treatment plan to reverse cognitive impairment. 

These new ways of living will also benefit your overall health beyond improving your cognition as you age. What have you got to lose?  

Sharon Pendlington R.H.N., RYT is a Health Coach and Holistic Nutritionist, at Westcoast Women’s Clinic.