Nutrition and Brain Health
By Eric Madrid MD
In this article:
Alzheimer’s disease is a disorder of the brain that generally affects older adults. Alzheimer’s has no specific cure and can cause enormous frustration and challenges to both patient and caretakers alike. Early symptoms include forgetting names, confusion, trouble with words and speech while late-stage symptoms include more severe issues such as paranoia and abusive behavior.
Fewer than one percent of the Alzheimer’s disease cases occur prior to the age of 65, but scientists predict that after 65, one in nine people are at risk. According to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is expected to triple in the coming decades.
Alzheimer’s is believed to be caused by the deposition of a protein in the brain called amyloid Beta (or Aβ). The Aβ protein creates a type of “scar tissue” in the brain, which results in memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Preventing Aβ protein from depositing itself may be the answer to both preventing and possibly reversing this debilitating disease.
- Trouble with words and speech (aphasia)
- Difficulty making decisions (agnosia)
- Memory loss, recent memory affected, long-term memory remains (amnesia)
- Trouble remembering the names of things (anomia)
- Misusing objects (apraxia)
- Tobacco use
- Diet low in fruits and vegetables
- High blood pressure
- Physical inactivity
- Age 65 or older
- History of traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Family history: 25 percent of cases appear to be genetic, having the apolipoprotein E-e4 (APOE-e4) gene
While there is no definitive cure for Alzheimer’s, Scientists have had promising research on the role that nutrition and exercise have on the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that have various benefits for both your body and your brain. Specifically, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is one of the primary structural components of the human brain. DHA is a key component of brain cells membranes and is vital for not only its structure but function as well. Studies have shown that insufficient DHA in the brain can cause various health-related problems affecting both brain nerves and behavior.
According to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-amyloid and anti-inflammatory properties. Special brain imaging shows that there is increased blood flow in regions of the brain responsible for memory and learning in people that have higher omega-3 levels. A diet high in seafood is also beneficial for brain health.
Suggested dose: 1,000 mg to 4,000 mg per day.
According to a 2018 study in Neural Regeneration Research, turmeric can play a significant role in keeping the brain healthy. Also known as Curcuma longa and Indian saffron, turmeric is a rooted plant of the ginger family, often consumed for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and digestive health properties.
Curcumin, the active chemical found in the turmeric root, is believed to provide many of the health benefits. Many people have used turmeric as a spice to enhance their food’s taste for over 4,000 years. Since turmeric is more common in the diets of those who live in Asia and India, this may explain why these populations have fewer incidences of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those in Europe and North America.
According to a 2018 study, Turmeric has shown to:
- Reduce Aβ Production
- Stop Aβ deposition in the brain
- Increase removal of the Aβ from the brain
- Increase glutathione in the brain, a potent antioxidant
- Stops brain cells from aging
- Reduce oxidative damage to the brain
- Reduce inflammation in the brain
The authors of the study go on to mention that turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties play a crucial role in helping to protect the brain against various assaults which cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Suggested dose is 500 to 1,000 mg once or twice per day.
Vitamin B12 (also referred to as cobalamin or cyanocobalamin) is an important nutrient that your body requires to help optimize brain, nerve, and blood health. However, despite its importance, there's plenty of evidence showing that people around the world are deficient in this essential nutrient. Studies from the United States demonstrate that up to one in six (17 percent) of those aged 60 and older are deficient in Vitamin B12 while upwards to one in 15 (six percent) of those under age 60 are deficient. But, this isn't just a health concern for Americans. In the northern part of China, for instance, a 2014 study showed up to 45 percent of Chinese women were deficient in vitamin B12. Many other countries are also affected.
Vitamin B12 has many functions which include:
- Improves Fatigue
- Optimizes memory function
- Optimize sleep
- Helps make red blood cells
- Involved in DNA synthesis
- Helps with protein production
- Help with the production of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) to prevent depression
- Improves nerve function and communication
- Lowers homocysteine levels – Elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine are associated with increased risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke. Vitamin B12 lowers homocysteine.
- Vitamin B12 tablets – Available as vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) or methyl-vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin). Daily oral dose ranges from 500 mcg to 5,000 mcg.
- Vitamin B12 oral spray – Daily oral dose ranges from 500 mcg to 5,000 mcg.
- Vitamin B12 liquid drops– Available as vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) or methyl-vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin). Daily oral dose ranges from 500 mcg to 5,000 mcg.
- Vitamin B12 injections – Must be prescribed by a physician in most countries. 1,000 mcg can be injected weekly or once per month.
Zinc is an essential mineral that is crucial for optimal health including making sure we optimize brain health. A nutritious, well-rounded diet rich in zinc-containing foods is important to ensure both adequate blood and tissue levels of zinc. Zinc can be helpful for a variety of health conditions. Certain medications can reduce zinc levels in the human body, if these are being taken, extra care is needed to ensure adequate zinc consumption.
Zinc plays an important role in brain health. When deficient, a person may have difficulty remembering things. However, zinc is only part of the equation—copper is the other. Knowing the copper-to-zinc ratio can be important. Both minerals can be tested using a simple blood test. Low blood levels of zinc and too much copper increases the risk for dementia, according to a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The optimal copper-to-zinc ratio, according to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) researcher Dr. Dale Bredesen is 0.8:1.2. The optimal zinc blood levels are 90-110 mcg/dl. A 2017 study out of Russia suggested zinc could help brain neurons recover.
- Zinc Picolinate, Zinc Gluconate, Zinc Bis-glycinate and Zinc Citrate are the best absorbed. Usual dose is 10 mg to 25 mg daily
- A quality multivitamin with zinc can also be taken
- Zinc Lozenges –take as directed on the label
Scientists believe that Alzheimer’s can be caused by severe niacin insufficiency. A 2004 study showed that adequate intake of niacin could have a protective effect on the development of Alzheimer’s and age-related cognitive decline.
Suggested Dose: Consider starting at 100 mg once or twice per day.
After a few weeks, many increases to 250 or 500 mg twice per day. If no flushing or sides effects occur, many will take up to 1,000 mg twice per day for maximal benefit. Consult with your physician prior to starting if you are on prescription medications or have diabetes.
According to the Mayo Clinic, observational studies have suggested that diet can help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 53 percent while helping delay the cognitive decline and improving memory levels in patients. Memory boosting superfoods that can help fight Alzheimer’s include vegetables & leafy greens such as spinach, radishes, kale, and certain cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. Try to minimize simple carbohydrates – Avoid bread, pasta, processed foods, sugars, and fast foods. Consume a more plant-based diet. Eat wild, non-farm-raised fish, but no more than once per week. If you consume meat, use grass-fed, hormone-free beef, turkey and chicken.
In recent studies, scientists have determined that adhering to a Mediterranean Diet is linked to reduced cerebral Aβ protein accumulation. Their data showed that there was a lower cognitive decline and even reduced risk of Alzheimer’s in patients following the Mediterranean Diet. Spain recently surpassed Italy as the healthiest country in the world which scientists attribute to the Mediterranean diet.
Key components of the Mediterranean diet include:
- Consuming primarily plant-based nutrition including fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts including almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts. Aim for seven to 10 servings of fruits and veggies per day. Try to consume whole-grain bread, cereal, rice, and pasta products.
- Avoid butter and margarine as much as possible. Aim for healthier alternatives such as olive or canola oil. “Extra-virgin” and “Virgin” olive oils are the least processed forms that contain that highest levels of antioxidant effects.
- Instead of using salt, season your meals with herbs and spices.
- Incorporate fish into your diet at least once or twice a week. Fresh tuna, salmon, trout, and mackerel are all healthy options. They are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Avoid red meat as much as possible. Opt for fish and poultry instead. If you do eat red meat, try to keep the portions small (no bigger than a deck of cards). Avoid sausage, bacon, and other high-fat meats.
- Limit higher fat dairy products such as whole or 2 % milk and switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese.
- Drink red wine in moderation. Alcohol, in moderation, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in some studies. The recommended amount is no more than 5 ounces of wine daily for women (or men over age 65) and no more than 10 ounces of wine daily for men under age 65.
- Exercise, Exercise, Exercise.
It’s important to recognize that the focus of the Mediterranean diet isn’t to limit total fat but rather discourage saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fat) which are major risk factors for heart and brain disease. Mono and Polyunsaturated fats, such as olive and canola oil, contain a specific Omega-3 Fatty acid called Linolenic acid that helps lower triglyceride levels, decrease the risks of blot clots, and have associations with decreasing risk of heart attacks and overall keeping your blood vessels healthy.
Strategies for Brain Deterioration
Cognitive dysfunction and Alzheimer’s disease are conditions that will become more prevalent over the next several decades. Everyone should undertake strategies to help prevent brain deterioration. Conventional pharmacotherapy is always an option but do consider the role that nutrition and vitamins play on brain health.
- J Alzheimer’s Dis. 2015;47(3):565-81. doi: 10.3233/JAD-143108
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, vol. 55, no. 2, pp. 797-811, 2017
- J Alzheimer’s Dis. 2017;60(2):451-460. doi: 10.3233/JAD-170354.
- National Institute of Aging. Accessed Aug. 27, 2016 https://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet
- Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, et al Dietary niacin and the risk of incident Alzheimer’s disease and of cognitive decline. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2004;75:1093-1099.
- https://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/alzheimers-disease- fact-sheet
- Bredesen DE, Amos EC, Canick J, et al. Reversal of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease. Aging
- Bredesen DE. Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program. Aging (Albany NY).
- Stewart, K. (2019). Mediterranean Diet Adherence Linked to Reduced Cerebral Aβ-amyloid Accumulation. Retrieved from https://todayspractitioner.com/alzheimers/mediterranean-diet-adherence-linked-to-reduced-cerebral-a%CE%B2-amyloid-accumulation/#.XKZ2phNKhTY
- Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801