News & FeaturesFriday 24th April 2015
Seven Ways to Protect Your Brain
If you are young you have probably not thought about the possibility of losing your mental faculties when you get older, if you are older you are probably are thinking about it quite a lot!
Having seen my father stay mentally sharp until days before passing on at the age of 91, and my mother now nearly 93 struggling with memory loss, the question of what will happen to my mind as I age is up! On a national level there is a lot of concern about the rising numbers of people with dementia, at present around 750,000 in the UK, expected to rise to a million by 2025, at great cost to both the NHS and also the families caring for their elderly.
The good news is…. as with so many other degenerative diseases, there is a lot we can do to keep our minds strong, basically by looking after the health of our brains. Our brains are just like all our other organs in needing a good flow of blood rich in oxygen and nutrients to stay in good health, and can suffer from clogging with excess from eating a lot of fats or protein, or becoming weakened from excess sugars, alcohol and other yin, expansive foods.
Recent research is providing new insights to support the suggestion that food and lifestyle have a profound influence on our brain’s health. So lets look first at recent scientific evidence on what we can all do to keep our brains in good health, and then see how this relates to a traditional macrobiotic way of eating and living.
1. Take physical exercise
Regular physical exercise puts off the time of mental decline, probably mainly by increasing blood flow to our brains. Some research has shown that daily exercise can even reverse memory loss, so if this is happening to you, get out for a daily half hour walk, or find another form of enjoyable exercise. You may even want to hit a small white ball around some fields for a few hours!
2. Don’t eat meat and high protein dairy foods
Meat has been thought of as a building, strengthening food, but not if you eat too much! There’s quite a lot of evidence coming out that high protein diets are actually harmful for the brain, and may well contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. Some research has shown a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet actually shrinking the brains of mice; while we have to be careful of transferring from one species to another, this was a surprising result!
3. Eat a plant-based diet
Eating a diet centered around whole grains, vegetables, beans, seeds and fruits, with some fish and seafood (mostly vegan), has repeatedly been shown to create better brain health. This is partly by keeping the circulatory system – your arteries, veins and fine capillaries – in good health so that it can provide the brain with its high needs for oxygen, energy and nutrients. Do you know that while sitting your brain is actually consuming about a third of all the oxygen and food calories your body uses, there’s a lot going on up there! When the arteries become blocked by arteriosclerosis, or the capillaries become weakened or lost, then we lose brain function, and the brain can actually shrink in size. Not a nice thought, having your brain shrink inside your skull!
4. Stop eating sugar
People with high blood sugar levels have increased rates of dementia. High sugar levels in the body are well known to destroy our fine blood capillaries – this is why diabetics have much higher rates of blindness (from the small blood vessels in the back of the eyes being destroyed) kidney failure and gangrene in their feet, as well as dementia. Loss of blood capillaries in the brain can lead to the second most common type of dementia, vascular dementia.
So good to learn to create sweetness in your cooking of vegetables, fruit, chestnuts etc. and sometimes use grain sweeteners like barley malt and rice malt syrup, rather than honey, and refined sugars like fructose and corn syrup. If your hands or face are permanently red from eating a lot of sugar or alcohol, you may well be losing the capillaries in your brain as well!
5. Eat fish
People eating fish every week have been found to have better brain health, it really is true that fish is good ‘brain food’! This may partly be because fish are a good source of natural oils that the brain contains a lot of. One study found that a group of people eating fish at least once a week had bigger brain volumes in the areas responsible for memory and cognition!
6. Avoid using anticholinergic drugs
There is increasing evidence that these commonly taken drugs impair brain function, including popular antihistamines sold over the counter as sleep aids, such as Benadryl, some asthma inhalers and drugs for allergy relief, oxybutynin and for overactive bladder; and the tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline, even when used at low doses for migraine prevention or nerve pain. Many of these drugs have the side-effect of causing drowsiness. If in doubt, ask your doctor.
7. Use your brain!
Lots of evidence that using our brains in an active daily life, as well as solving mind games and puzzles helps to keep our brains sharper, and delay any decline. Get that pack of cards out, do a few Sudoku, or play some games with your grandchildren!
So that’s what the science says. What is remarkable is that the simple balanced life, with a good amount of physical and mental activity, and a plant-based diet advocated by macrobiotics is ideal for maintaining your brain in tip-top condition. Simple daily exercise such as Do-in, Chi Gong, yoga, gardening and walking has a big effect in keeping the body and mind working well. In macrobiotics we use foods that nourish our Kidney energy, which in Oriental medicine supplies energy or Ki to the brain and our mental faculties. Good to include mineral rich foods like miso soup, seaweeds, fish and seafood, as well as a good variety of whole grains, fresh vegetables, beans and seeds.
And further, becoming an elder is a time of enjoying the richness of wisdom accumulated during a lifetime, and passing this onto younger generations. It is a time of increasing spiritual awareness and gaining a clearer view of the true purpose and meaning of life. Lets look after our brains and enjoy a vibrant and rich second half to our lives!