Monday, March 15, 2010

Brain-Healthy Nutrition (Part One)

I had the honor this week of being the inaugural guest on a new local TV show called "Women's Perspective," hosted by Jane Marks and Laurel Kirksey of the WV Alzheimer's Association. Local readers can view this program on Tuesday nights during the month of April. (Check your channel guide for specific times.) The focus of this first show is on brain-healthy foods. As one who lost her father to early-onset Alzheimer's Disease (he showed symptoms as early as age 50), this topic is especially important to me. Here are the five areas I discussed:

1. Keep blood sugar stabilized - The brain needs a steady supply of glucose to make ATP, its energy chemical. Without adequate ATP, the brain has an energy drain, and its function decreases. The best way to accomplish this is to control your insulin levels.

Consider how you feel about an hour after eating pasta, bread or sugar. You are sleepy, your thinking is fuzzy and you have difficulty concentrating. Your glucose is driven down so low that brain function is compromised. It searches for glucose to make ATP so it can energize itself and guess what? You seek out more carbohydrates (sugar) because your brain is telling you to bring in more glucose - NOW! You head to the vending machine and grab a candy bar and a coke, get a temporary fix and the cycle starts all over again. Instead of having steady amounts of glucose for your brain, you give it peaks and valleys. So how do you keep glucose stabilized?

Maintain a constant protein to carbohydrate balance every time you eat.

2. Eat plenty of protein. Protein is used to make hemoglobin in our red blood cells so they can carry oxygen to all parts of the body, including the brain. Unlike carbohydrates, protein doesn't give you the insulin "spike". Consequently, when you combine protein with carbohydrates your glucose levels are more constant - think chicken and wild rice.

Protein is broken down into amino acids, which make up our brain's chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. One of the amino acids, tyrosine, prompts our brain to manufacture norepinephrine and dopamine, which promote alertness and activity.

3. Eat good fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are important to the development and maintenance of the brain and spinal cord. Twenty percent of the omega-3 in the brain is docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, which is concentrated in the nerve synapses (connections between brain cells), making it a vital player in brain cell communications. Another omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, is necessary for improved blood flow and decreased inflammation. Where can you obtain these important fats? Eggs, fatty fish (like salmon or mackerel), poultry, and fish oil supplements. Another vital fat in brain function is monounsaturated fat. Its function is to slow the rate at which carbohydrates enter your bloodstream (i.e., it helps to control blood sugar levels). Additionally it causes the release of cholecystokinin, another hormone that tells your brain to stop eating. Enjoy these fats that are found in olive oil, avocados and almonds.

4. Antioxidants. Think of antioxidants as your own personal secret service. These nutritional bodyguards jump in front of free radicals to reduce damage to your cells (also called oxidative stress). Researchers in the Chicago Health and Aging Project found that consuming three servings of vegetables per day had a statistically significant impact on reducing the risk of Alzheimer's Disease. They also concluded that regular and significant consumption (2-4 servings) of leafy green, yellow or crucifereous vegetables had protective benefits on age-related cognitive change. Some of the brain healthy fruits and vegetables include: spinach, broccoli, onions, kale, collard greens, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, red grapes.

That's quite a bit to digest all at once. I'll leave it at that for now. Check back in a couple days and I'll share my advice and tips on Heart Health (the fifth and final topic) in Part Two of this article.

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