By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Whether your goal is Alzheimer’s prevention, or you’re having issues with your memory like word-finding, or you have regular brain fog, this article is for you. Your brain requires adequate nutrients, good blood flow, and a minimally inflamed body. What this means, is that treating the brain is very much the same as treating any other system in the body – we just view it through the brain health lens.
For this article, I have chosen the top 5 factors most important for brain health, based on what I have been seeing with my Cognitive Wellness Program, and also countless other people complaining about menopause-related memory issues, and brain fog from various causes.
And remember that just like any other system, the brain can repair and reverse changes and damage if we provide the correct circulation, nutrients and remove obstacles like toxins.
(1) Improve your sleep quality
Quite simply, sleep is when your brain repairs, and recent studies show that cerebrospinal fluid washes in and out of the brain in waves during sleep, helping clear out waste. Areas of consideration with sleep are:
- Getting enough hours of sleep each night – meaning a minimum of 7 hours for optimal brain function. Less sleep does not allow enough time for optimal cognitive health.
- Sufficient deep sleep is also especially important for memory and cognition. This is impacted by stress, low melatonin production, inflammation and pain, and is often affected for years after childbirth depending on how many years your sleep was disrupted for!
- Menopause is a unique consideration for sleep, as sleeplessness is one of the most common complaints during this hormone transition due to hot flashes and night sweats especially. Menopause sleep disruption does not usually respond the same way to simple treatments like valerian, chamomile or melatonin.
- Checking for sleep apnea is also key if you are experiencing memory issues, brain fog or are feeling un-rested in the morning. With sleep apnea, oxygen levels drop in the night, and chronic low oxygen levels absolutely impact brain function, along with cardiovascular health. If you have been told you snore, hold your breath in your sleep or gasp, it is important to have a sleep study to check.
(2) Reverse insulin resistance
Insulin resistance occurs when the body over-produces insulin in response to eating carbohydrate foods, and over time becomes ‘resistant’ to the effect causing more insulin to be produced by the pancreas. It is on the trajectory towards diabetes, and usually starts to become evident in the 40’s, although can be much younger if there is a strong family history of diabetes or the presence of PCOS.
Insulin resistance has such a profound impact on the brain that Alzheimer’s disease is often called “Type 3 Diabetes”. High insulin creates inflammation, and leads to a fuel deficiency in the brain, meaning the brain cells are not getting the fuel they need, ultimately leading to brain atrophy.
I’ve written about insulin resistance several times, and the most important thing to know is that it is reversible with nutrition changes (lower carbohydrate and sugar), regular exercise, increasing sleep, and sometimes also mitochondria support.
(3) Exercise regularly
The simplest way to look at exercise and brain health is that exercise increases blood-flow everywhere in the body, including the brain. I would actually rate regular exercise as highest on the list of practices for brain health.
Exercise reduces insulin resistance, supports mitochondria function, increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), reduces cardiovascular disease risk, and quite literally increases brain volume.
Most studies with exercise and cognition look at aerobic exercise – ranging from walking to dancing to high intensity interval training. All forms of exercise however are helpful – you need to match the movement to your current health and ability, and ultimately aim for 350 minutes of exercise per week.
(4) Test for environmental toxins
I have been astounded by the role of environmental toxins in brain health in the patients I have been working with in the Cognitive Wellness Program. By environmental toxins, I mean heavy metals (especially mercury, aluminum, lead, cadmium), mold toxins (from water-damaged buildings), and chemical toxins such as pesticides and insecticides (sprayed on crops, or eaten in foods), chemicals from plastics, and other industrial organic chemicals.
The reality is that we are all exposed to many of these substances, and the impact on health depends on the dose, the duration of exposure, and especially how well you detox or clear them which is somewhat genetic and also impacted by overall body load of toxins. What this means is that in a family who all live in the same home, eat similarly and are exposed to the same air and environment, you may not see the same symptoms in each person.
A starting place is to complete a “Toxin Exposure Questionnaire” (attached here), to see where exposure may have come from. Tests are available to measure these types of toxins fairly well to determine whether they may be affecting brain function.
(5) Test and correct for deficiencies
Many types of deficiencies can affect the brain: macronutrients (protein and fat), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), hormones and even cholesterol. The good news is that most of these can be proactively tested and assessed to optimize your levels. Here are a few examples of how deficiencies can affect brain and cognition:
- Vitamin B12 deficiency is always the first to come to mind with cognition, as it is essential for nerve function. Deficiency can cause poor cognition, fatigue, dizziness, depression, anxiety, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet and even balance trouble.
- Vitamin D deficiency not only affects the immune system. Low levels can cause significant brain fog, as well as muscle twitches, bone pain, fatigue and low mood.
- Zinc deficiency is also associated with learning and memory deficits, along with affecting immune function, causing hair loss and low appetite.
- Deficiency of estrogen can trigger memory and mood changes in many women, especially at the onset of menopause. Forgetfulness, difficulty finding words and disorientation are common symptoms.
- Very low cholesterol level is also associated with changes in memory, especially when it is lowered aggressively with medication for cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol is important for synapse function, and for neuronal membrane integrity, and when levels are two low it impacts neuron function in the brain.
Again, all of these factors can easily be tested and treated, although it can take time for memory and other symptoms to improve, even after the deficiency has been corrected.
If you are experiencing memory changes, brain fog or are interested in cognitive wellness as you age, please take a look at the list above and start working on the areas you can change – eating a lower-glycemic nutrition plan, regular exercise and increasing your sleep time. Lab testing for deficiencies or toxins is available anytime – we can discuss at your next appointment. Remember that cognitive changes can be reversed and optimized in many cases – we just need to figure out what is affecting your brain.