Brain Fitness...Feed it, Work it!

Brain fitness is every bit important as physical fitness to our long term health.  It takes protection, nutrition and mental exertion to keep our brain fit and functioning.

It has also been shown that physical exercise contributes to a healthy brain as well; keeping the blood flowing to the brain is critical.

Writers like to say that the brain is a muscle and it needs to be worked.  It's not a muscle at all but the analogy is still good. 

The brain is roughly 75% water and is the fattest organ in our body.  It is estimated that the  brain is 60% fat.  OK, I know.  How can the brain be 75% water and 60% fat?  Simple, some of the 75% water content is in the fat.

From an article by Holly McCarthy in Nursing Assistant Central (December 31, 2008) we find some truly amazing facts about the brain.

Who knows for sure but experts say there are about 100 billion neurons in the brain and each neuron has between 1000 and 10,000 synapses.  That's the signaling structure of a neuron.  

There's no pain receptors in the brain so that headache we get occasionally has nothing to do with the brain.

Mental activity causes the brain to make new neurons; at one time med school taught that we were born with all the neurons we would ever have.  Now we know better.

The brain uses 20% of our total oxygen intake, all of which it gets from its blood supply.  If the brain loses blood for as little as 8 to 10 seconds, we lose consciousness.  

Cut off oxygen for 4 to 6 minutes and the brain starts to die and 5 to 10 minutes without oxygen will result in permanent damage.

Every time we recall a memory or have a new thought, a new connection is made in the brain.  Also memories triggered by scent have a stronger emotional connection, and thus appear more intense than other memory triggers.

Now I know why that Aromatics Elixir from Clinique makes my mind wander.

Before continuing, it would be very helpful to take a look at a remarkable DVD course from The Great Courses on Understanding the Brain.

It is a university level course without homework or tests; just great lectures that will provide a foundation for knowing what goes on in that complex organ inside our head and what brain fitness really means.  Click on the Great Courses button below to have a look at "Understanding the Brain" and make it part of your educational library.


How does our Brain Fitness Degrade?

These days, just about anything that causes a disruption in blood flow to the brain or toxic over load in the brain or inflammation in the brain is likely to bring forth an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

The truth is that dementia and Alzheimer's may be the most misdiagnosed diseases of all times.

Since there is no germ, bacteria or virus that has been shown to cause Alzheimer's, where do all those learned diagnoses come from?

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According to Medical Doctors Mark Hyman and Mark Liponis in their book, "UltraPrevention", "Alzheimer's is just a name given to a brain that has become damaged and scarred from inflammation, which has multiple causes".  Follow the link above or the book cover to the right to Amazon.com to order this incredible book.

Click on Alzheimer's disease to navigate to a special page on the disease to see how the medical community arrives at a diagnosis.

Think about circulation.  If blood flow is degraded, the tissues deprived of adequate blood flow start to become inflamed.  Restricted circulation is a likely cause of Alzheimer's symptoms and explains why so many people with atherosclerosis are prone to it.

Then there is exposure to toxins.  Ingestion of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead or PCBs and pesticides would tend to bring on inflammation in the brain as would certain meds including Ritalin and Prozac. 

If the body is not detoxifying as it should or can't keep up with the toxic load imposed upon it, inflammation will be quite severe.   It is significant that both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are linked to detox abnormalities.

Let's not forget all those chronic infections, allergies, trauma, autoimmune conditions, obesity, insulin resistance, oxidative stress, vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition, and mitochondrial damage that have all been shown to cause inflammation.

We live in a very stressful world these days and we know that stress dumps cortisol into the blood stream, and chronic stress keeps a constant flow of cortisol to the blood, which leads to scarring and damaging of blood vessels, including those in the brain. 

The result is a kill off of neurons in the brain's hippocampus, an area crucial for memory and higher intellectual functions.  Sounds like the making of an Alzheimer's diagnosis. 

Remove the cortisol and stress and you get regeneration since the hippocampus is one of the brain structures that can regenerate neurons.

So it follows that any therapies that could block, reduce or reverse the inflammatory process would likely protect against many forms of dementia and reduction in brain fitness.

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Thoughts on Maintaining Brain Fitness

As we previously mentioned, the brain is an organ that consumes a huge amount of oxygen, requires nutrients, glucose and more, all of which must come from its blood supply. 

It follows that nutrition would be a major factor in prolonging our brain fitness.  We mentioned that new thoughts and memories build new connections so emotion would likely be another important factor in brain fitness.

The stress of technology overload and being plugged in 24/7 can take its toll and conversely, physical exercise, sleep and mental stimulation should all be positive factors in keeping up our brain fitness. 

Let's take a deeper look at how to go about protecting and prolonging our mental acuity.

Food for Thought:
Nutrition and Brain Fitness

Most people have had it drummed into their heads by now what foods and dietary habits are bad for the heart.  

Remember, no trans or saturated fats, limited or no processed foods, no fast foods, no high-sugared foods but lots of fresh veggies, fruits, fiber and water.

With brain fitness, when it comes to nutrition, all we have to remember is "what is bad for the heart and cardiovascular system is also bad for the brain. 

Eat for heart health and you will automatically be eating for 
brain health.  Proper eating has the advantage of knocking years off our biological age.

Let's hit the highlights.

1.  At the top of the list is turmeric.  You have undoubtedly seen it in the spice section of your supermarket.  What makes turmeric such a powerful agent for brain fitness is that it contains curcumin, an anti-inflammatory antioxidant that can cross the blood-brain barrier. 

Research indicates that it may help clear the brain of plaques and retard the accumulation of beta amyloids, common in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.  It has also been shown to boost memory and aid in the production of new brain cells.

2.  Go for the nuts, especially walnuts, but almonds and cashews are good too.  They all contain the good mono-unsaturated fats and are precursors to serotonin; a neurotransmitter linked to mental alertness.  Walnuts are especially rich in DHA omega-3 fats as well as phytosterols and antioxidants.  Of note is that DHA has been found to promote brain healing.

3.  Eat mo' fish but don't over indulge in the big fish like swordfish and tuna; we don't want to pick up a load of mercury while trying to help our brain.  The big deal with fish is the omega-3 fatty acid...a great way to clear arteries and reduce systemic inflammation. 

In addition to fish, crabs should be on the menu as well.  They contain the amino acid phenylalanine which helps with production of a number of brain fitness chemicals including dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and and thyroid hormone.

4.  Get oiled with heart healthy olive oil (extra virgin, cold pressed), nut oils, fish oils; all contain monounsaturated fats (the good fats).  While not oils, we could also add avocados and flaxseed to this category.

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5.  Juice it up with tomato juice, pulpy orange juice, grape juice...here we mean real juice, not the sugared-up cocktail or party juice punches.  Even so, it is a good idea to monitor your sugar intake from the natural juices; they carry a lot sugar so don't overdo it.

Tomato juice is highly recommended for its folate and lycopene plus other nutrients it contains that help keep the arteries healthy.

6.  Don't forget the beans...especially soybeans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans) lentils and the like; good source of vegetable protein, fiber and healthy fats.  The magnesium content of beans helps the receptors of your brain cells thus speeding the transmission of signals.  It also tends to relax the blood vessels which increases more blood flow to the brain.

7.  Berries, especially blueberries, have antioxidants and phytochemicals that have been positively linked to learning, thinking and memory.  In addition, they contain less fructose than most other fruits.

8.  Coconut oil is proving itself to be a powerhouse of benefits for brain fitness, most likely due to its lauric acid content.  Numerous studies link it to dramatic improvements in brain function and memory improvement in Alzheimer's patients.  Natural virgin coconut oil is widely available in most supermarkets, health food stores or just click the Live SuperFoods coconut banner above on the left.

Finally, since our commercial food supply isn't what it used to be, supplementation for both brain and heart health is important.

High ORAC fruit for good brain nutrition

This would include an omega-3 (molecular distilled, pharmaceutical grade), an antioxidant, folate, vitamins B6 and B12, an enzyme known as Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and the fatty acid Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) and the amino acid L-Carnitine.  Both of the latter two have been shown to improve cognitive function.

And speaking of antioxidants, the brain absolutely needs to be cleared of free radicals.  The two photos show some of the highest Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC) fruit and vegetables one can buy.  If you can't eat all that good fresh produce, then supplement with a good antioxidant.

High ORAC vegetables for good brain nutrition

The folate or folic acid will help control levels of homocysteine, an indicator of inflammation somewhere in the system.

Regarding B12, John Linenbaum in the Department of Medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center estimated that 10-20% of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have a functional B12 deficiency.  Don't skip the vitamins.

Too many people skip breakfast.  Start the day with breakfast, don't skip it.  A high protein breakfast will raise serotonin levels resulting in heightened alertness and mental acuity.

One more worth mentioning is to drink a glass of red wine daily to protect from oxidative stress.  The good stuff in red wine is reservatrol, a flavonoid that appears to decrease the age of DNA in the cells power plant, the mitochondria. 

Don't drink the wine if you tend to have alcohol sensitivities or issues with alcoholism.  Instead, get your reservatol by eating red grapes, don't peel them, eat the skin.

Sleep and Brain Fitness

The importance of sleep cannot be overestimated when it comes to learning, memory retention and general brain fitness.  While we are sleeping, the brain is at work consolidating and filing all the memories of the day.

Lack of sleep will interfere with the process and prevent the creation of new memories and thus impair our recall of certain things we learned. 

Most people dream about 1 or 2 hours a night in repetitive stages of sleep.  On average we have 4 to 7 dream stages a night with the deepest occurring during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. 

There are several pages in this site on sleeping which can be accessed at Sleep.

There is a large body of research on sleep and brain fitness.  One important finding is that the brain keeps an accounting of sleep. 

Dr. William C. Dement, a Stanford University sleep expert, says that we need one hour of sleep for every two hours we're awake.  If we don't give the brain its eight hours, it keeps tabs and starts building a sleep debt that will have to be paid, one way or another.

Remember those "all-nighters" spent cramming for final exams.  Science tells us they are actually counterproductive and we would be better served by getting a good night’s sleep.  We need to let our brain file all the facts and figures where they belong. 

Let the brain take care of the memory task in its own way; we can't consciously do it ourselves.  Good sleep will vastly improve our recall efficiency and make it less likely to blank out when we see those test questions.

Physical Fitness and Brain Fitness

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Think about what exercise and staying physically fit does for us.  It gets the heart pumping, the blood flowing, expands the blood vessels, improves breathing, and builds muscle and increases bone density. 

Since the brain thrives on a good oxygenated blood supply, it follows that anything that improves cardiovascular performance has to be beneficial to our brain fitness or mental acuity. 

A huge body of research validates that exercise improves mental creativity, reaction time, memory retention and forestalls some of those conditions that cause the brain to age; arterial, memory or chemical disorders for example.

The good news is that it doesn’t take hours and hours of exercise to keep our brain fitness at its peak.  A University of Illinois study showed that sedentary, inactive people improved their memories and multitasking skills by 15% after nothing more than participating in a walking program.

Another study done in London at Middlesex University demonstrated that test subjects scored higher on creativity tests after engaging in just 25 minutes of aerobic exercise. 

So instead of cramming all night for the final exam, it appears that a full night’s sleep and jogging to the final exam may significantly improve your score.

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Stress and Brain Fitness

We know the damaging effects of stress on our cardiovascular and immune system, thus by extension, stress is a 
killer of our brain function as well.  Brain fitness absolutely depends on avoiding stress in our life.

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We have covered the effects of stress in several pages which can be accessed by navigating to Stress and Health, but the subject is so important, we will recap its high points here.

Decrease stress! chronic, long term stress damages both the immune and cardiovascular system and causes the death of neurons in the brain.

How we interpret and experience the world emotionally has a major effect on our physical and mental health. 

The problem is not the dead battery on a cold morning; it's how we respond to it.  The trick is to learn how to harness emotions to protect our health, not degrade it.

Ever tried gardening?

Caregivers that seem to know what they are talking about tell us that a good way to relieve stress is to get your hands in the dirt.  Right, grow a garden, watch new life emerge from the ground and then enjoy the fruits of your labor by dining on those fresh vegetables. 

If you don't have space in the yard for a garden, consider something like the mushroom kits or herb kits shown in the banners to the right and below.  It works, I've tried it.

Back to the Science.

The physiology is complex.  When we are faced with a true threat, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in.  This is the part of the nervous system under the control of the hypothalamus; the part of the brain that prepares us for "fight or flight."
 
The hypothalamus will cause the release of corticotropic hormones, specifically, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a hormone released from the pituitary gland.
 
The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, then release cortisol and catacholamines (dopamine and epinephrine).  It follows a definite pattern: release of ACTH first, then cortisol then the catacholamines.

<p>When the threat is gone, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over to bring about a state of rest and relaxation. 

The parasympathetic system is part of the nervous system also under the control of the hypothalamus.  Its function is to restore homeostasis (balance).

The problem isn't the system response; the problem is chronic, on-going, long term stress.  It damages the cardiovascular system and suppresses the ability of the immune system to fight disease. 

Continuous (chronic) activation of the system means that it never goes back to its state of rest and relaxation or homeostasis.

Cortisol causes reduction in the immune system because, if we are facing the tiger, the body doesn't care about a virus, it cares about surviving a tiger attack. 

It also decreases the DNA repair mechanism since we don't need that either if we're about to become the tiger's lunch, so stress shuts it down.

Chronic stress also causes an increase in autoimmune diseases where the immune system goes awry and attacks its own body. 

Take care of your heart and your brain will thank you.

Remember we said what harms the cardiovascular system, harms the brain?

In the Cardiovascular System chronic stress causes both ischemic and non-ischemic damage to the heart.

Non-ischemic damage to the heart includes direct damage to the heart muscle itself through high levels of catacholamine and release of epinephrine from the adrenals. 

Ischemic damage is the blockage of blood vessels.  If vessels to the heart are blocked, we have a heart attack.  Cortisol and epinephrine cause scarring in vessel walls causing plaque to build up at the site to repair the damage. 

What we have is the making of a clot in the vessel. Bingo...sooner or later...heart attack.

The systemic stress response was designed to start and stop, never to be ongoing. 

OK, all of that was foundation building, so what about stress and brain fitness?

Chronically high levels of cortisol can induce neuron death in the hippocampus!  Period!

Golgi-stained neurons in hippocampus, author MethoxyRoxy, 14 Oct. 2005

The incredible plastic brain.

Our most plastic area of the brain is the hippocampus and it is most sensitive to high levels of cortisol.  Oops, what's plasticity?

It's just a neurologists word that means that certain areas of the brain, like the hippocampus, can create new neuron pathways in response to experiences; in effect, repair itself.  Not too complicated, right?

Photo: Neurons in the hippocampus; the more, the better

OK, because the hippocampus has a large number of cortisol receptors, when binding occurs, it sets off a cascade that results in neuron death and although the hippocampus has mitosis (creates new neuron cells) through life, it does not replace neurons killed under these circumstances.

In fact, cortisol kills so many hippocampal neurons; you can see the degeneration (atrophy) in an MRI.

Adults that were abused as children show higher levels of hippcampal atrophy.  Long-term depressive illness and untreated long-term grief both cause chronic activation of the system. 

Also post traumatic stress disorder has been shown to cause hippocampal degeneration.

One of the big mysteries however in neurology is that not every person experiencing these things experience hippocampal atrophy.
 

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It is an area of ongoing research but it seems logical that some people are better equipped emotionally to handle abuse, grief, sadness or whatever else bad comes their way and are able to avoid the chronic stress response and handle it as an acute response.

Here it is in a nutshell.  We are born with certain genetic dispositions and we also experience stresses in life.  It is just part of our environment. 

Perception and coping skills help us deal with these stresses.  These coping skills lead to a certain psychological state that influences the body; since it is how we <b>perceive</b> the event.

We have a brain of incredible plasticity and we can retrain the system to learn new habits about how reality is perceived.  We can improve our brain fitness by choosing how we respond; by resetting our emotional thermostat which will lead to a healthier body response. 

We need to learn how to respond to stress and develop new coping skills.  Don't throw up here, but look for the silver lining; bad things happen for a reason.  Maybe that dead battery on that cold morning kept you out of a fatal accident.  Look to your higher power and say "thank you".

Happy Thoughts

What a pretty, happy smile

Falling back once again on university research, decades of research indicate that good, healthy emotions play a big role in brain fitness and mental acuity and that spending just 10 minutes a day focusing on feelings of love and kindness can make us smarter as well as happier.

Photo: No stress here!  A Happy Brain under Construction

The W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has conducted ten years worth of research which showed that choosing specific thoughts and emotions can permanently change the working of the brain.

When participants in the long-term study practiced feeling love and compassion, their brains went into action...connecting and building new circuitry fairly rapidly.

Drs. Oz and Roizen in their book, "YOU, the Owner’s Manual", enforce that by recommending taking a mental vacation or daydreaming pleasant thoughts. 

They use Hawaii as the example...think of yourself on a beautiful beach, cool drink in one hand, your favorite novel in the other, basking in the view and sea breezes.

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If Hawaii isn't your thing, then daydream about whatever flips your switch.  Their position is that daydreaming keeps the mind flexible and exercises that part of the brain that controls imagination and moves it out of its normal thought processes.

Maximizing Brain Fitness for Life

It has been proven that mental exertion or even routine mental exercises such as reading, puzzles, sudoku, cryptograms, crosswords, and the like will cause new brain circuits to form.   

In other words, the human brain can be rewired by the mental exertion required in learning new skills; learning to play the piano or another instrument, taking a course, improving a talent or any activity that will require thought and concentration.

These brain fitness workouts induce the production of a growth protein that contributes to the formation of new neurons while keeping existing neurons strong. 

The more neurons we have, the more signaling pathways there are in our brain and thus we beef up our intellectual ability, endurance and ingenuity. 

The building of new neural connections is akin to building muscle tissue from physical exertion.

With physical exercise, all we need is 30 minutes a day.  Similarly, with mental exercise we can see results with less than an hour a day in mental activities. 

Cognitive exercise can take just about any form which means they could be done anywhere, anytime; at work, at home, during social activities, while shopping, whatever. 

There are also brain fitness training programs online that are, in effect, workout gymnasiums for the brain.  One is "MyBrainTrainer" which is available on an annual subscription basis (user id and password) at a very reasonable price. 

You can access their website, take a free brain test and read all about how they can vastly improve your mental performance by clicking on MyBrainTrainer.

There are numerous books on Brain Fitness. One, authored by Dr. Robert Goldman is:

Brain Fitness: Anti-Aging to Fight Alzheimer's Disease, Supercharge Your Memory, Sharpen Your Intelligence, De-Stress Your Mind, Control Mood Swings, and Much More
.
Another one is:

The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain

It is authored by Dr. Gene D. Cohen, MD.

A third one is "Memory and Mental Acuity" by Reginald B. Cherry, MD. It may be out of print but used copies may be available at Amazon. Dr. Cherry's book is a treatise on natural ways to improve mental acuity through diet and supplements.



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