As our populations around the world are aging, and life expectancy is increasing, scientists are brainstorming on how to avoid mass cases of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. ILSI Europe (International Life Sciences Institute) got together in Spain for the 3rd Symposium on “Nutrition for the Ageing Brain: Moving Towards Clinical Applications”, held in August 2018.
They looked at how diet affects brain health, not just individual nutrients, although they did discuss some combinations of individual nutrients. Here we’ll talk about some of these brain nutrition facts and theories.
A recap was published on ScienceDirect recently and isn’t even in the print publication it’s intended for yet (Sept. 2020 issue of Ageing Research Reviews by Flanagan et. al, 2020). I found it fascinating, although with a lot of technical jargon, so I’d like to bring you the simplified highlights here.
Whole Diet As A Factor
Previously, a lot of studies have been done on individual nutrients or supplements. The symposium wanted to take a more macro view on nutrients and diet and combinations of nutrients and see if certain combinations are greater as a sum of its parts than individually. They looked at studies showing low levels of combinations of certain nutrients created a higher long-term risk of dementia in healthy older adults.
Specifically, fatty acids, vitamins A, E, and D, and carotenoids together are shown to reduce the long-term risk of dementia in healthy older adults. But there are more. So they have determined that multi-nutrient approaches and diet and some lifestyle factors like exercise may be the focus for the future. I’ll go into individual nutrients incorporated into a whole diet they deemed as crucial for brain health below.
Mediterranean Diet, For One
Most studies on diet have been with the Mediterranean Diet, the traditional diet enjoyed in Mediterranean countries. It’s high in vegetables and olive oil and medium to low on meats. It’s mostly been researched for heart health and cancer prevention but it’s now being touted as a brain health diet, too.
Kris Gunnars of Healthline (2018) has a pretty good article outlining what to eat or not on the Mediterranean diet. It’s pretty simple, really.
Eat: Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil liberally. Eat poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt in moderation. Eat red meat only rarely. And Don’t Eat: Sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils, or other highly processed foods.
After multiple studies, the Mediterranean style diet with extra virgin olive oil as the primary fat shows it does indeed improve cognitive function and a decreased risk for dementia (Flanagan, 2020). The authors encourage more studies to be done on different factors such as what time of day participants ate, drank liquids, exercise, and see what various factors might come into play. It’s quite encouraging though.
Multiple Nutrient Studies: Focusing In
On the idea of multiple nutrients working together for cognitive health, several studies have been done on specific nutrients. One had participants take vitamins A, E, and D, fatty acids, and carotenoids and showed these nutrients related to a long-term lower risk of dementia. In fact, they noticed a pattern of low levels of vitamin D, carotenoids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids along with high levels of saturated fats increased the risk of dementia 3.7 fold higher (Flanagan et. al, 2020). Wow!
In another study, Omega-3 fatty acids were studied in conjunction with B vitamins on brain health. It seems that Omega-3 modulated the impact of B vitamin treatment as far as slowing brain atrophy.
Scientists believe that B vitamins might depend on certain other nutrients (like Omega-3’s) and that Omega-3’s may depend on levels of B vitamins.
It is suggested that having higher levels of Omega-3’s and B-complex vitamins at the same time could be critical for preventing cognitive decline, according to Flanagan et. al. Hence the trend toward combinations of nutrients. And another study they noted is called the LipiDiDiet used a combined supplement of 11 nutrients linked to brain health: uridine monophosphate, choline, phospholipids, EPA, DHA, vitamins E, C, B6, B9, B12, and Selenium.
They had 311 adults with prodromal Alzheimer’s disease (AD) take this combination for two years. They found significant benefits of cognitive performance and everyday function. And resulted in markedly reduced brain atrophy.
All of these findings are promising but scientists still need to figure out what nutrients in combination with others might help people with dementia or AD and depending on what stage of the disease they are in. Maybe some day they will have more answers. But we know we’re on the right track with many of the supplements I’ve featured here on mywellbrain.
Reducing Inflammation with Diet and Lifestyle
Inflammation in the body is a huge factor in many chronic illnesses like diabetes, arthritis, dementia, AD, heart problems, and many others. Oxidative stress and inflammation are believed to have a lot to do with brain aging. Anti-oxidant foods (and supplements) can help keep this from happening or happening prematurely. Seeds, nuts, and whole grains are loaded with anti-oxidants so eating primarily a plant-based diet seems like a great idea.
I am a carnivore. I do like meat but I just don’t eat it in excess. That seems to be one of the things the Symposium agreed on as the result of many of these studies. Lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, nuts and a little meat (if you like meat) can reduce inflammation and in turn, help prevent cognitive decline.
Related Article: Does Gluten Cause Inflammation?
Microbiome – Your Gut and Second Brain
Another topic the Symposium delved into was prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. So much has been discovered about the gut and how important it is for brain health too. One of the largest nerves in the body is the vagus nerve, going between the gut and brain.
The gut and brain actually communicate. In fact, the gut even produces the neurotransmitter GABA. And there are 500 million neurons in the gut alone which communicate with the brain and nervous system.
Probiotics are what most of us know about and have seen and used. They add in the good bacteria to help our gut work better. Prebiotics are food for the probiotics. They help the good bacteria multiply and thrive. Prebiotics are even starting to gain traction for treating some mental illnesses, according to Flanagan et. al, 2020.
As the review explained, postbiotics are the result of probiotics doing their job, the products produced by the action of the probiotics. This area is just being explored right now as so much interest in the implications of the gut and brain connection continues to be explored. There’s even a subgroup of probiotics called ‘psychobiotics’. But the message is clear. You need probiotics at a minimum and maybe even prebiotics to help protect your brain and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. More research is being called for and it will continue.
Related Article: What is the Gut and Brain Connection?
Here’s something very interesting. They found that the brain’s ability to metabolize glucose or lack thereof or insulin resistance in older people is a pre-symptomatic problem and puts people with this issue at higher risk for AD. So the brain isn’t getting the energy it needs and can’t use glucose as well as it used to.
What’s Really interesting about this is that people’s brains with that issue can use ketones for energy. Ketones are produced when the body goes into ketosis, usually from simply drinking or ingesting medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oil). It’s really just purified coconut oil but it starts helping the body use fat for energy instead of sugar. I use MCT oil by putting about a tablespoon in my first cup of coffee in the morning.
Believe it or not, PET imaging has shown that people’s brains with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or AD showed MCT reduces the brain energy gap in direct proportion to the ketones in their plasma. And cognitive results are greater with higher ketones in the body.
The researchers feel that if this energy issue isn’t addressed in people with MCI or AD, no other drug intervention will likely help. That’s how important it is.
If you’re worried about adding fat to your diet, don’t. I found my cholesterol levels improved greatly after using MCT oil for a few months. Good cholesterol went up and bad cholesterol went down. 🙂 Brain Octane is an excellent MCT Oil. See the review through the link below. I’ll also include a link to one at Amazon:
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Related Article: Brain Octane Oil Review
Where We Are Now
We’ve seen how multiple factors come into play in our diets and even supplements. Omega-3’s and B-complex together, MCT oil, vitamins A, D3, E, C, selenium, choline, and carotenoids are all important for brain health.
The Mediterranean diet is a great diet, especially with extra virgin olive oil included. There are a lot of health benefits of the Mediterranean diet so even if you just increase the amount of vegetables you eat and cut down on red meat, you’ll be on the right track, for sure.
I hope you learned some things about brain health and diet. If you have any questions or comments about this topic, please leave them in the Comments section below. Thank you for reading!
Flanagan, E. et. al. (2020). Nutrition and the ageing brain: Moving towards clinical applications. ScienceDirect. Retrieved June 26, 2020 from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2020.101079
Gunnars, K. (2018). Mediterranean Diet 101:A Meal Plan and Beginner’s Guide. healthline. Retrieved June 26, 2020 from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mediterranean-diet-meal-plan