Protect Your Brain – The Latest On Dietary Compounds And Brain Health
We all wish to maintain our mental clarity, acuity and memory as we get older. For many, it seems to be one of the most important pieces of our health, and one that we may take for granted until we start to notice some slips.
These undesired changes in brain function might be related to our lifestyle as we age, illnesses or infections like COVID-19, gut health and other factors.
Functional Medicine takes a deep dive to uncover the root causes of brain symptoms for each individual and uses many nutrition and lifestyle tools to help restore brain health and even to prevent decline in the first place.
Today’s blog takes a look at the latest research on compounds that support brain health. We’ll cover recent research on CoQ10, polyphenols and apples (yes!) and provide some simple ways to get the benefits of these on a daily basis.
In this article you will learn more about:
- Brain health and aging
- The connection with COVID-19
- The importance of the gut-brain axis
- Dietary compounds to support brain health
Brain Health And Aging
It was once thought that not much development happened after the brain matured as we reached adulthood. Conventional medicine didn’t see or recommend anything we could do to influence or change the trajectory of our brain function.
Ideas about supporting brain health through adulthood and aging with lifestyle measures were more on the fringe of medicine.
Now we know that the brain doesn’t stop developing! Research now supports lifestyle tools to address brain function and continued growth.
The brain positively responds to movement, our thoughts, skill development, what we eat, and so many other factors. We have a word for this: neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the capacity of neurons and the networks in the brain to respond and change in response to new information, stimulus and conditions. As we get older, neuroplasticity becomes increasingly important.
Many of us still think that declining brain health is a normal part of aging. We expect to have “senior movements” where we can’t find our keys or remember what we walked into the other room for.
These complaints are common, meaning they happen to a lot of people, but aren’t a physiological normal part of aging. In fact, if you are experiencing memory loss, brain fog and have a hard time using your brain to think through a problem or make decisions, that is likely a sign pointing toward a deeper imbalance.
And while, yes, brains do change some with age, much of our brain health and function, including neuroplasticity, is within our control.
Lifestyle factors including diet, movement, sleep and stress management are foundational tools that support prevention, healthy aging and even support and reverse cognitive decline.
COVID-19 and Your Brain
We typically think of COVID-19 as a respiratory disease, but there is mounting evidence that it affects many organ systems, including the brain.
Those with COVID-19 may experience neurological symptoms, including loss of taste or smell, memory loss, tingling toes, headaches, decreased focus and other neurological symptoms.
These might show up with active COVID-19-infection or with post-COVID syndrome. Seizures or strokes are more often associated with severe COVID-19 disease.
National Institutes of Health researchers examined the brains of 19 people that died from complications of severe COVID-19 disease. These autopsies suggest that neurological symptoms might be related to widespread inflammation in the body that causes blood vessel injury. They suggest that the brain damage may have been due to the body’s response to the infection, not necessarily the infection itself.
This same research looked for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the brain itself, but didn’t find it. A different autopsy study found the virus in neurons in the cerebral cortex. This study looked at both mouse brains and three human brains and suggests that the coronavirus affects the central nervous system directly, including the brain and spinal cord.
Obviously, there is a lot more to learn about the mechanisms behind how SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 affect the brain. From a Functional Medicine perspective, however, it only makes sense that the same lifestyle tools we use to prevent brain decline with aging may also be important for creating resiliency to viral infections.
We will talk about some of the specific foods and supplements shortly, but first it’s important to understand why what we eat is so important for brain health and the gut-brain axis helps to explain why.
Everything in the body is connected. Early understandings of the brain suggested that the brain was the control center of the body, affecting everything from the top down. Now we know that it’s a two way street. The brain affects the body and the body affects the brain.
A major example of bidirectional connection is the gut-brain axis. The brain influences the digestive system, but the gut and microbiome also greatly influence brain health. For example, 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut, even though it has an important effect in the brain.
When the microbiome is out of balance or digestion function is compromised, some might experience digestive systems, but others might experience brain symptoms. When we restore gut health, the brain receives the anti-inflammatory and restorative benefits.
Therefore, it makes sense that specific dietary compounds show positive impacts in the brain. Let’s talk about some of the latest research.
Dietary Compounds For Brain Health
Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, is an important antioxidant compound associated with the mitochondria of cells. We know that mitochondria are incredibly important for energy, anti-aging and brain function. CoQ10 may decline with age and decrease the body’s ability to protect itself from the effects of inflammation and free radical damage.
CoQ10 is naturally found in the diet with the highest concentrations coming from organ and muscle meats. Plant foods contain lower levels and still may be an important source if you are including a lot of plants such as parsley, broccoli, sweet potato, avocado, berries and extra virgin olive oil in your Paleo diet. CoQ10 is also available in supplemental form.
In a recent clinical study, 69 participants with mild cognitive impairment, a risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, received either 200 mg of CoQ10 or placebo.
The study followed participants for one year of supplementation and showed that those receiving CoQ10 had higher levels of this antioxidant in their blood, and the levels were higher in males. These men showed improved cerebral vasoreactivity, meaning the response of the blood vessels in the brain, along with reduced inflammation. This study suggests that CoQ10 may be a possible complement to conventional treatment for cognitive impairment.
Pro Tip: If you aren’t eating heart and liver on a regular basis, you might need a supplemental dosage of CoQ10 to see therapeutic effects. CoQ10 Plus , Neuro Sustain and Liposomal CoQ10 PQQ are quality options to consider.
Polyphenols are a group of naturally occurring compounds in plant foods with anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. Polyphenols include flavonoids such as catechins in green tea and quercetin found in onions and other produce. Polyphenols also include other bioactive compounds, considered non-flavonoids, such as curcumin from turmeric, resveratrol from grapes and capsaicinoids in hot peppers.
When it comes to brain health, polyphenols have been shown to:
- Reduce neuroinflammation
- Improve memory, learning and cognition
- Protect against beta-amyloid plaque formation (seen in Alzheimer’s disease)
- Promote nerve growth
Polyphenols are also considered prebiotics (link to prebiotic article), because they provide a food source to beneficial bacteria. These bacteria produce short chain fatty acids, which modulate the gut barrier, but also have effects on the brain via the gut-brain axis.
Pro tip: Consume polyphenol-rich plant foods every day. Good sources include: blueberries, nettles, rosemary, cacao, blackberries, currants, cherries, pomegranates, turmeric, tea and apples. (More on apples below!) For a boost consider adding a scoop of Exceed Greens + Reds to your daily routine.
Recent research suggests that certain phytochemicals (plant chemicals) found in apples stimulate the growth of new brain cells, which could turn out to be helpful for neurodegenerative disease.
Flavonoids, a subgroup of polyphenols, are found in apples and include quercetin which is the most abundant flavonoid found in the apple peel. 3,5-dihydroxybenzoic acid, or DHBA, found in the flesh of the apple was also studied.
In a series of experiments using stem cells and mice, researchers showed that quercetin helped new neurons to grow while protecting existing neurons. High doses of quercetin or DHBA encouraged stem cells to multiply in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory. The findings were comparable to how exercise stimulates neurogenesis.
Don’t succumb to the thought that a decline in brain health is inevitable with age. Rather, much of what you are doing now with your daily lifestyle is setting the stage for your future brain and its ability to be resilient. Optimize your brain health with good sleep, exercise, stress management and some of the diet and supplement strategies discussed here. Modify your lifestyle to improve plasticity!