Updated: 5 days ago
June is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, so I thought it would be a good time to talk about brain health. Chances are you know someone who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or other cognitive decline. It is a very stressful time for the caregiver, family members, and the person suffering with cognitive impairment. Frustration, anxiety, and fear can strain the relationships among the caregiver, family members, and patient.
As you watch your loved one decline, the question arises: are there ways to prevent dementia and preserve brain health?
Some of the latest research has found a connection between brain health and gut health. There is a strong brain-gut connection that affects many aspects of our health, including our brain and cognitive health. The types of bacteria growing in our gut may be related to cognitive decline. Certain bacterial families like Proteobacteria and Bacteroidetes are increased in the gut of Alzheimer's patients and Firmicutes and Actinobacteria are decreased. Other researchers have found that many of the bacterial species that flourish in the guts of Alzheimer’s patients can cause intestinal permeability or “leaky gut” and are pro-inflammatory. Therefore, bacterial lipopolysaccharides (toxins) can leak out of the gut and circulate in the body leading to systemic inflammation (even in the brain).
Sounds a little scary. So, how can we preserve our gut health and reduce systemic inflammation? By the foods we eat, of course. The types of foods we eat can have a profound effect on our gut health, which leads to improvements in our overall health. The Western-Dietary Pattern or Standard American Diet includes many processed or ultra-processed foods, fast foods, high-sugar foods, high Omega-6 fatty acids, low fruit and vegetable intake, and many artificial colors, sweeteners, and fillers. When put like that, it doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? But when you talk about cookies, chips, crackers, milk shakes, ice cream, burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, and microwave meals…it sounds like…well…the Standard American Diet.
This way of eating can lead to gut microbe dysbiosis – so the wrong kinds of bacteria are growing rapidly in your gut, or the right kinds of bacteria are growing rapidly in the wrong parts of the intestine (or other organs – like the brain, liver, gallbladder, etc.). It can also lead to an increase in gut permeability (“leaky gut”) and larger molecules like proteins or those microbial by-products (lipopolysaccharides) can escape and wreak havoc in your body. This can lead to skin rashes, brain-fog, aches and pains, bloating, and cognitive decline.
Image: Romanenko M, Kholin V, Koliada A, Vaiserman A. Nutrition, Gut Microbiota, and Alzheimer's Disease. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 5;12:712673. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.712673. PMID: 34421687; PMCID: PMC8374099.
However, healthy eating patterns including lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats, and fermented foods lead to cognitive improvement in patients with mild dementia. So, like I have been saying, the foods you use to fuel your body and your gut microbiome are important for your overall health and wellness, especially long-term. Having a plant-based eating plan can protect your brain from cognitive decline, reduce blood pressure, and reverse metabolic issues like diabetes.
What do I mean by plant-based? Does that mean you have to become a vegetarian or vegan? No, but reducing your intake of animal meats can help. So, where do you get your protein? Plant-based sources like quinoa, legumes, beans, peas, soy, nuts, and seeds. Substituting just one meal with plant-based protein can provide significant benefits to your health.
Another study looked at exercise and brain health. Regular aerobic exercises have been shown to boost blood flow to your brain and increase the size of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for verbal memory and learning). One study showed that just a few minutes (7-9 minutes) per day of vigorous activity improved memory, planning, and organizational skills in middle-aged adults. Weight-training (just one to two times per week) has also been shown to prevent shrinkage of the hippocampus in older adults. Yoga and Tai Chi have also been beneficial to prevent cognitive decline.
Stress management is another area to address to reduce the risk for dementia later in life. Research as shown that certain psychosocial stressors like divorce, limited social connections, death of a loved one, or a relative with mental illness can increase the risk for dementia in the future. Life events that occur long before “old age” can still impact a person’s risk for developing dementia later. So, managing your stress now is important for your cognitive health later.
Of course, avoiding “risky” substances like tobacco, alcohol, and some medications can also improve your brain health and lower your risk for dementia. Smoking can increase oxidative stress and free radicals in the body which can damage your cells (including those in the brain). Studies have shown that there is a significant relationship between smoking and cognitive decline. However, those who quit smoking could reduce their risk for cognitive decline to that of a non-smoker.
High alcohol consumption was linked to cognitive decline, but light to moderate drinking can improve brain health. Of course, the studies do not specifically define what is “light to moderate”, but in general one to two alcoholic beverages per day is considered light to moderate. Many of the studies that found improvement in brain health were specific to wine.
There have also been studies linking the use of a class of medications called benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc.) to an increased risk in cognitive decline in the elderly. These medications are used to treat anxiety and are on the BEERS List of potentially harmful drugs in the elderly. Since anxiety is also related to gut health, improving your gut microbiome may decrease the use of these medications.
Adequate sleep is another important lifestyle tool to reduce the risk for cognitive decline. Sleep helps to restore the neurons in the brain, prevent neuronal damage, and promote synaptic connections and learning. Poor quality sleep and sleep disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, and movement disorders are linked with higher cognitive impairment, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and depression.
All these lifestyle factors can have a profound effect on overall health and reduce the risk for cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
Are you ready to PIVOT to health and wellness?
Duplantier SC, et al. A critical review of the study of neuroprotective diets to reduce cognitive decline. Nutrients. 2021; doi:10.3390/nu13072264.
Guzman-Martinez L, et al. New frontiers in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Journal of Alzheimer's disease. 2021; doi:10.3233/JAD-201059.
He Y, Li B, Sun D, Chen S. Gut Microbiota: Implications in Alzheimer's Disease. J Clin Med. 2020 Jun 29;9(7):2042. doi: 10.3390/jcm9072042. PMID: 32610630; PMCID: PMC7409059.
Marizzoni, Moira et al. ‘Short-Chain Fatty Acids and Lipopolysaccharide as Mediators Between Gut Dysbiosis and Amyloid Pathology in Alzheimer’s Disease’. 1 Jan. 2020 : 683 – 697.
Mitchell JJ, Blodgett JM, Chastin SF, et al Exploring the associations of daily movement behaviours and mid-life cognition: a compositional analysis of the 1970 British Cohort Study J Epidemiol Community Health 2023;77:189-195.
Romanenko M, Kholin V, Koliada A, Vaiserman A. Nutrition, Gut Microbiota, and Alzheimer's Disease. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 5;12:712673. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.712673. PMID: 34421687; PMCID: PMC8374099.
Yadav P, Lee YH, Panday H, Kant S, Bajwa N, Parashar R, Jha SK, Jha NK, Nand P, Lee SS, Jha AK. Implications of Microorganisms in Alzheimer's Disease. Curr Issues Mol Biol. 2022 Sep 30;44(10):4584-4615. doi: 10.3390/cimb44100314. PMID: 36286029; PMCID: PMC9600878.
Zhong G, Wang Y, Zhang Y, Guo JJ, Zhao Y. Smoking is associated with an increased risk of dementia: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies with investigation of potential effect modifiers. PLoS One. 2015 Mar 12;10(3):e0118333. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118333. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2015;10(4):e0126169. PMID: 25763939; PMCID: PMC4357455.