By Dr. Mercola
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans suffer with Alzheimer’s disease and 1 of every 3 seniors dies with some form of dementia.1 Families may spend over $5,000 each year caring for a loved one, and it costs the U.S. $216 billion a year for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
However, feeding your brain the right food isn’t just about preventing a disease in the future. Giving your brain the fuel it needs to function optimally may also improve your current cognitive function and creativity, making you more productive at work and at home.
Your brain needs the right fuel to nourish neurons, boost production of neurotransmitters and protect against damage and degeneration.
Unfortunately, some popular nutritional fads may have placed you at greater risk for damage to your neurons, without the additional heart health benefits and proponents of these dietary changes promised.
You may make a significant difference in your overall health and reduce your risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease when you purposefully include the foods your brain needs to function and detoxify.
Fuel Important to Your Brain
There are two types of fuel your body and brain can use to convert into energy. Either metabolized carbohydrates or fats may supply your brain and body with the energy it requires to survive.
Although your brain can use both, there is evidence to suggest that the metabolic product of fats, or ketones, will help restore and renew neurons, even after damage has started.
A primary source of these ketones are medium chain triglycerides (MCT). These triglycerides are not processed by the body in the same way as long-chain triglycerides. Usually, a fat is mixed with bile from your gallbladder before it is broken down in your intestines.
MCTs are digested like carbohydrates, entering your bloodstream more quickly but without the release of insulin associated with carbohydrates. Besides MCT oil, which is my preference, coconut oil has the highest percentage of MCTs, followed by palm oil and grass-fed, organic dairy products.
While ketones from the breakdown of MCT may provide an excellent fuel for your brain, some areas of your brain require glucose for fuel. Fortunately, your body can turn amino acids, the building blocks of protein, into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis.2
Your liver can also create glucose from glycerol found in stored triglycerides.3 In this way the part of your brain that requires glucose receives a steady supply, even when your carbohydrate intake is low.
Fats and proteins are essential to your survival but your body could happily do without non-fiber carbohydrates. The only carbs you really need are fresh vegetables, which are a great source of gut- and health-promoting fiber.
Low Fat Fad May Have Contributed to a Dramatic Rise in Dementia
There have been few formal studies evaluating the efficacy of ketones on the prevention or treatment of Alzheimer’s. Since the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s becomes resistant to insulin and is unable to use glucose for energy, some scientists are calling the disease type 3 diabetes.4
Nutritional ketosis has had modest beneficial effects on cognitive outcomes in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.5
Researchers have found a shared mechanism of pathogenesis between people suffering from metabolic syndrome and Alzheimer’s.6 Individuals with metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and the reverse is also true.7
Individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s also share a characteristic trait of those with epilepsy, as their brains are more electrically excitable, leading to seizure activity.8
Emerging evidence reveals a co-morbidity with epilepsy — so much so, in fact, that researchers recommend more clinical investigation to improve early recognition when you suffer a seizure.
During one study, researchers found individuals with Alzheimer’s who were treated with an MCT supplement for 90 days experienced significant improvement in their cognitive function compared to those in the control group.9 One theory of how ketones are effective for brain fuel is how they affect reactive oxygen species (ROS).
A byproduct of cellular metabolism, ROS has a single electron. This makes them highly reactive and a contributor to aging, neurodegeneration and stroke. The theory is that ketones are able to reduce the number of ROS and the resulting inflammation in your brain, thus reducing the damage to your neurons.10,11
By reducing the number of healthy fats you eat, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets can essentially starve your brain cells, prevent effective detoxification and diminish the structural components necessary for cognition, memory and learning.
Reduce Oxidative Stress With Blueberries
While ketones provide your brain cells with effective fuel and are neuroprotective, they aren’t the only nutrient that may help reduce ROS in your brain.
At the 251st Meeting and Exhibition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), research was presented that supported the use of blueberries in the prevention and potential treatment of cognitive deficits associated with Alzheimer’s.12
Two studies were performed following earlier clinical trials. In the first, researchers compared freeze-dried blueberry powder to a placebo. In the second, they compared blueberry powder, fish oil and a placebo.
Participants in the first study had measurable cognitive decline. However, those in the second study only felt they were experiencing cognitive issues.
In both studies, those taking the blueberry powder demonstrated improvements over those taking the placebo. In the second study, the participants taking the fish oil also experienced improvement. According to Robert Krikorian, Ph.D., lead author of the studies:13
"The blueberry group demonstrated improved memory and improved access to words and concepts."
The team also performed functional magnetic resonance imaging studies that demonstrated increased brain activity in the participants who took the blueberry powder. The strong antioxidant qualities of blueberries are just one of the reasons these little berries have been labeled a “superfood.”
Human studies have had promising results suggesting blueberry supplementation may improve neurocognitive function, with lower symptoms of depression and better glucose control.16
More Benefits From Healthy Fats and Blueberries
In this 15-minute video I show you the healthy high-fat meal I eat for breakfast each morning. Rich in coconut oil and antioxidants, this prepares my body and brain for the day ahead.
While feeding your brain a healthy diet does provide protection against neurodegeneration and ROS, the clinical results you may experience encompass more than improvements in cognitive functioning or potential prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, functional benefits of nutritional interventions such as nutritional ketosis and blueberries include:
✓ Improved Symptoms in Neurodegenerative Conditions
A pilot study using participants suffering from Parkinson’s disease found improvements in motor functioning after 28 days on a ketogenic diet.17 In another study, participants with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) experienced delayed motor neuron death and functional improvements, but did not extend their lifespan.18
✓ Improved Memory
✓ Reduced Frequency and Intensity of Migraine Headaches
Low net carbohydrate or ketogenic diets had an influence on migraine headaches. One study demonstrated a reduction in frequency and in medication usage in the 52 participants in the experimental group, while there was no reduction in the group using a low calorie diet.21
✓ Recovery After Severe Traumatic Brain Injury
Glucose can hinder the repair and recovery of neurons following a traumatic brain injury. In this study, researchers were able to severely reduce or eliminate carbohydrates from the diets of patients using a ketogenic diet and thus controlled blood glucose concentrations.22
✓ Protection Against Aging and DNA Damage
✓ Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Blueberries have demonstrated a unique ability to help control your blood glucose levels and improve your insulin sensitivity, both important in the protection of your neurons and in preventing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.24,25 In a study of obese participants with insulin resistance, drinking a blueberry smoothie demonstrated marked improvement in insulin sensitivity.26
Foods to Feed Your Brain and Improve Your Cognitive Function
The food you eat feeds your brain and significantly impacts your ability to think, learn and remember. Here are some of my favorite foods that not only are important to your brain but also to the rest of your body.27
These little powerhouses are filled with healthy fat, energy and flavor. The nutrients in avocados are important to your brain and skin, and help stabilize your blood sugar. They are part of my diet every day.
High in antioxidants, they protect your brain from neurodegeneration. They are packed with flavor and vitamins. Balance the natural sugars in blueberries by increasing your fiber intake to reduce your net carbs (grams of carbohydrates minus grams of fiber equals net carbs).
High levels of vitamin K and choline in broccoli help protect your brain. Add florets raw to your salad, or steam your broccoli spears for a maximum of three to four minutes to optimize the sulforaphane content.
While extremely low in calories, celery is high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Clean a bunch and place in a bowl of clean, fresh water in your fridge to make them last for well over a week.
✓ Bone Broth
Excellent to heal your gut and reduce your symptoms of leaky gut. This in turn protects your brain from the increased inflammatory process that results from bacteria and food leaking into your bloodstream.
✓ Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Olive Oil
Not all olive oil is created equally, and fraud is commonplace when it comes to olive oil. Look for third-party validated extra-virgin, cold pressed oils to boost your intake of polyphenols. These powerful antioxidants may improve your learning and memory as well as help to reverse the signs of aging and neuron damage in your brain. Olive oil degrades rapidly at high heat, so add the oil to your salads or vegetables after cooking.
These little gems are high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A handful each day may help improve your cognitive skills. Eat walnuts as a snack in the afternoon or as an addition to your salad.
This ancient root is one of the most powerful nutrients found in nature. Turmeric is one of the spices that gives curry a distinctive flavor and the chemical curcumin in turmeric has anti-oxidant effects on your body.
Carnosic acid found in rosemary protects your brain against free radical damage that triggers neurodegenerative changes. Add the herb to your favorite chicken recipe or spice up your salad with a few sprigs.
✓ Organic, Pastured Egg Yolks
What was once heralded as the reason behind heart disease, now has been vindicated. Research demonstrates egg yolks not only aren’t bad for your health but actually are high in choline, necessary for fetal brain development.
This MCT is one of the foundational foods you may use to feed your brain, reduce inflammation and prevent memory loss. It does wonders for your skin and is a natural antibacterial as well.
These are one of the most nutritious root vegetables you can include in your diet. Forget the beets from your childhood. Today beets may be incorporated into mustards and salads or combined into a very tasty beet, goat cheese and walnut tart. They are high in antioxidants and the natural nitrates boost blood supply to your brain and improve performance.