Written by Dr. George Papanicolaou, DO
5 Tips for Better Brain Health as You Age

5 Tips for Better Brain Health as You Age

I think a lot of people would say “I want to be physically well as I age, but more importantly, I want to have my memory. I want to be alert, oriented, and engaged with people around me.”

That means having a healthy brain that ages well.  

When it comes to brain health, mitochondria and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, play critical roles and demand attention.

Although the human brain represents only 2 percent of the body’s weight, it accounts for a full 20 percent of the body’s total energy consumption. This energy demand is driven by a prodigious matrix of 100 billion neurons and ten times more glial cells. The brain is always at work, so the energy requirements are relentless. The energy is supplied by mitochondria, ancient energy-producing bacteria that invaded our cells millions of years ago and decided to stay.

In addition to supplying energy, mitochondria also monitor cellular health, and—when necessary—initiate cell death. Mitochondria themselves are vulnerable to damage.  One of the major factors leading to their disruption is a process known as oxidative stress. When mitochondria produce energy, they create “metabolic exhaust’ in the form of reactive oxygen species or free radicals. A free radical is one atom of oxygen that will bounce around the cell wreaking havoc, like a pinball, especially to DNA.

We have anti-oxidant mechanisms that gobble up these free radicals, but they can reach a point where they are unable to keep pace with the production of reactive oxygen species. This is when mitochondrial gene expression becomes impaired and mitochondrial and cellular death ensue. This process is the precursor for degenerative disorders of the brain like progressive cognitive impairment and dementia.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a protein that helps the brain reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life; it’s the most active of the neurotrophins in stimulating and controlling neurogenesis, which is the new growth and repair of those all-important brain cells. BDNF is found in various parts of the body but is in highest concentration in the brain. In the brain, it is especially active in the hippocampus, cortex, and forebrain—areas vital to memory formation and retention, learning, and higher thinking, like reasoning and making sense out of things. It does this by binding to receptor synapses to improve signal strength between neurons, and the more BDNF the better the connection.

Unfortunately, BDNF levels drop and mitochondrial function declines with age, stress, lack of sleep and inflammation.

The good news is that there are many things we can do to support a healthy brain throughout the aging process. Here are my top 5 tips for optimal brain health:

  1. Get moving: Exercise is a powerful way to improve both mitochondrial health and BDNF production. It actually increases neuroplasticity, helping the brain to create and strengthen neural connections, which is especially important if healing from an injury. Those connections between the neurons allow us to gain new information and maintain a sharper memory. And movement, in general, is going to increase BDNF and blood flow to important parts of your brain. Plus, it releases feel-good endorphins that promote a better mood, more restful sleep, and it provides a host of other benefits like cardiovascular strengthening, a metabolic boost, and detoxification.
  2. Eat the right foods and focus on quality: Good nutrition is essential for optimal brain function. The key thing when it comes to eating for better overall health, and particularly brain health, is getting rid of all of the sugars and all of the highly processed refined carbohydrates. You have to replace them with good healthy fats, high-quality proteins, and the slow-burning carbohydrates that you get in vegetables and some fruits. More specifically, you want to really concentrate on getting omega-3 fatty acids to support the brain, from sources like wild-caught salmon or sardines, walnuts, and flaxseed. Insulin resistance in the brain is one of those critical factors that plays into impaired cognition and development of dementia. The Standard American Diet that many of us have, that is really high in refined carbohydrates, results in insulin dysregulation and inappropriate carbohydrate metabolism.

    When that starts happening in the brain, it’s what we would call type 3 diabetes. Oftentimes, people will use the term type 3 diabetes to describe Alzheimer’s, because of the importance of insulin regulation in the brain. We also want to make sure that we’re removing the toxins that come into our foods. You should always be asking yourself “Where is my food coming from?” When you’re going out to eat, ask yourself “Where did that meat come from?” If it came from a confined animal feeding operation, it’s pretty much going to be toxic. That kind of meat is going to contain glyphosate from the grains that animal was fed and antibiotics and hormones that it was injected with. And that grain-fed meat is higher in omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s, making it much more inflammatory. You have to ask yourself “Where did these vegetables come from? Where did these fruits come from? What were they sprayed with?” Knowing where your food is coming from, and making sure that it’s the cleanest possible with the least amount of toxins, is going to help your brain age optimally.
  3. Choose meal times mindfully: There’s also been a lot of research and a lot of talk about intermittent fasting for mitochondrial health. Intermittent fasting is when we only eat during a certain period of the day. Then, the rest of that time, we don’t eat, because genetically we’re really designed for prolonged periods of fasting. We’re only 10 thousand years removed from being hunters and gatherers, and genetically, that’s not a lot of time. We have not adapted too far from that time when we would spend prolonged periods of time without food. Now, we live in an environment where we eat four, five, six times a day.

    When you do that, your body does not have a chance to deal with the metabolic exhaust that it naturally creates. There are lots of types of intermittent fasting. One approach is that you only eat during a 6 or 8-hour window, and then fast the rest of the day. Or, it could mean eating a very small amount of calories on two non-consecutive days a week. The point is that it gives your body the opportunity to remove that metabolic waste, and reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. It’s a really critical thing to do, in order to allow mitochondria to function at their best. With intermittent fasting, you actually increase the number of mitochondria in neurons. That is one way you can improve your cellular age and give yourself the best chance to have good brain health as you age.
  4. and 5. Improve Sleep and Manage Stress: I don’t think the two can be separated. They both certainly have a huge impact on the brain. Increased stress and lack of sleep can disturb mitochondrial function and reduce BDNF. The following solution supports both: meditation. Meditation will bring about a state of mindfulness and deep brain rest that will reduce the physiological impact of stress and produce more restful sleep. Meditation also has a direct effect on increasing BDNF and improving mitochondrial function. Stress less, sleep more. Meditate. BDNF will abound.

It’s clear that aging and brain health require a multifaceted approach, but much of that is in our hands. Exercise, real food, and intermittent fasting and meditation are simple things everyone can incorporate into their day. There are plenty of actionable steps we can take to boost BDNF and mitochondrial function while supporting the rest of the body at the same time, helping us age happily and healthily.

 

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