PAYS TO KNOW: How Food Affects Your Brain
By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
Unfortunately, the Spanish explorer Ponce de León never found the mythical fountain of youth when he traveled to Florida in 1513. Without this “elixir of life”, there seems to be no magic pill to prevent cognitive decline, no almighty brain food that can restore your aging brain to being as sharp as it was when you were young.
As an elder law lawyer, I constantly encounter super-seniors (85+). Some come with walkers, others with canes and a few in wheelchairs. But many come unaided – standing and walking under the power of their own two feet. (Although they usually don’t hear very well and have to sit with their good ear facing me.)
What impresses me the most is when a super-senior comes along with his mind still as sharp as a tack. For me, that’s the battle, which is to keep your mind sharp. Of course, you want to stay physically healthy, which is to say exercise. But it’s your spirit that you want to keep and protect. “What is your secret?” I would always ask. The answers vary – from good genes and exercise to healthy eating and taking vitamins.
Since I hope to have a sharp and clear mind well into my 90s, I am constantly on the lookout for useful information. Many sources say that certain foods you might eat can actually DAMAGE your brain over time. According to a 2012 UCLA study published in the Journal of Physiology, researchers found that a high fructose diet over time can damage your memory and ability to learn.
According to Mike Geary, Certified Nutrition Specialist, “Beyond the damage to your brain, it’s well known in the research world that a high fructose diet can also cause insulin resistance in your body at over time, and eventually lead to type 2 diabetes and extra body fat….and also negatively affects your triglyceride levels in your blood which cause plaque in your arteries.(Source: www.truthaboutabs.com/reports/brain- report.pdf)
“Can you repeat that please?” you ask. Sodas and processed junk foods such as cakes and candies, ice cream (and even ketchup) cause memory and learning impairments in your brain. There is also an increased risk of diabetes and an increased risk of heart disease and abdominal fat. Surprisingly, fructose is also found naturally in fruits (eg, apples, grapes, watermelon), fruit juices, some vegetables (eg, asparagus, peas, and zucchini) and honey.
Although diet sodas may offer a short-term reduction in calories, artificial sweeteners commonly found in diet sodas – such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, neotame, advantame and acesulfame potassium-k – have been linked to serious health problems and may be toxic to the brain. Read product labels carefully and avoid foods containing: fructose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave syrup, maple flavored syrup, molasses, palm sugar or coconut and sorghum.
I found another article that said the same thing. According to www.WebMD.com, avoid fatty and sugary foods. Eating sugar can cause brain fog, sluggishness and fatigue. These symptoms come from the brain and not from your gut. If you have a poor diet with lots of sugar, you can lose important structures and activities in your brain. This can lead to an aging brain and dementia.
You may ask yourself, “What should I try to eat to maximize the awesome brain power?” Fortunately, an article on CNBC.com (March 23, 2022) answered that question. In the article, Harvard nutritionist Dr. Uma Naidoo said your diet affects your whole body, and especially your brain. Certain foods and nutrients help keep your brain healthy so it can fuel your body.
Dr. Naidoo, author of the best-selling “This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More,” says, “Based on my work with hundreds of patients, here are the top six brain-boosting foods that people don’t eat enough of.Incorporating them into your diet can boost your mood, sharpen your memory, and help your brain function at peak performance.
Besides adding flavor, spices are known for their antioxidant properties. In other words, they help the brain fight off harmful free radicals and thus prevent oxidative stress, which can damage tissue. One of my favorite spices is turmeric, which stands out when it comes to reducing anxiety. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, may decrease anxiety and alter corresponding brain chemistry, thereby protecting the hippocampus.
I also like saffron. In 2013, a meta-analysis of five previously published randomized, controlled trials examined the effects of saffron supplementation on symptoms of depression in participants with major depressive disorder. In all of these trials, researchers found that consuming saffron significantly reduced symptoms of depression compared to placebo controls.
2. Fermented foods
Fermented foods are made by combining milk, vegetables, or other raw ingredients with microorganisms like yeast and bacteria. Of course, a favorite breakfast dish in Japan is natto, a fermented soybean. Some other examples include plain yogurt with active cultures, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.
These are all sources of live bacteria that can improve healthy bowel function and decrease anxiety. In the brain, fermented foods may provide several benefits. A 2016 review of 45 studies indicated that fermented foods may protect animals’ brains, improve memory and slow cognitive decline.
Probiotic-rich yogurt can be an important part of your diet, but keep in mind that heat-processed yogurt doesn’t have the same benefits. Yogurt-covered raisins are one example — they won’t relieve your anxiety, because heat-treated yogurt no longer contains beneficial bacteria.
3. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is an excellent source of iron, which helps build the coating that protects neurons and helps control the synthesis of chemicals and chemical pathways involved in mood.
In 2019, a cross-sectional survey of over 13,000 adults found that people who regularly ate dark chocolate had a 70% reduced risk of symptoms of depression. Dark chocolate is also high in antioxidants, as long as you stick to the dark stuff and make sure it doesn’t contain too much sugar.
Avocados contain relatively high amounts of magnesium, which is important for proper brain function. The first report on magnesium treatment for agitated depression was published in 1921, and it showed success in 220 out of 250 cases.
Since then, countless studies have suggested that depression is linked to magnesium deficiency. Several case studies, in which patients were treated with 125 to 300 milligrams of magnesium, demonstrated rapid recovery from major depression, often in less than a week.
Nuts contain healthy fats and oils that our brain needs to function well, as well as essential vitamins and minerals, for example the selenium in Brazil nuts. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts show great promise for improving thinking and memory.
I recommend eating 1/4 cup a day (no more – it’s easy to overdo it with nuts!) as a snack or added to your salad or vegetable side dish. Nuts can even be combined into a homemade granola or trail mix that has far less sugar and salt than store-bought versions.
6. Leafy greens
When I say that leafy greens like kale make a difference to health, my patients scoff at the idea. But leafy greens contain vitamin E, carotenoids and flavonoids, which are nutrients that protect against dementia and cognitive decline.
Another benefit is that they are an incredible source of folate, a natural form of vitamin B9 that is important in the formation of red blood cells. Where folate deficiency may underlie certain neurological conditions, improving folate status has beneficial effects on our cognitive state and is a necessary cofactor in the production of neurotransmitters. Green vegetables such as spinach, Swiss chard and dandelion greens are also a great source of folate!
In conclusion, of all your organs, your brain consumes the most energy. Your body needs healthy foods containing certain nutrients and vitamins to fuel your brain. These nutrients help build brain structure, keep cells functioning, and help you learn, think, and complete tasks.
Finally, other things you can do to help you have a healthier brain: (1) don’t drink alcohol; (2) quit smoking; and (3) Stay active.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the law firms of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/medical planning, probate, personal injury, and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.