Today we discuss good brain foods and other essential habits to prevent dementia, remembering that it is a hugely busy organ consuming nearly half of the oxygen we breathe in. That is why a sudden loss of blood supply to any part of it has such tragic consequences.
Blood oxygen should be above 95 percent but if for any reason it dips below this then all our organs but especially the brain are at risk. This why the coronavirus is so dangerous as it causes what scientists are calling silent hypoxia; levels even below 50% with no signs of difficulty breathing.
Anything that raises blood glucose, and especially in those who have diabesogenic T2D where there is insufficient insulin to move that sugar out of the capillaries and into the cells, causes inflammation so there is a tendency for tiny clots to form in the arteries.
Add to that the dramatic inflammation in the capillaries of the lungs caused by the Covid cytokine storm and the blood oxygen entering the brain drops dramatically.
Damage to the brain cells then causes what is generally being termed Long Covid; neurological symptoms that continue for many months after the infection is over.
Good brain food and other lifestyle considerations focuses in large measure on keeping that blood glucose under control, and an anti-inflammatory menu to protect our blood vessels.
Daily exercise, particularly after a starchy meal, means that the glucose produced from carbohydrate we have consumed will be turned to glycogen instead of raising blood sugar.
Traditionally glycemic index (GI) has been used to determine how an ingested carbohydrate will affect blood glucose; it's based on the same amount of food, but of course we often eat vastly different amounts of each. For example the standard serving of potato is 150g, rice 120g and butternut 75g.
For example, a single spoonful of boiled white rice, having a very high GI of 86, would have a lesser effect on blood glucose and subsequent vascular inflammation than three measures of pasta with a much lower glycemic index of 49.
Glycemic load (GL) is the GI multiplied by the amount of carbohydrate in a typical serving. It is really a more meaningful and useful tool.
The pumpkin family interestingly is used in many traditional communities to treat diabetes; but it has a high GI. How can that be? The answer is that normally a helping size is only 75g giving it a very low glycemic load of 4.
Looking at GI alone one would think pumpkin and butternut to be wholly undesirable foods.
So for good brain food one would choose carbohydrates in the lower half of this table, and avoid those in the upper part except when having a very small serving. Two or three spoonfuls of rolled oats are desirable for its other beneficial properties.
Traditionally simple carbohydrates like sugar and honey were assumed to be digested and absorbed more rapidly with a consequent significant rise in blood glucose.
And starches consisting of chains of thousands of glucose molecules were assumed to be assimilated more slowly; diabetics were encouraged to eat them.
Then finally the science arrived. The fact that boiled rice, potato and instant oats have a far higher glycemic index than either sugar or honey confirmed Mencken's law, and certainly put a cat among the pigeons.
"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
- HL Mencken
The evidence is now unequivocal. Refined grains like white rice, commercial bread and boxed oats are the great enemies of the brain; as are potatoes from cold storage and sweetened beverages and cereals.
On the other hand unrefined grains, sourdough bread made from 100% flour and legumes are certainly good brain foods.
There is a huge amount of research now clearly proving that the wellness of the microbiome in the intestine is strongly associated with a low incidence of the neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease. Kefir ranks very highly on my list of good brain foods.
Researchers have found that those with a happy microbiome incidentally are far less likely to get long Covid.
Green broad beans also known as favas are almost impossible to buy so you have to grow them yourself. Young and freshly harvested they are simply delicious. Old or dried they are awful.
In the context of good brain foods they are the only significant source of L-dopa, a phytochemical that is strongly associated with a low incidence of Parkinson's disease and macular degeneration; it is the precursor of dopamine. The optic nerve is generally considered part of the brain.
Broad beans are very important brain food, except when they are double-skinned; then they have a very high glycemic index and are likely to promote inflammation of the capillaries and a greater likelihood of clot formation, and stroke. I do not advocate the practice, but admittedly the portion size and load are likely to be low.
Eggs Parkinson's disease is one of our favourite breakfasts; onions, fava beans, and peppers with garlic and green leafy vegetables, on low GI toast.
Can you pick out the broad beans looking rather like very fat, grey ticks?
Free-range eggs incidentally have three times the omega-3, so that would make this wonderful breakfast doubly one of the good brain foods.
One other benefit of the dark leafy greens is the lutein they contain; essential for preventing blindness in the older person.
There's a big fat lie in the world of flours where millers and bakers are legally allowed to call the products 'wholemeal' even though up to 40% of the bran and germ have been sifted out, and sent for hog food.
Look for the 100% wholemeal label which means that there has been no sifting into streams of bran, germ and endosperm; all the goodies are there.
I include 100% wholemeal sourdough bread in our list of good brain foods, though I have not been able to come up exact figures; it has a touch more starch, far more fat, extra protein and fibre. It's a thumb suck but I would give it a GI of about 45 - 50, and a glycemic load of around 4 or 5. Those are all low.
There is a huge amount of research showing that 100% wholemeal is friendly towards blood vessels. The naturally occurring vitamin E alone makes this so; it is an anti-coagulant that is removed along with the fat in the refining of all other flour.
Turn it into sourdough bread and the naturally occurring lactic acid that is formed in the fermentation promotes a gelatinisation between the gluten and the starch further reducing the bioavailability of the carbohydrate.
In short, 100% wholemeal bread is very friendly towards the brain, but the commercial loaf, cookies and bagels certainly are not. Read more about baking your own using sourdough. It takes me just five minutes every morning.
When it comes to mental wellness good brain foods are not enough; there are other lifestyle factors that are equally important. Top of the pops is good sleep and that will probably mean cutting back on refined carbohydrates and alcohol in the evening.
Few activities will help you sleep better than some form of exercise during the day, particularly after a starchy meal. Whether it's walking, swimming or cycling, or another favourite, it makes little difference. Your brain needs attention seven days a week; could you walk to church, school or the shops, or take a stroll at lunchtime, apple in hand?
It is interesting that in all five of the Blue Zone countries of the world where ten times as many folk live to a vigorous and strong old age they are religious; but they belong to different faiths. Unwinding, meditating, or being still before God it would seem are an important part of nourishing your brain. A forest bathe without your cellphone might serve a similar purpose. It's all about mental relaxation.
One could add many different activities with the same theme tune; perhaps play your guitar or flute, paint a picture or plant some broad beans in the garden. Opening a beehive and watching the most amazingly organised society at work does a power of good for my own brain.
When did you last go on a hike? It is certainly good for your brain.
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Good brain food because prevention is always better than a cure; by the time you have Alzheimer's disease it is too late in any case.
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