Updated: Jul 8
Most articles about brain health have to do with memory games and tips to activate our neurons. Making our brain work harder is very important, but a few additions to our diet can prevent physical damage to our brain cells that may cause cognitive decline.
Our Busy Brain
Our brain is the most active organ in our body that never rests. Even while we sleep it’s working to make sure we breathe, that our blood flows and even keeps us from falling out of bed!
This amazing organ is only 2% of our body weight, but it uses 20% of the oxygen we breathe to make energy for all its activities.
Our brain works hard – like a factory, but as a result of it’s hard work, it also creates pollution. The pollution from all our brain’s activities is in the form of toxins that are called free radicals.
These free radicals bond with molecules. For those of you who remember your high school chemistry – free radicals have an unpaired electron in their outer orbital, so they look to pair with another molecule.
When the free radicals bond with other molecules they can damage organs and tissues. This is called oxidation. We’ve all seen oxidation on a food that has been cut. An apple and especially an avocado are good examples that show how oxidation makes the cut layer turn dark.
Now imagine what happens when that same process of oxidation happens on our own cells - especially our brain cells! The free radicals can destroy brain and nerve tissue. They can interfere with energy production which can cause tiredness and lack of focus and concentration. Damaged brain cells don’t store information well.
Free radicals also promote inflammation which is now linked to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementias as well as many other illnesses.
Luckily, we have a natural way to prevent free radical damage!
Preventing Brain Damage
Our brain produces free radicals as a type of toxin pollution from working so hard, but our body has a built-in system to prevent damage. It is our antioxidant defense system!
An antioxidant grabs a free radical before it bonds to and damages brain cells. In this way our brain is protected from free radical damage.
However, as we age, there is a decline in our antioxidant defense system. This decline corresponds with memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty learning new tasks. Yes, there is a reason why we may have senior moments!
Luckily, even though there may be a decline in our antioxidant defense system as we age, we can get more of these wonderful antioxidants that can protect our brain.
Antioxidants are found in abundance in fruit, vegetables and spices, as well as in legumes and grains.
Eat Antioxidants for Brain Health
Science has established a laboratory test to measure the antioxidant potential of any food or drink. It is called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale.
This measures the potential of a food or supplement to destroy or neutralize a free radical. You can look up on a chart to see which foods have the strongest capability of stopping free radicals.
There is not yet a recommended amount of how many ORAC units we should have per day. Suggestions range from 3000 – 5000 units per day.
Here is an example of several foods you have probably heard of as being strong antioxidants.
It’s important to see the ORAC rating per 100 gr. (approx. 3.5 oz) Green tea looks like it’s the strongest, but how much tea would you have to drink to reach 100 gr for that 5770 ORAC rating? On the other hand if you eat a large peeled orange (200 gr), you can get a half or a third of the recommended daily amount of ORAC units. However, it’s more important to eat a variety of foods for our antioxidants.
Eat Diverse foods It is important to eat a wide variety of foods and not eat the same ones ever day. Researchers at the American Gut Project found that the participants (both omnivores and vegans) who ate more than 30 different types of plant foods over a week had more diverse gut microbes. A diverse gut microbe helps both the digestion and the immune systems. Note that even meat eaters had better gut health by just adding more plant based foods to their diet. I'd love for more people to become vegan, but this research shows that you do not need to change your diet and eat kale 24/7 to be healthier. If you increase the amount and diversity of plant based foods in your diet, you will enjoy the health benefits.
I learned this week about this exciting research that shows that different foods may help different problems in the body, even in the same organ. Each vegetable has its own specific vitamins, minerals and fibers that can help a specific area. In this research different types of vegetables protected different areas of the colon from cancer! Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are associated with lower risk of colon cancer in the middle and right side of our body, whereas risk of colon cancer further down on the left side of our body appears to be better lowered by carrots, pumpkins, and apples.
You can try to take the 30 different plant foods a week challenge to keep yourself healthy, but even if you just add a few more plant foods to you daily diet, you will increase your antioxidant intake and protect your brain.
--- At Hands-on Dementia we teach how to communicate at a deeper level with people who have memory loss, but we also encourage everyone to take steps to keep their brains and body healthy to prevent dementia.
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