Maintaining a Healthy Brain

Gerald Quigley Pharmacist & Master Herbalist – 3AW Pharmacist

As populations are living longer, the incidence of progressive memory loss, dementia and problems associated with “brain health” are increasing rapidly and present a major medical and social problem in western societies. Additionally, conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity are also becoming more common.

Our brain uses about 20% of the oxygen used by the body, with the variance in level of oxygen used depending on the degree of mental activity. The blood supply to the brain is crucial for survival, and unconsciousness may result from an interruption to the blood flow. The healthy function of the brain depends on a variety of factors, the most important being the blood flow to the brain and the nutrient and oxygen content of that blood. Under normal circumstances, the brain uses a continual supply of glucose as its source of energy. Without constant replenishment, the glucose reserves of the brain will be used in about ten minutes.

A selective barrier called the blood brain barrier protects the brain cells from harmful substances. This barrier allows the selective passage of various substances into the brain cells and inhibits passage of others that are harmful to the brain such as proteins, drugs or antibiotics.

Balanced regular meals throughout the day are important to provide the brain with an adequate fuel supply. Start the day with breakfast- there is increasing evidence that eating breakfast is associated with better memory and mood later in the morning. A diet high in antioxidant containing foods, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds is important for brain health. Additionally, deep sea fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids provide DHA, an important component of the brain tissue.

A diet high in the B vitamins folate, B12 and B6 helps to minimize homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid, high levels of which are a risk factor for vascular disease. High plasma homocysteine levels are frequently found in patients with arteriosclerosis affecting coronary, cerebral and peripheral arteries. Folate is found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, whole grains and nuts. Vitamin B6 is found most commonly in vegetable foods particularly in whole grains, bananas, nuts or dairy products, mushrooms and spirulina.

Research indicates that regular exercise is associated with significant reduction of risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other forms of cognitive decline. Exercise increases circulation, including circulation to the head area and therefore increases blood flow and nutrition to the brain. It has been demonstrated that even low intensity exercise such as walking can be helpful.

There are genetic connections to most dementias, but there are factors which certainly contribute to the incidence which are avoidable:

  • Minimization of exposure to environmental pollutants- brain tissue is particularly susceptible to damage from free radicals.
  • Avoidance of head trauma- history of head trauma in addition to genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s generated a ten-fold risk of the condition.
  • Avoidance of medications associated with dementias eg. sleeping tablets, sedatives and antidepressants.
  • Minimization of chronic emotional stress. Research has demonstrated that poor stress coping mechanisms are associated with atrophy of the part of the brain responsible for memory acquisition and accelerated cognitive deterioration.
  • Studies indicate that considerable oxidative damage is present in Alzheimer’s disease. It is thought that antioxidant nutrients, particularly Vitamin E, may slow neurodegeneration and delay and even aid prevention of the disease.

Where risk factors or known deficiencies are present, the use of supplements may be helpful to support brain health.

  • Vitamin E helps reduce damage from free radicals and has been clinically trialed and found to limit the progress of Alzheimer’s disease at doses of 2000 IU per day.
  • Essential fatty acids: DHA is an important component of brain tissue and is prone to oxidation. Use of fish oils which contain DHA may be helpful.
  • Iron: Iron deficiency anaemia can contribute to reduced mental development of infants and children.
  • Ginkgo biloba: a herb which increases blood flow to the brain and improves the function of the nervous system by delivering increased oxygen and nutrients. Memory improvement in healthy subjects has now been clinically proven.
  • Bacopa: has been used in Eastern medicine for over 3,000 years for its memory enhancing properties and now confirmed by clinical trials. It increases certain enzyme systems in the brain, generating new protein synthesis.
  • Phosphatidylserine: phospholipids are involved in brain cell membrane formation and function, with much clinical trial data demonstrating their benefits to cognitive function. Double blind trials have been run validating improved memory, learning, concentration, word recall and mood lifts in elderly subjects with dementia or age related cognitive decline.
  • Vitamin B12 and folic acid play a crucial role in DNA production essential in the memory process.
  • Ginseng improves brain function and increases energy levels.
  • Grape Seed is one of nature’s highest sources of antioxidants, which reverses collagen breakdown in blood vessels, thereby increasing blood circulation.