HEALTHY CHOICES, HEALTHY LIFESTYLES BARBARA B. MINTZ, MS, RD
Since our brain acts as the command center of our body, brain health is very important. If you have suffered a brain injury, it is even more important for the healing process.
It is true. You are what you eat. Proper diet and exercise do make a big difference in everyone’s health and wellness. They play a huge part in the management and prevention of many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. There are many research studies that point to the power of healthy nutrients and the link to cognition and
learning. It has been proven that children perform better in school when they have had a good breakfast. Diets high in sugar and fat make us feel sluggish, not only as a direct effect of the food, but the fact that those diets lead to obesity.
And since our brain acts as the command center of our body, brain health is very important. If you have suffered a
brain injury, it is even more important for the healing process. You have to remember that, at a basic level, it takes 500 calories to operate your brain even if it has not gone through trauma. Those calories keep that command center functioning, and the right nutrition can help prevent the normal oxidative process of aging.
In addition to a healthy diet, exercise has been shown to contribute to the ability of the brain to counteract neurological disorders and damage from injury. In short, the types of foods you eat and the type of exercise you choose can help with brain health.
LET’S START WITH FOOD
There are certain foods that have been linked to helping slow down the oxidative process of aging and help brain injury recovery. Diets rich in Omega 3 fatty acids help decrease the inflammatory process and have proven to improve cognition. Omega 3s also reduce oxidative stress damage that results from trauma. Food rich in in this
important essential fatty acid are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. Cod liver oil is also a great source.
Vegetarian sources include flax seeds and chia seeds.
Viitamin E has also been found to protect our neurons. This fat soluble vitamin is an antioxidant that fights against oxidative damage by reducing free radicals in the brain. It has shown to have positive effects on memory performance in older people. Great sources are nuts, oils and some vegetables. You can also find an abundant source in wheat germ. Spinach is a great Erich vegetable that also contains vitamin C, which is another powerful antioxidant in the fight against free radical damage.
Curcumin, a yellow curry spice has also been suggested to help preserve cognition. It has been shown to improve neural function in individuals afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Many studies have shown that the supplementation of curcumin into diets reduced the effects of concussive injury on cognition.
Diets high in saturated fats seem to have a negative effect on the brain and lead to poor neuronal performance as well as affect our ability to learn. The same is true for high intakes of refined sugar. Saturated fats include, palm oil and coconut oil and butter refined sugars are found in products with high fructose corn syrup, regular sodas and juices to name a few. This is the base of our junk food and fast food diets. Studies in rats have indicated that those fed diets high in refined sugars and saturated fats performed significantly worse on spatial learning mater maze test than rats fed a healthier diet that was low in fat and contained complex carbohydrates like fruits vegetables and whole grains.
There are testimonials that have supported the efficacy of the gluten-free and casein free diet as a modality in the treatment of autism. These diets contain no wheat, which contains gluten or milk products which contain casein. To date there is insufficient empirical data to support the claims.
Like diet, exercise is thought to have the same benefit in protecting neurons and reducing oxidative stress. It can slow down the mental decline often seen in the aging process and to those who have suffered brain injuries, it is equally beneficial. Post injury exercise seems promising in facilitating recovery. However timing is key here. Unfortunately, studies have shown that it is not affective in the acute injury phase.
The most effective forms of exercise are cardiovascular activities such as walking and running. These types of exercise have been most closely linked to neuronal regeneration when compared to swimming or stand training. When combining exercise and diet, the success of regeneration and healing seems more pronounced than when either option is implemented on its own. Studies have also shown that exercise can boost the effects of an omega 3 rich diet. This has also been seen to better counteract some of the negative effects of a saturated fat and high sugar diet for anyone. It also raises our endorphins which help elevate mood and provide a calming effect. Because of this, exercise helps us deal with stressful situations, and can keep us centered and focused. This response seems to be both physiological and psychological.
The bottom line: a healthy diet based in whole foods and void of fast and processed foods is good for everyone but can have additional benefits for the brain. It can help improve cognition and memory and help those recovering from brain injury •
BODY AND MIND FITNESS: tips for brain health
Eat small meals every three to four hours. Be sure they are balanced in all the macronutrients: carbs protein and fats. Make sure these nutrients are from whole foods and are nutrient dense. Fast foods will give you empty calories and, in the case of those with brain injuries, can slow down healing. Examples of good or complex carbs
would be high in fiber and low in refined sugars, such as whole grains and fruits and vegetables. Avoid soda and
juices and excessive sweets or candy.
Eat oily fish and add flax seeds and chia seeds to your diet.
Use olive oil or nut oils in cooking. These are high in vitamin E. Use less butter and other saturated fats and avoid hydrogenated oils
Eat moderately and watch your portion sizes. Keeping your calorie intake to a moderate intake that will sustain a healthy body weight will help increase your brain function.
Avoid processed meats and other high fat high salt foods. Limit alcohol and caffeine. These substances
may interfere with medications and impair cognition.
Keep your diet rich in vitamin E, C and beta carotene. Foods that are rich in these vitamins and antioxidants include oranges, sweet potatoes, walnuts, olives, green peppers and tomatoes.
Consider supplementation of these nutrients if your diet is deficient or if you are recovering from brain injury. Consult a dietitian if you have questions. Consider doing some sort of walking program if permitted, at least three times per week. It will help keep your body weight down and your brain function up! By eating well and exercising, you are developing a good foundation for a healthy body and a healthy brain.
HEALTHY CHOICES, HEALTHY LIFESTYLES
Barbara Mintz, MS, RD, Vice President of Healthy Living and Community Engagement for Barnabas Health, New Jersey.