Healthy Diet, Healthy Brain

Continuing our celebration of fruits and vegetables, it turns out that there is a direct correlation between a healthy diet and a healthy braIn.

Days before  a first-ever G-8 summit on dementia in London, leading English physicians wrote an open letter to the Health Secretary saying that the benefits of diet far outweighed “dubious drugs” in the battle against dementia.  They urged that the best strategy for preventing Alzheimer’s and other memory-affecting diseases was a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil.

The link between diet and healthy brains is not new. Back in 1991 a study at California’s Loma Linda University suggested that meat eaters had double the risk of developing dementia as vegetarians. (No difference was observed between lacto-ovo-vegetarians and vegans.)

Good Diet Key to Regaining Memory

In 2011, researchers from VA’s Puget Sound Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center documented an important link between diet, exercise, and the development of Alzheimers.

According to lead author Laura D. Baker, PhD, for those who are aging normally, regular exercise can help offset the “potential pathological effects of a western-type diet on Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers in the brain”.  But for adults who have already have an existing condition of mild cognitive impairment, improvement only came when a change in diet was added to the regular exercise routine. Switching to diet low in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates actually improved memory function.

Results in Only 4 Weeks!

The team found that a diet low in saturated fat and high in foods such as whole grains and vegetables could favorably alter the levels of certain markers for Alzheimer’s in only four weeks. This diet improved visual memory not just for older adults with mild levels of Alzheimer’s disease but for healthy older people too.

While these studies have been small in scope, they all lead to the encouraging conclusion that we do not have to wait for a magic drug to appear on the market to protect us from dementia. Instead there are simple life-style changes that we can make today to keep our brains alert and functioning in good order. By favoring regular exercise and a diet of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and by keeping sugar and refined carbohydrates to a minimum, we can reduce the risk of dementia and at the same time significantly increase our level of physical health and well being. Win/win!

To take a free dosha quiz and find out more about what fruits and vegetables create balance for your physiology, visit The Raj website:

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Your Sugar or Your Health?

The New Year is approaching and it’s time for that commitment to better life choices: the New Year’s Resolution.  I like the “fresh start” approach to a new year. A while ago I discovered a great recipe for success. I start the year with a week of Ayurveda detoxification treatments, known as Panchakarma, and pick one New Year’s resolution. The treatments remove imbalances that trigger food cravings and the resolution resets my thinking in one manageable area. It is a winning combination. This year my resolution is to cut down on my sugar intake.

Recently a London cardiologist was in the news saying sugar is so addictive it should be considered a danger to society and should be regulated like alcohol.  The biggest surprise in reading the story was the long list of health woes connected with eating too much sugar. I expected to hear about obesity and diabetes. But reading about the link to heart disease, dementia, liver damage and cancer was a shocker. It turns out that a sugary diet messes with a number of important hormone levels, chemicals and processes in the body.  Today I’m just going to look at two studies that inspired my resolution.

Sugar makes you depressed and lethargic

Most of us know that a high sugar intake signals the pancreas to produce large amounts of the hormone insulin, often causing a huge drop in energy after the initial “sugar high”.

But did you know that sugar blocks the action of orexins — neurotransmitters that regulate appetite, energy expenditure and wakefulness? (The most common form of narcolepsy is caused by a lack of orexin in the brain.)  High levels of orexin have been linked with happiness while low levels are linked to sadness and depression. The suppression of orexin cells has been associated with obesity because that chemical has the responsibility of telling the “good fat” in our bodies to burn calories. Blocking orexins can lead to dullness, depression, lethargy and obesity.

(The good news is that amino acids, or protein, “excite” orexin cells.  So by all means reach for almonds instead of a candy bar if you need a late afternoon energy boost.)

Sugar can addle your brain

Eating too much sugar can affect the brain in other ways.  A study released in 2013 looked at 248 brain scans of people aged 60 to 64 over a period of 4 years. All participants had blood sugar levels in the normal range at the start of the program. At the end of the four years it was discovered that those with the highest blood sugar levels had higher levels of shrinkage in the areas of the brain associated with memory and cognitive function. It is already established that type-2 diabetes is linked with dementia.

As I said, there is additional research linking sugar to heart disease, liver damage and cancer, but the information about sugar’s influence on the brain was enough to inspire my New Year’s resolution.

Alternative choices

Does this mean no sugar at all?  According to Ayurveda, sugar helps to balance Vata and Pitta. So my question is, how much sugar is okay and how much is too much?

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 a day for men. 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams. There are about 10 teaspoons of sugar in a can of Coke Classic. There are about 5 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving of Cherry Garcia ice cream and almost 7 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving of Haagen-Das raspberry sorbet. If a pie requires 1 cup of sugar, divided by eight that means about 12 teaspoons per slice.  In other words, 6 teaspoons doesn’t get you very far if you are in the habit of snacking on sugary foods.

Thankfully there are a few options for those of us with a sweet tooth. Stevia has zero calories and won’t cause a jump in your blood sugar. I have friends who are great fans of Xylitol, which is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol found in beets, corn and berries. Because it is only partially absorbed by the body, it has a lower glycemic index and only around 9 calories per teaspoon. Honey has a lower glycemic index than white or brown sugar. However, honey should never be used in baking as it ferments when heated and creates a sticky toxin that blocks the body’s channels.

Ultimately the best course of action is simply to get out of the habit of needing sweets. Ayurveda recommends hot milk to counter the urge for sweets. Milk is considered a “sweet taste” but also provides amino acids (exciting the orexin cells!) and classical texts say milk has the ability to nourish all the tissues in the body within 24 hours. Of course always boil your milk first to make it easier to digest.

Later on I will share additional research detailing more ways that an overload of sugar can take a toll on our health. There is certainly a growing pile of evidence out there! In the meantime I look forward to enjoying increasing energy and alertness as I transition into a healthier new year.

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