Sleep, exercise, diet help brain age gracefully

  • By Barbara Quinn The Monterey County Herald
  • Monday, March 17, 2014 3:20pm
  • Life

It’s ironic. Here I am feeling stressed and losing sleep trying to finish a column about how to keep my brain from aging prematurely.

Turns out these are two culprits that can speed up the aging process of my poor brain, I learned in a recent seminar by neurologist Dr. Michael Lara.

Chronic stress turns on a type of cellular inflammation that interferes with my brain’s ability to regenerate, Lara told his audience of health professionals.

And lack of adequate sleep can negatively affect our ability to think clearly. Oh, how I know that.

I can avoid these problems when I get regular exercise and aim for eight hours of sleep at night, Lara said. Physical activity and adequate sleep help restore my brain cells and turn down the inflammatory processes associated with premature aging.

One way to get adequate sleep is to get enough magnesium in my diet, Lara said. This mineral works on nerve transmitters that slow the brain and make it easier to get to sleep and stay asleep.

How much magnesium? About 400 milligrams a day — the amount I can get in my daily diet if I include foods such as almonds, spinach, milk and soy foods, whole grains, beans, peanut butter, chicken and bananas.

Healthful foods contain other substances that fight off age-promoting inflammation and help keep my brain cells popping, Lara said.

Polyphenolic compounds — substances associated with improved mental gymnastics — can be found in foods such as green tea, nuts, berries, red wine and chocolate.

Red wine and chocolate?

Check. Careful though. Whereas green tea showed improvements in cognitive function at intakes of 4 cups a day, the optimal beneficial effect from wine was seen in daily doses of less than 4 ounces (1/2 cup). And in only about 1/2 ounce of dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa content.

Eating fish may help keep my mind intact as well. Numerous studies show that the omega-3 fats in fish (EPA and DHA) work against the natural inflammation that occurs in aging bodies and brains.

Omega-3’s actually work their way into cell membranes and keep them supple — the better for information to “flow” from one cell to the other, scientists say.

What about krill oil? It’s an oil derived from shellfish, Lara said. And like other fish, it contains omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA.

We can also spice up our aging brains with tumeric (a?k?a curcumin), a seasoning that appears to protect the brain from premature aging.

And it’s interesting, Lara said, that in India where tumeric is a common ingredient in foods, the prevalence of dementia is low.

Coffee — no cream or sugar, please — can perk up brain cells as well. Most of this effect is from the caffeine however.

Put it all together and methinks this is very close to the Mediterranean way of eating: more fish than meat and chicken, plenty of bright-colored berries, fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes, moderate use of olive oil and wine.

As it turns out this eating pattern has been found to fight inflammatory processes that contribute to foggy thinking.

So there really is hope for this aging brain — if I pay attention to my life choices.

I think I’ll go to bed now.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.

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