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Nutrition and Exercise for Brain Health

August 15, 2016


The organs and cells that make up our bodies are fantastically interconnected. Hormones, nutrients, growth factors and countless molecules rapidly move in and out of cells throughout our entire body. An exception is the brain where a protective layer called the blood brain barrier acts like a filter and only lets in a fraction of circulating factors from the body into the brain. Because of the selectivity of the blood brain barrier, body and brain health were once thought to be disparate. However we are now discovering that body and brain health are in fact very closely and intimately related. Science is proving that maintaining a healthy lifestyle not only reduces the risks for diseases of the body including heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. A healthy lifestyle will also improve brain function and prevent mental illness and neurodegenerative diseases. A healthy lifestyle that benefits body and brain is key to a healthy life and healthy aging.


Exercise has long been known to improve heart health, maintain weight and keep body organs healthy. The good news is neuroscientists recently discovered that exercise also produces factors that directly improve brain cell health. During exercise muscles in the body release a molecule that passes through the blood brain barrier into the brain. Once in the brain the molecule increases an essential nutrient for brain cells called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is one of the best brain foods around! Next time you’re exercising, think about all of your brain cells enjoying a big nutritious meal. Since all brain cells are affected by BDNF, it improves many brain systems. BDNF is known to improve memory, attention and stress regulation, which can greatly improve performance and quality of life. BDNF feeds newborn cells in a brain area called the hippocampus to increase their survival (see my previous post Young at Hippocampus). In addition BDNF is known to keep cells healthy to stave off the risks of mood disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. We often think the goals of exercising are losing or maintaining weight and heart health. We can now add brain health to this list. The next time you finish exercising take note of your mood. I’ll bet you will feel better both in body and mind.

Many diets have shown dramatic results in improving body health. Not surprisingly these diets contain an assortment of foods that have been discovered to nourish the brain. Recently neuroscientists combined two heart health diets, containing several brain healthy foods, into the MIND diet (or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). Scientists studied the MIND diet and saw dramatic improvements in brain health. The MIND diet was shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Further study is needed, but it is likely that like BDNF, the MIND diet supports brain health in multiple brain systems. The MIND diet includes regular consumption of 10 healthy foods including: green leafy vegetables, vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine. A lot of people will be happy to know that in the MIND diet, one glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away! MIND diet foods contain an assortment of nutrients including Omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins that fuel healthy brain cells. On the other hand there are 5 foods that should be consumed in limited quantities. The list includes all of our guilty pleasures: red meat, butter, cheese, fried foods and refined sugar – not brain healthy foods. Numerous studies demonstrate that refined sugar contributes to poor body and brain health. Refined sugar can damage many organs in the body and cause serious illness. In the brain refined sugar can lead to deficits in cognition, mood and may lead to neurodegeneration. Just like exercise we often think the goal of a healthy diet is weight loss or cardiovascular health. Mental and brain health should also be on your mind when making dietary choices. Pay attention to the relationship between healthy food and mood. Eating a healthy diet supports both a healthy body and brain.


Individuals at every stage of life will benefit from incorporating healthy lifestyles.  To be our best both physically and mentally we need to feed our bodies and brains what they need to thrive. A healthy lifestyle can improve success at school, work and retirement by improving memory, cognition and stress reduction. It can improve social and romantic relationships by improving mood. Finally a healthy lifestyle is the best known preventative medicine for mood disorders and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. We now have another very important reason to take care of our health. Now go out for a walk and ditch the sugar!

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