Brain Food?

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Can the way we eat prevent dementia getting a grip?alzheimers-749616_1920

Dementia has been on my mind recently. A lovely family friend has been diagnosed with the disease, I’ve been writing for a elderly care service and, truth be told, I’ve also walked into the kitchen and forgotten what I came for, one time too many. So, a TED talk by Dr Mary Newton on YouTube really caught my attention. She’s a neonatologist who spoke about her experiences when her husband, Steve, developed early onset Alzheimer’s.

We still don’t fully understand Alzheimer’s. Scientists believe that many factors work together to increase an individual’s risk: genes, lifestyle, and the environment may all combine to allow the disease to take hold. But her investigations suggested that the way we eat could hold the key to finding a cure.

Mary was desperate to find a way of helping her husband, who was in a downward spiral with rapidly deteriorating function. As a doctor, she explored routine treatment options. But when his symptoms became so severe that he was not able to participate in clinical trials, her scientific deductions led to discover early investigations into a medical food that could make all the difference.

Diabetes of the Brain

Scientists have found indications that Alzheimer’s may be a sort of diabetes of the brain. Researchers at Brown University discovered insulin deficiency and resistance within the brains of affected individuals and coined the term Type 3 Diabetes for this form of dementia. They observed that this insulin resistance happened in the very early stages, often many years before symptoms began and then became increasingly severe and widespread as the disease progressed.

There’s been lots of research demonstrating that type two diabetes may predispose to Alzheimer’s. And the truth is, the demographics of people who are affected by both disorders are pretty similar. The two disorders share the same risk factors, features and similar biochemical changes, like insulin resistance. Could this be the key to understanding dementia?

Brain food

Our brain cells need glucose to fuel their function. Insulin acts as the key to unlock the cells to allow glucose to enter. Without properly functioning insulin, the cells simply can’t work properly and can die, as happens in dementia.

But glucose is not the only fuel. Ketone bodies from the breakdown of fat can act as an alternative source of energy. It’s our body’s built-in back-up for times of starvation. But you don’t have to be starved. Ketogenic diets such as the Atkin’s and South Beach encourage the body to burn ketones by advocating a high fat, low carbohydrate way of eating. In fact, these kind of diets are used successfully to help control the fits of children with intractable epilepsy, so we know that they can affect brain function.

I try and stick to a low carb diet, but I understand that this level of dietary restriction can be difficult in the elderly, confused and infirm. But there is another way:

We are what we eat

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Dr Newton continued researching and found that a type of fat called medium chain triglycerides (MCT) are readily taken up by the liver and burned to form ketones. An early trial found that a single dose of MCT produced an improvement in cognition and memory in more than half of those people that took it.

The use of MCT is not new, it’s added to infant formula to help new babies grow and develop. That’s because we know that breast milk is rich in these fats. Maybe our bodies knew what was best for us all along.

Coconut oil is rich in MCT, it makes up around 60% of the content. When Dr Newton gave Steve spoonfuls of coconut oil, everything changed. He described

“the light switch coming back on.”

His function, his memory and his ability to carry out activities of daily living all improved. More than that, his personality and sense of humour returned. This was reflected in dramatically improved scores in his mental testing and on his MRI, which showed that the deterioration had stabilised.

The news about this potential treatment spread by word of mouth and virally on social media and many people across the world have also experienced the benefit. But we are still waiting for proper confirmation in clinical trials, fortunately there are now several underway for the use of MCT oil and ketone esters in the treatment of both dementia and mild cognitive impairment. I’m waiting for the results with interest.

Let food by your medicine

Whilst we’re waiting, could we make a difference today? The low fat diet has been relentlessly pushed to the public, so we choose ‘healthy’ low fat alternatives which are often stuffed full of sugars to compensate for a lack of richness and flavour. Full-fat dairy produce and coconut oil are both rich in MCT, but it’s not found in olive oil or many of the other veggie oils in our diet. By making a move away from a high carb, high sugar diet and introducing more of these oils, maybe we could decrease levels of insulin resistance and protect our bodies and our brains. As Hippocrates said, let food be thy medicine.

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Worriers and Warriors

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The way we respond to stressful situations may be written in our genes.

I was researching and writing an article about stress last week and, as ever, the deadline had to loom so close that it could have kicked me up the backside, before my fingers started tapping diligently on the keyboard.

I always thought it was just laziness, or a singular talent for procrastination but it seems  that it might actually be written in my DNA.

Let’s face it, we all get stressed out once in a while but not everyone responds to pressure in the same way. Our lives, upbringing and experiences can all have an impact but it also seems that certain genes can make us more sensitive to life’s stresses and strains.

 Fight or flight

 It’s all down to our inner caveman. When we get shocked or feel threatened, the body responds with a primitive reflex, releasing chemicals designed to help us to survive. These catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine) boost the heart rate, raise the blood pressure and improve respiratory function to help us fight harder and run faster. They also sharpen our vision, speed up our impulses and make us super-sensitive to any threat; we become a sort of super-hero version of ourselves!

This was all fine and dandy when we were facing sabre-toothed tigers. Whether we stayed to fight or ran to hide, the stress hormones would have been safely metabolised. But now when we’re stressed out in a traffic jam, on the phone to a call-centre or facing a deadline, the body gets all revved up with no way of burning off all the pent up aggression and energy.

The genetic difference

 For lots of us, stress can be good, sharpening our focus and helping us perform better. But others just fall apart under the pressure. How can the same level of stress elicit such different physical, psychological and emotional responses?

The answer is down to genetics. We all have differing capabilities of breaking down and getting rid of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. This system is controlled by the COMT gene; in some of us, the brain is cleared of the catecholamines super fast, while others have a more slow and steady response.

Worriers

When people with slow COMT genes become stressed, their bodies just can’t get rid of the catecholamines quickly enough. Dopamine builds up in the brain’s frontal lobe causing the classic stress symptoms of anxiety, worry, panic attacks and insomnia. In severe cases it is thought to be associated with mental health problems including OCD and schizophrenia.

Warriors

Those of us with fast acting COMT genes are able to clear the brain of stress chemicals quickly and efficiently and have been shown in tests to perform better under pressure. However in low stress situations, the lack of stimulation means that they could fail to get work done effectively. Errrrrrm, sound familiar?

So, is that just all a bit depressing? Some people are destined to do terribly in exams and others won’t perform without the imminent threat of danger.

No.

It seems that our genes don’t have to be our destiny. In tests under low levels of pressure, those with slow COMT genes performed way better. When they weren’t stressed, or if they were told that feeling anxious would make them perform better, they had bright, alert minds and better memories. So by learning to manage feelings of stress they were able to really harness their true potential.

And if, like me, you know that you need a little extra push, you can set yourself targets and deadlines so that you’re not up burning the midnight oil, again!

My article was for a company called DNAfit, who test individuals’ DNA profiles to develop personalised health plans. I was paid for the work, although I was given free rein on what to write and not expected to blog about it, it just really captured my interest.