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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I’m still hot, it just comes in flashes now.

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Helping yourself through the menopause.

I woke up in a total lather last night. I was hot, sweaty and dishevelled and sadly not for any fun reasons.

I may have been rather too entangled in the duvet, there may have been an unusually warm spell in our corner of the frozen north, or it may be my poor middle-aged ovaries starting to give up the ghost.

Now one sweaty night isn’t enough to have me scrabbling for the HRT but it has inspired me to see if there is anything I can do to bolster my flagging hormones and stave off any menopausal madness for a little longer.

The usual suspects:

There’s evidence that women who are more active tend to suffer less. Not all types of activity though, oh no, the hard, sweaty, intensive stuff can actually make symptoms worse. The best bet is sustained, steady and aerobic, like swimming or running, basically the sort of stuff I hate. Cutting back on booze and caffeine can also reduce symptoms.

So far, so depressingly predictable, in desperation I decided to dig a little deeper.

You are what you eat:

Did you know that the Japanese don’t even have a word for the menopause? Apparently they glide effortlessly from periods to errrrr past it (sorry, I’m a sucker for alliteration) because of all the soy in their diets. And it’s not just the flushes that they avoid. they also have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and breast, colon, endometrial and ovarian cancers.

It’s down to the fact that soya contains natural plant oestrogens, which have a similar effect to our own female hormones. But it’s going to take a bit more than a splash of soy sauce on your stir-fry to make a difference; you’ll need to stock up on tofu, miso and all other soy products. Phytoestrogens are also found in nuts, seeds especially flax and sesame, hummus and dried apricots.

The natural alternative

If you can’t stomach soy, there are a whole host of supplements available to boost your phytoestrogens. The research evidence is a little mixed as to their effectiveness. However, I told my mother to take soy isoflavone supplements when she was struggling after coming off HRT and she started bleeding again, in her late sixties, so there’s certainly something potent going on! [Quick disclaimer, she had a D and C, no problems found and she’s still talking to me, so all is well.]

The main options are:

Soy: as my Mum found, it can decrease menopausal symptoms but can have an effect on the womb. See your doctor if there’s any bleeding.

Red Clover: may help reduce hot flushes and night sweats

 Herbal helpers

The benefits of herbal remedies haven’t been fully proven by research trials but they may be worth a try.

Black Cohosh: has been shown to decrease hot flushes, night sweat and other vasomotor symptoms.

St John’s Wort: there is good evidence that this works well for mild to moderate depression and it has worked well for me in the past, it may be of benefit if the change of life is bringing you down.

Many women have also told me that they get benefit from other treatments including agnus castus, selenium, vitamin C and herbs such as ginkgo biloba, hops, sage leaf, liquorice and valerian root – there are very few studies to date but much of the research is still in the early stages.

[This is probably the right time to direct you to my ‘covering my butt bit’ and say that supplements and herbal remedies have active ingredients and can cause side effects and interact with medications. Make sure you read all the info and see your doctor or pharmacist if you have any worries]

I’m probably in the early stages of the peri-menopause, so I think my first step is going to be getting rid of the thick quilt on my bed and maybe (sob) cutting down on coffee and wine. I’ll also look into introducing more seeds and soya into my diet. When the going gets tough, I’ll up the supplements and if that’s not enough, I’ll be straight off to my GP to think about HRT.

I may not keep myself fertile and fabulous forever-but I may make the menopause easier for myself, and everyone around me.

Find out more:

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

NickPanay.com -I used to work for Nick way back in the day when I had a proper job, he is now a top menopause consultant so worth checking out.

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