It’s National Nutrition Month and a perfect time to think about ways to increase your nutritional intake. By now most folks have forgotten about their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, eat healthier, become a vegetarian, reduce sugar intake, etc. It doesn’t matter. New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken.
This is a good time to develop a new plan that makes sense. Whether you want to support your brain health, relieve stress and anxiety about caregiving responsibilities, or just want to rev up your energy, stamina and immunity, here are some ways to protect your health and support your mood.
- Did you know that 70% of your immune system lies in your gut? Probiotics are live bacterial microorganisms that populate the human gastrointestinal tract. They combat the daily bombardment of toxins and pathogens (bacteria, fungus, parasites, and viruses) that enter our digestive system every day through contaminated food and other toxins. Recent studies show that the bacteria in your gut can also affect your mental health, mood and stress levels. Fermented foods such as kombucha, Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, cottage cheese are probiotics. Probiotic bacteria colonize the digestive tract with good bacteria. Prebiotics are the food and nutrients that feed probiotics. Prebiotic fiber is found in fruits and vegetables such as artichokes, jicama, wild yams, onions and garlic, asparagus, beans, oats, chicory root and Jerusalem artichokes. Prebiotics support mineral absorption, vitamin utilization, and healthy blood sugar levels. Your gut needs both pro- and prebiotics in order to stay healthy and keep you healthy.
- The brain is very sensitive to the food we eat. A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (Aug. 8, 2016) evaluated 242 participants, measuring fasting blood sugar and neuro-cognitive functioning. Those with elevated blood sugar, including people who did not have diabetes, had a dramatic increase of developing dementia. Just remember that what is good for your heart is good for your brain. So try eating a Mediterranean based diet of olive oil, fish, and lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts and seeds, with less meat, cheese and sweets.
- Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated and to flush out toxins. Your brain is 70% water when fully hydrated, and it gets dehydrated just like your body. When it is dehydrated neurotransmission—which is heavily dependent on water—is impaired, resulting in poor memory, concentration and impaired abstract thinking. The next time your mind is muddled, drink a tall glass of water and notice the difference.
- Take a complete B-vitamin supplement to make sure you are getting a balanced amount of B vitamins. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
- Berries are berry good for your health. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, cranberries, as well as some others you may never have heard of, contain unique phytochemicals that may help prevent cancer, heart disease, age-related brain declines, and much more. Blueberries score highest on the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) test—a measurement that rates the total antioxidant score of foods, and many berries, such as raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries contain ellagic acid, which preliminary research suggests may help to prevent certain types of cancer. Summer is almost here, so enjoy your berries. They are good for you!
- Eat more healthy fats and skip the hydrogenated and trans fats found in doughnuts, potato chips and other pastries and desserts. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life. Eating fish such as wild-caught salmon, sardines and other cold-water fish can protect you against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Numerous studies have shown that elderly people who did not have dementia had high blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an essential fatty acid found in cold-water fish, in comparison to those with dementia, who had on average 30% to 40% lower blood levels of DHA. Ways to increase your DHA intake: eat cold-water fish such as wild-caught salmon, sardines and mackerel, at least twice a week. Add flax meal to cereal and baked goods, sprinkle flax oil on your salad, eat a small handful of walnuts at least several times a week.
- Eat breakfast! It is the meal that you break your fast with. During the night our blood sugar levels drop, so it’s especially important to eat within one hour of arising and by 10am. Eating breakfast restores healthy blood sugar levels, but make sure your breakfast isn’t coffee and a doughnut. Have some protein and a healthy fat such as an omelet and avocado and a piece of whole grain or gluten-free toast. It’ll provide you with the energy you need to get through the morning while maintaining a sense of equilibrium. My favorite cool weather breakfast is eggs (any way you like them), a side of beans such as black or pinto, and a pile of sautéed greens. When the weather is hot, I prefer home-made granola made with oats, a bit of coconut oil and maple syrup, coconut flakes, and lots of nuts including almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pumpkin seeds. Add chia seeds, flax meal, yogurt and fresh berries and you’ve got a breakfast for champions.
- Avoid commercially processed meats and favor grass-fed meats, free-range chickens and eggs fed an organic, non-GMO diet. And limit your meat consumption to no more than twice a week.
- Eat like a rabbit to reduce your risk of stroke, dementia, macular degeneration, and other chronic illness. Veggies are low in calories and high in fiber. Fruits are also high in fiber and like veggies, contain numerous vitamins and minerals. Just like people, fruits and vegetables come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. And it’s the colors that identify many of the bioactive substances called phytonutrients that give us antioxidant protection and other special health benefits. The scientific community has produced a large body of research showing the potential of these super nutrients. Compared with people who eat few fruits and vegetables, populations that consume a large variety and generous amounts of plant foods enjoy longevity and reduced risk of disease. For example, the people of Okinawa have a long life expectancy, numerous centenarians, and a low-risk of age-associated diseases. Their diet is low in calories, fat, sugar, salt, and meat and dairy products. Instead, Okinawans eat fish, tofu, whole grains, and lots of fruit, dark green leafy vegetables, onions, green peppers, sea vegetables and sweet potatoes—which are all dense in phytonutrients and antioxidants. These islanders are known for a low-stress, carefree and relaxed attitude. Their rates of stroke, dementia, cancer and heart disease are also the lowest in the world. For every 100,000 people in Okinawa, 30 have passed their 100th birthday, one of the highest rates in the world.
- A cup of Joe will do you good . . . just don’t overdo it and don’t add lots of cream and sugar. Researchers from the University of Scranton found that coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the U.S. diet. Coffee has been shown to improve mental acuity. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (2012) found that people older than 65 who had higher blood levels of caffeine developed Alzheimer’s disease two to four years later than people with lower caffeine levels. The study included 124 people who had mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Typically, 15% of people with MCI will go on to develop full-blown Alzheimer’s disease each year. The study participants who had less than 1,200 ng/ml of caffeine levels in their blood developed Alzheimer’s disease. This is equivalent to drinking several cups of coffee a few hours before their blood was taken. The people whose memory loss did not progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease had higher levels of caffeine in their blood. Coffee appeared to be the only source of caffeine for the participants in the study. Some big caveats: if you have high blood pressure limit your coffee intake to 2 cups a day, and avoid drinking it before exercise or physical labor which both naturally raise blood pressure. Coffee acts as a diuretic, depleting the body of necessary fluids, so make sure you drink a glass of water for every cup of coffee you drink. Coffee can raise homocysteine levels, an indicator and risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It can also cause headaches, fatigue, depression, anxiety and drowsiness if a coffee drinker forgoes his or her usual daily dose of caffeine. So be smart and listen to your body.
- Drink green tea if you don’t like coffee or are unable to drink it. Scientists have found evidence that green tea extract can help fight everything from glaucoma to prostate cancer and leukemia. Now a research team composed of chemists, biochemists and biophysicists at the University of Michigan has found a new potential benefit of green tea extract: preventing the clumping of proteins associated amyloids in the brain, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. The study found that the specific molecule in green tea, ( — )-epigallocatechin-3-gallate, also known as EGCG, prevented aggregate formation and broke down existing aggregate structures in the proteins that contained the metals copper, iron and zinc. At Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine, researchers tracked the green tea consumption of nearly 14,000 people over age 65 for three years. The participants’ quality of life (measured in day-to-day activities such as getting dressed, walking the dog, and performing household chores) was examined in relation to how much green tea they drank. The authors found that the more green tea participants consumed, the longer they were able to ward off the difficulties associated with old age. The people who drank at least five cups a day were one-third less likely to develop disabilities than those who had less than a cup per day. Those people who averaged three or four cups a day had a 25 percent lower risk. Just remember that while green tea and its extracts are considered safe in small amounts, they do contain caffeine and small amounts of vitamin K, which means it could interfere with drugs that prevent blood clotting. So the next time you feel the need for a cup of coffee or black tea, consider drinking a cup of green tea instead. It just might help you maintain clarity of mind, healthy bones, and cardiovascular health well into your senior years.
- Herbs or adaptogens can be helpful for increasing energy without stimulation. An adaptogen is a natural substance—usually an herb—that helps the body adapt to stress by producing a calming effect on the whole physiology, and stress is often blamed with being the root cause of many illnesses and diseases. Phytosterols, the plant compounds in the herbs ashwaghanda, gotu kola, passion flower, schizandra, skullcap, rhodiola, and cordyceps have been scientifically shown to support the adrenal glands and healthy blood chemistry, and enhance the body’s ability to resist the ravages of stress. Valerian, Siberian ginseng, kava kava, oat straw, and hops also help reduce stress. These herbs can be taken as a tea or in the form of a nutritional supplement. Culinary herbs also have numerous health benefits. Turmeric, the spice used in Indian cooking, has dozens of studies backing up its ability to reduce inflammation, another major cause of chronic disease, and risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Cinnamon helps to stabilize blood sugar levels, which is vital to healthy aging. Oregano contains antioxidants that offer antibacterial protection. Garlic has been called the natural antibiotic, and ginger root has been used for thousands of years for its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects. The list goes on and on.
- Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in your body—which means it is absolutely essential to your healthy blood pressure, cardiovascular health, bone and overall health. In fact, you cannot live without it! Magnesium is involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions, particularly as a catalyst for food metabolism and the release of energy. Yet, only about 25% of Americans meet the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 400 mg per day for magnesium. Good sources of magnesium include: dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, Swiss chard and kale dark green, legumes, peas and beans (especially soybeans), seeds and nuts (especially almonds, cashews and pumpkin seeds) whole, unrefined grains, including oatmeal and bran, and halibut
- Go nuts on Brazil nuts. They are rich in selenium, a potent antioxidant which is concentrated in the thyroid gland. They also contain copper, which helps to support a healthy thyroid. Regardless of whether you have thyroid issues, selenium is a good all-round antioxidant. According to the Institute of Medicine, the tolerable upper intake level (UL) (i.e., the highest level of intake that is known to avoid toxicity) for selenium is 400μcg per day. On average, Brazil nuts have 544 mcg selenium per ounce, but studies indicate that the selenium content may vary widely depending on country of origin, cultivation methods, etc. With that in mind, a good starting point for most folks would be to consume 2 – 3 Brazil nuts per day.
- Eat more tomatoes. Recent epidemiological studies have suggested that eating tomatoes and tomato-based food products can reduce the risk of prostate cancer and macular degeneration. This protective effect has been attributed to carotenoids, which are one of the major classes of phytochemicals in this fruit. The most abundant carotenoid in tomato is lycopene. Cooking tomatoes in olive oil helps you digest and assimilate the lycopene so if you like tomato sauce on your pasta, go for it. Just make sure you are eating a healthy pasta product–think whole grain, quinoa, etc.
- Include flax oil, flax meal or flax oil in your diet. They are the best source of lignans. Lignans are compounds that form the building blocks of plant cell walls. They contain phytoestrogens that help regulate the body’s estrogen production. When we eat plant foods the lignan compounds are converted in our intestines by good bacteria to produce a form that the body can assimilate. Enterolactone—the primary lignan metabolite (a substance produced by metabolism) that circulates in our blood—produces weak estrogenic activity. Dozens of reports have revealed that high levels of enterolactone in our blood help to reduce risk of breast, prostate and colon cancers, and cardiovascular disease. Studies have also shown that high levels of lignans can support healthy weight and glucose metabolism, reducing the risk of insulin sensitivity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Most plant foods contain small amounts of lignans, but flax seeds are by far the best source. Other good sources include high fiber foods such as whole grains (wheat, barley), sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, kale, broccoli, carrots, legumes, garlic, asparagus and berries.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin reduce eye health risks. What are they? They are antioxidants in the carotenoid family—a group of naturally occurring, fat-soluble pigments found in plants—that play a key role in our the health of our eyes. Carotenoids are the red, orange and yellow plant pigments that give fruits and vegetables their vivid colors. All fruits and vegetables contain varying concentrations of carotenoids. But their colors are often covered up by green chlorophyll contained in the plant. Lutein is found in spinach, kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce, leeks, peas, egg yolks, tomatoes, carrots, marigold flowers, and fruits. Zeaxanthin is found in corn, kale, mustard greens, spinach, egg yolk, orange peppers, collard greens, lycii berry fruit, green algae spirulina and other types of commercially produced algae. Lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the macula, the prominent, bright yellow spot in the center of the retina that allows you to clearly distinguish fine detail. And studies are showing that people with macular degeneration—the slow deterioration of the cells in the macula, which affects your central vision, the vision you use for reading, writing, driving and identifying faces—have low concentrations of these two pigments in the macula. So make sure you are eating plenty of the above mentioned fruits and veggies.
- Chromium is a first class blood sugar and insulin regulator. Yet, nine out of 10 American diets fall short of this trace mineral, which is essential for the transfer of sugar from the bloodstream to muscle cells, giving them the fuel they need to work. Chromium is also involved in maintaining cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and supporting healthy muscles. Chromium levels decrease with age and are often low due to poor diet. Eat more foods that are naturally high in chromium: broccoli, barley, oats, green beans, tomatoes, Romaine lettuce, black pepper, Brewer’s yeast.
- Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, is a vitamin-like compound and an important antioxidant. It exists in every cell of your body and you could not survive without it. CoQ10 is essential in the body’s production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which produces energy within the cells and is the basis for normal functioning of all body systems and organs. If you think of the body’s cells as little engines that use oxygen to burn the organic fuels that come from food, you may think of CoQ10 as the part of the engine that provides the spark for this process. No other substance will substitute for CoQ10. Without it there is no spark and therefore no production of energy for the cell. And without energy there is no life! As we age, it becomes more and more difficult for the body to produce enough CoQ10. An 80-year-old person has about half the CoQ10 levels of a 20-year-old. Body levels of CoQ10 are also influenced by stress, cold, illness, high blood pressure, hormone concentrations, physical activity and prescription drugs, which can deplete CoQ10 levels. Scientists estimate that once levels drop below the 25% deficient level, a variety of health problems can take hold. But your cells’ energy and efficiency can be restored with supplementation and/or by eating eggs, dairy products, meat, and poultry, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, broccoli, cauliflower, and some fruits and vegetables.
- Are you getting enough vitamin D? Most people, especially the elderly, are vitamin D deficient. Researchers have found a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and low mood, depression and worse cognitive performance in older adults. In a recent study, 1618 patients who averaged 73.8 years old were tested for vitamin D deficiency. Those with severe vitamin D deficiency were twice as likely to suffer from depression. Vitamin D is most commonly known for helping the digestive system absorb calcium and phosphorus. In that way it helps the body build and maintain healthy bones. But it does much more. Adequate vitamin D is believed to play a role in the reduction of falls, as well as supporting cardiovascular health, a strong immune system and cognitive function. Also, scientists theorize that one of the reasons that influenza occurs in the wintertime is that we do not manufacture enough vitamin D, and the resulting vitamin D deficiency might promote our susceptibility to the flu virus. Which foods contain vitamin D? Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, tuna and sardines, milk, and fortified cereals provide more than 100 IU per serving. And mushroom is the only food in the produce section that has vitamin D. But you’d have to eat an awful lot of these foods to get the recommended daily dose of vitamin D, which is 2400 IU, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition. For instance, you would have to eat at least five servings of salmon a day or drink 20 cups of fortified milk. Play it safe and take a vitamin D dietary supplement. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition (March 9, 2009) adults need at least four times the current recommended dose of 600 IU of vitamin D. In 2008 The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doubled its recommended minimum intake for infants, children and teens from 200 IU to 400 IU per day.
Be well, be heathy, and please subscribe to my blog for more articles filled with information on how you can support your health and the health of your loved ones.
Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Boulder Book Store, Tattered Cover Book Store, Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.