FACT: The brain is THE super-muscle that controls the body.
What happens to muscles when you don’t use them? They atrophy. Dictionary.com defines atrophy as: “a wasting away of the body or of an organ or part, as from defective nutrition or nerve damage. (The) degeneration, decline, or decrease, as from disuse.” In other words, use it or lose it.
There are two ways to feed the brain – literally (food you ingest to feed and energize your muscles with nutrients, vitamins, etc.) and figuratively (mind exercises that work your mega muscle). Since it’s no secret that we’re all living longer, it makes sense that we want to make every moment count. Remember the old hair dye commercial: “If I’ve only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde” slogan? Fast forward to 2014. The probability is that you will live longer than your parents did, so wouldn’t you rather live longer AND healthier, too – if not as a blonde, as a healthy and energetic senior?
Feeding your brain – literally and figuratively – will yield not only a longer, but also healthier life.
LITERALLY: Brain-healthy foods
Any food that is rich in antioxidents is good for your brain. These foods, through oxidation of fats and oils, slow down deterioration. In other words, they are “anti-aging” or age retardant. Antioxidants are typically foods rich in vitamin C, E, minerals, phytochemicals, or beta carotene, which also counteract the damaging effects of oxidation (the noticeable effects of getting older) by helping to repair cell damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals have also been known to contribute to chronic heart disease and cancer.
Foods rich in antioxidants include:
1. Green leafy veggies like kale and spinach: Kale, the super power of vegetables, just one cup (chopped) of kale provides 206% of your daily recommended dose of vitamin A and 134% of your daily recommended dose of vitamin C, not to mention the additional effect of another antioxidant, lutein, found in the green pigment. King of the green, leafy vegetables, spinach is known to be high in antioxidants and reigns supreme as one of the top sources of antioxidants, including lutein, which is said to protect your eyes and help protect agains cognitive decline, as well as beta carotene and zeaxanthin. According to a Harvard Medical School study, women who reported eating spinach had a significantly lower rate of cognitive decline compared to those who ate the least amount of spinach.
2. Yellow fruits and veggies, like cantaloupe and corn: Let’s hear it for beta carotene: Woot! Woot! Yup, that’s what makes cantaloupe such a beautiful orange color and score high points in the antioxidant derby. It is also rich in Vitamin C and zeaxanthin (yellow pigment also found in corn.) When the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, life is good, and good for you. Corn is rich in antioxidants, especially zeaxnthin, which is good for the eyes – not just elephants’. Corn is also rich in Vitamin C and lutein.
3. Berries and Cherries: Not just blueberries, but strawberries and raspberries as well have high concentrations of a special kind of antioxidant – anthocyanins, the pigment that gives foods (and flowers) the colors red and blue and known to be rich in Vitamins E & P. Berries are also rich in the antioxidants Vitamin C and quercetin (sometimes called flavin.) A recent brain study done on a large sampling of middle-aged womene found that a diet high in blueberries, strawberries, and others were linked to a slower mental decline in areas like memory and focus. Cherries are known to be rich in antioxidants, antocyanin and quercitin, both known to be inflammation-fighting photochemicals. Cherries also contain additional antioxidants: Vitamins A & C. As if that wasn’t benefit enough, they taste great, no matter what time of the year. Why not try a refreshing, fruity smoothie?
4. Coffee and Chocolate and Red Wine: Oh so good, and really good for you? Let’s get this party started! Red wine is rich in antioxidants. Aside from the Reservatrol found in the grape skins, the antioxidants help prevent the death of brain and heart cells, partly because femented foods contain lactic acid, which also aid in digestion. Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants and is healthy for not only your brain, but your whole body. It’s the caffeine, however, that helps maintain mental acuity. Also rich in flavonoids, an antioxidant that helps improve blood flow, chocolate is thought to help regulate cholesterol, lower blood pressure, boost metabolism and burns fats and calories. You don’t have to beat me over the head to know that coffee boosts energy. Ask any coffee drinker. But did you know that it’s the caffeine that is a mild stimulant found in coffee? It helps improve mental acuity and its antioxidant richness helps maintain brain health. Some researchers have even gone as far as to say that coffee has a positive affect on staving off depression in women.
5. Super fruits and veggies, like peach, plums, tomatoes,and bell peppers: Peaches are rich in the antioxidant known a lutein, which helps keep your heart, skin, and eyes healthy. The antioxidants found in peaches also include Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and zeaxanthin and the yellow carotenoid is good for the eyes. Plums are rich in phytochemical antioxidants including beta carotene, Vitamin C, and neochlorogenic and chlorogenic acids. Rich in lycopene, a super antioxidant, tomatoes are one food that has increased benefits when cooked. The lycopene in foods like gazpacho and tomato sauce are more potent than raw tomatoes. Tomatoes are also rich in the antioxidants Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Red pepper juice, anyone? Bell peppers win by A LOT over oranges in their concentration of Vitamin C, and red trumps green when it comes to Vitamin C. Peppers are also rich in antioxidants, Vitamins A & E.
6. Omega-3 fatty acids: In addition to antioxidant-laden foods, there is scientific evidence that fish oil (predominantly Omega-3 fatty acids) can reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death. Some scientists also believe that Omega-3 fatty acids can improve one’s blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels and decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, have been linked to lower risk of dementia, improved focus, and memory.
Brain boosting foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids include:
• flax seeds
• fatty fish like salmon, sardines
• grass-fed beef • soybeans
7. Go nuts – walnuts, that is: Loaded with anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy nutrients, walnuts have been found to be the only good nut source of alpha linolenic acid (ALA). That means they help promote blood flow, which in turn allows for efficient delivery of oxygen to the brain. They also contain fiber, protein, vitamins. Shelled nuts generally contain less calories than unshelled. Studies on mice who had Alzheimer’s disease were given walnuts regularly resulting in demonstrable improved memory, learning and motor skill coordination.
8. Water: Studies show that when a person becomes dehydrated, their brain tissue actually shrinks and that can affect their cognitive function as well as they short-term memory, focus, and decision making. Don’t forget to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
FIGURATIVELY: Brain-healthy exercises
So much for feeding our bodies and our brains with FOOD food. What else constitutes BRAIN FOOD besides that which we consume? The brain is a muscle, and muscles must be exercised in order to retain their pliability and flexibility and usability, so it makes perfect sense that exercising the brain should be an integral part of your daily routine. What does that mean? As we age, and our brains age, exercising all five areas is important in order to stay mentally sharp.
There’s a relatively new onslaught of “brain-training” websites said to provide mental exercises to train the brain and enhance brain performance and mental health. Good? Bad? There are studies that support the theory and others that don’t. While the jury’s out, it’s certainly intriguing and worth exploration. Puzzles require different parts of the brain to work through logical progressions, each “engraving” layers into the brain and forcing neurons and muscles to work together to solve puzzles. Using your brain muscle and building memory are good ways to stay alert.
Here are a few FREE websites to get you started:
1. Web Sodoku – number puzzles It’s addictive, and you don’t need math skills other than the ability to count from 1 through 9.
2. Lumosity – a site devoted to brain training.
3. Games for the Brain – this site has all kinds of brain-worthy games, including word games, solitaire, mahjongg, and more.
4. Word Search – build your own games by choosing topic and level of difficulty.
5. Boatload Puzzles – thousands of crossword puzzles. The nice thing about this site is that you can play online or print the puzzle. Yay.
Get started today to living a longer, brain-healthy life!