What to include and what to cut out of your diet

In this podcast I’m going to take a look at brain health, a subject that is getting quite a bit of attention in the medical and nutritional science communities, and even in some popular media. As the prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease, which is the most common form of dementia, is set to double over the next 15 years and because currently there is no cure or even meaningful treatment for this awful condition, we should take note of what Alzheimer’s specialist and renowned neurologist Dr David Perlmutter has to say about keeping our brains healthy.

To start with, women are particularly at risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Research shows that women may be at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s than of breast cancer. Now while genetics plays a role in Alzheimer’s Disease, the “explosion” in prevalence around the world in recent times, means that genetics alone can’t provide all the answers. Well, if genetics can’t provide all the answers, does diet play a role in Alzheimer’s Disease? This was a question asked in two recent major studies. And the answer appears to be a resounding YES!

A recent Mayo Clinic study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, revealed that the risk of developing the disease increased by 90% in people who followed a high carbohydrate diet, while the risk was reduced by 44% in those who derived most of their energy from fat. This is such an important finding that I think it’s worth repeating: the risk of Alzheimer’s increased by 90% in people who followed a high carbohydrate diet, while the risk was reduced by 44% in those who derived most of their energy from fat.

Eat fat and cut the carbs

‘Eating for a health brain’ is one of the most important things we can do to help in preventing Alzheimer’s Disease as well as possibly other brain conditions, including depression, ADD and ADHD . “Eat fat and cut the carbs”, say Dr Perlmutter. But what do high carb foods and beverages do that appears to injure our brains? And can the remedy be as simple as ‘eat more healthy fat and cut the carbs”?

We know from research that high carbohydrate diets, that is any diet that contains lots of sugar and other refined carbohydrates, gives rise to insulin resistance which in turn gives rise to Type 2 diabetes . Now it is thought that insulin resistance can also occur in brain cells thus giving rise to a form of diabetes which some call Type 3 diabetes. Just like its Type 2 cousin, this form of diabetes is responsible for oxidative stress, which manifests as inflammation but this time in brain cells. This process of oxidative stress and inflammation is, in plain language, somewhat akin to ‘taking a blowtorch to our brain cells and firing up the disease process.’

Now almost everyone has used the term ‘gut feeling’ at some time: “ I have a gut feeling about …” is commonly used when we have a feeling that something is about to happen. So why ‘gut feeling’ when it’s obvious that we think with our brains? Well, it turns out that what goes on in our gut, i.e. the health of our gut, has a significant impact on what’s going on in our brain! Ancient people like the Hebrews knew this as we can read in Psalm 22. However, – they did not know why. Now new research is pointing to the why.

The April 2015 edition of the Journal of Neuroinflammation included a study that suggests that inflammation in our intestine or gut changes the way in which we make new brain cells, or neurons, and furthermore how these brain cells function when produced under circumstances of gut inflammation. Inflammation of the gut is marked by an increase of chemical mediators called Interleukins, two of which appear to activate microglia which are inflammatory cells in the brain.

So now we can begin to connect some of the dots between gut inflammation and what goes on in our brain, but how does this inflammatory process manifest? It turns out that gut inflammation appears to negatively affect what goes on in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory centre, and manifests as symptoms of impaired memory and other cognitive functions, including those related to mood regulation, i.e. ‘mood swings’.

This means that the old and well-used term ‘gut feeling’ may have taken on a whole new meaning. New research in this area may help to explain why people who suffer from inflammatory gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome often have impaired cognitive function and experience mood-related disorders.

Knowing what might be causing the problem is all well and good, but how do we fix it? A study published in 2005 revealed that a ketogenic diet, i.e. a very low carbohydrate, moderate protein and high fat diet, was able to improve symptoms of cognitive dysfunction at a level equal to that achieved by medication or brain surgery. “Eat more fat and cut the carbs”, exactly as Dr Perlmutter and other experts recommend.

Another dietary tip for a healthy brain concerns improving the quality of our gut microbiome, i.e. the bugs that contribute to so much of our gut health. If bad bugs are associated with bad health then it’s reasonable to assume that good bugs are associated with good health. But what is really interesting is new research that shows that this effect includes brain health. Putting good bugs back into our gut means consuming fermented foods such as Yoghurt and Kefir, which are a rich source of probiotics (‘good bugs’). Also, it is recommended that we add fibre-rich foods which have anti-inflammatory properties to our diet.

Our diet plays an important role in brain health

Today we know that our diet plays a major role in both causing and, therefore, in preventing inflammation of the gut. Elimination of certain agents including gluten, sugar, cow’s milk (in lactose intolerant people), preservatives as well as some medicines that may be associated with increased intestinal permeability – the so-called ‘leaky gut’ syndrome – may be an important first step on a journey to having a good ‘gut feeling’ and most importantly – a healthy brain.

I hope that this podcast has been informative. If you any questions then please email me at askdrhill@upforit.co.za. I’m Dr Peter Hill for UpForIt. Till next time, stay healthy and safe.