Last Updated on November 7, 2022 by Editorial Staff
Susan Saunders is the co-author of the best-selling book, The Age-Well Project, and author of her latest book, The Age-Well Plan, a blueprint for how to age well. Here are her top tips for how to look after your brain. You can listen to Susan talking about brain health on the Magnificent Midlife podcast.
- Destress your body
Our bodies are such miracles. All our systems work so hard to protect us. If we get injured, if we cut ourselves, our body will send inflammation to deal with that. It will get red. It will get sore and it will heal. The inflammation is the process that does that and that’s acute inflammation. That’s our friend, that’s good.
What happens as we get older is that we get a build up of various substances within the body. Various things build up in the body and the body feels that it’s under attack and therefore thinks, right, I need to deal with this. I need to send inflammation to this site. But if that’s your whole body and if it’s constant, if it’s chronic, the body is constantly in a low level setting of inflammation and that’s really bad for us. We can’t sustain that.
It’s like being stressed all the time. It just becomes unsustainable. What’s happening as we get older is that we get a buildup of toxins from environmental factors, from what we eat, pollution, all kinds of things build up in us which have come from the outside and that causes our body to react and for us to become inflamed.
There are all these things happening inside us – basic metabolic processes like breathing and eating produce oxidation. When we’re younger, we have plenty of antioxidants and they go and they deal with these oxidative molecules called free radicals. They pair up. They buddy up. But as we get older, that system starts to slow down. It starts to fail. We have too many free radicals causing oxidation in our body which is basically rusting. We are basically rusting like a car as we get older and that rust is what’s causing inflammation in the body.
Our body’s trying to deal with it. It doesn’t have the right materials unless we give it the right materials. It’s constantly dealing with a state of inflammation which is why scientists talk about inflammaging. Inflammation is so closely linked to aging that the two things go hand in hand because inflammation ages us. As we get older, we produce more inflammation in the body.
- Protect your body from inflammation and zombies!
We want to try and deal with what’s there and what happens naturally just by breathing and eating. We want to reduce the risk of producing more inflammation in the body. One of the simplest ways is to make sure that we get lots and lots of fruit and vegetables which are rich in antioxidants. They give their molecules to the rusty old oxidation and they buddy up and stop causing inflammation in the body. It’s a major area of research.
At the moment, there’s a lot of money going into researching how we can deal with inflammation as we get older and how we deal with things like zombies. Zombie cells sound really weird but they are a term for senescence cells which have died off in our bodies but have not been reabsorbed in some way. They just hang around and they themselves will pump out more inflammation.
They don’t just curl up and die. They just sit in our bodies pumping out inflammatory substances so that’s more for the body to deal with. Interesting research was published at the end of 2021 that showed that the Alzheimer’s brain has more zombies. More of these half dead cells hanging around pumping out information than a healthy brain.
Clearly, if we want good brain health, it’s something we need to be dealing with. There is lots of research going on into how we can reduce these zombie cells, how we can reduce the inflammation that’s going on in our bodies and actually, what people are finding is the best way of dealing with it is with phytonutrients, which just means nutrients from plants.
Eating vegetables matters and the most powerful of these phytonutrients it seems, to deal with the zombies, are called quercetin and fisetin. There’s a lot of research going on into these two things. It might not work, that’s why research is so interesting, but at the moment, there’s a lot of interest in these compounds. The best sources of them now that we can eat are onions and tomatoes, which I love because they’re such simple, basic, cheap foods. They are really powerful antioxidants and really powerful when it comes to brain health and to fighting inflammation.
- Eat natural, unprocessed food and omega three fatty acids
It’s easy for us to talk about the Mediterranean diet and it has been so well researched, which is really important, that there’s a huge body of evidence about it. At the same time, it’s about eating the food of your ancestors and eating quite simple, easy, cheap foods.
Not eating foods that our grandmothers or great grandmothers wouldn’t recognize is eating food which is food rather than food that was made in a factory with emulsifiers and chemicals and all sorts of other things. It’s food that’s food and not processed because our bodies just can’t deal with all these strange chemicals and sort of ‘Franken’ foods. Either they contain a lot of unhealthy fats or highly refined carbohydrates or sugars or whatever that just knock our bodies out of whack and therefore create more inflammation which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. Because that is the key thing linked to ageing and brain ageing especially.
I’m certainly not anti meat at all but I think it’s about eating quality meat in the smallest quantities and not eating it three times a day and certainly for our forebears, it was a luxury food. It’s eating meat that has been humanely raised, pasture raised and not eating too much of it.
One of my probably most important foods for brain health as we get older is to make sure we get enough omega three fatty acids. EPA and DHA, and the best source of those are oily fish. SMASH fish which stands for salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring, those kinds of fish and the oils in those fish directly feed our brains.
I think it’s also worth exploring supplements. I’m not big on supplements but it’s worth exploring supplements that will deliver a similar level of EPA and DHA, marine algae supplements, because those essential fatty acids directly fuel our brains. There’s a really strong correlation between those fatty acids and thinking skills and older adults. The evidence is pretty overwhelming.
- Consider intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is actually a good way of killing zombies among other things. When we’re not feeding our bodies food all the time, they have to look around for other fuel sources, fat being an obvious one and also broken damaged cells or what’s going to get burnt up first. This is a really good opportunity for the body to repair and to heal, to go into a process known as autophagy, which literally translates as eating oneself.
Killing off these zombie cells, burning them up. Less inflammation in the body and giving our bodies a chance to rest and repair and digest. Rather than constantly thinking, there’s always food around, I’ve got to digest it, the body is thinking, okay, I don’t have to worry about digestion, let’s think about what needs to be repaired. Can I deal with some of this DNA damage that’s going on because this body’s ageing so let’s try and fix some of the DNA damage.
This is really powerful for the body and the brain, to let it have an opportunity to do things other than digesting. It’s just common sense that digestion is really a big ask of our bodies. They’re really good at it but there’s a lot going on. If you think okay, well let’s just stop that for twelve hours or whatever your fasting window might be, then the body can do other things.
I’m a really big fan of intermittent fasting. It works for me. It doesn’t work for everybody. I would say, particularly to the midlife audience, that if you’re on a hormonal roller coaster right now, being hungry or having blood sugar going haywire, this may not be the thing you want to do. You may not want to start your day without food.
How I intermittently fast is to finish dinner about 8:00-8:30 and then I don’t eat again till about 11:30 or so normally. So that gives me about a 15 hour fasting window. Time restricted eating is the term for it, but if you’re struggling with hormones at the moment, you might feel that actually in the morning, you need some food.
- Eat for a healthy gut
We have to think about gut health when we’re thinking about brains and our brain health because there is a kind of information superhighway called the vagus nerve which links our gut and our brain. It’s a direct relationship or direct messaging system that goes between the two.
If we talk about gut instinct and then when we process gut instinct in our brains, our guts are so closely related to the brain. that your gut instinct makes complete sense. It also makes sense that if our gut is inflamed, that inflammation travels to the brain via this nerve and because we’re talking a lot about inflammation, Alzheimer’s, dementia, inflammation-related diseases, there is this travel system between gut and brain so you want to have a really tip top gut.
What’s going on in our guts is that we have these microbiota, trillions and trillions of cells. We have ten times as many microbiota in our gut as we have human cells. We are just vehicles for this sort of teeming universe of microbiota.
Some very recent research came out that showed that the microbiota in our gut, our gut flora, send instructions to certain cells in the brain, telling them to fight inflammation. There’s this constant communication between gut and brain. The gut is telling the brain to deal with inflammation which can lead to cognitive decline. It’s really important that our guts are in the best possible health they can be so that they can do this work and send these messages.
It’s fascinating that this research is coming out all the time. Our microbiota are doing so much, sending messages. They are also producing substances which are really important for the body. They will ferment particular types of fiber to make substances that work well in the body. Short chain fatty acids are really important. The gut makes those by fermenting certain types of fiber.
There’s one in particular which is really important, a short chain fatty acid called butyrate. That has been linked to lower levels of amyloid plaque in the brain and amyloid plaque is the substance which is found in the Alzheimer’s brain. It forms clumps in the brain and kills off brain cells. If there is something we can make in our guts which then goes into the body and it has this impact on the brain, we really want to be getting some and that is that butyrate.
It’s really simple. It’s something the body makes when it digests very basic foods. Beans, legumes, and pulses. Cold potatoes are full of resistant starch so potato salad is really good for us. Oats, especially if the raw ones have been soaked, fruits like apples and raspberries. Onions, I think, are the ultimate superfood. Leeks, that kind of thing.
Simple, basic, everyday foods. We just have to remember to eat them and to work them into our diets but they have this really powerful effect on the brain and on brain health. Reducing levels of amyloid plaque is fantastic but actually having enough butyrate from the digestion of these foods is also linked to good mental health and to feeling happy, so that’s really important too.
Listen to Susan on the Magnificent Midlife Podcast
- Eat fermented foods
All these trillions of flora, they like to have lots to feed on, so those kinds of high fiber foods that they can ferment are their food source. They like to have lots of new friends. They’ve always got new playmates, that’s one way of looking at it and they come from fermented foods because fermented foods are living foods.
They have these bugs in them already so you’re just putting them ready made into the body. I absolutely love kimchi which is a Korean kind of fermented chilli and cabbage usually. It’s really tasty. Kefir which is fermented milk, available in supermarkets now and kombucha which is a fermented tea. Some people make it themselves which is a great way to save money. It’s just giving our gut friends, but it’s really important to give them plenty of food that they like which is resistant starch, fibrous foods, cheap foods like oats and beans. Sauerkraut is a fermented vegetable like kimchi.
It’s interesting that these are really traditional foods. These foods are thousands of years old. Obviously people worked out millennia ago that fermented foods were the way forward.
It’s interesting how we lost so much or we have lost so much of that food culture because there’s so much processed food around, because fine processed food makes profit for a lot of big companies. I hate to be political but that’s what it comes down to, that we’re sold these very highly processed, heavily sugared foods because they’re making profit for a corporation. It’s not going to be something particularly good for your body if it’s been made in a factory, not grown or harvested or in some way.
- Manage your blood sugar levels
One thing to mention when we’re talking about brain health and reducing dementia risk is to just be really clear on keeping levels of processed food and processed sugars as low as possible because putting our brains and bodies on an insulin roller coaster of eating lots of sugary food, a body has to produce insulin to deal with it, and then our bodies become resistant to that insulin. We stopped listening to insulin and our bodies have to store the glucose elsewhere so we end up with belly fat.
If we eat less sugar, less refined carbohydrates, then we stay sensitive to insulin and we absolutely don’t want to be on a path towards diabetes if we can possibly help it. Some people obviously have type one diabetes, that’s a different thing but type two diabetes, if we can reduce our chances of going in that direction, then that’s really good not only for our bodies, but our brains.
Alzheimer’s has been referred to as type three diabetes. We need our brains to be sensitive to insulin because insulin has a protective effect in the brain. It’s really important that we maintain a good relationship with insulin and don’t overload it with lots of sugar and processed foods.
When it comes to how to keep your brain healthy, it’s important to believe that you can make a difference to how you’re going to age and how your brain will age, and that the steps to take are often very simple, very small tweaks to lifestyle or diet. I’ve talked about some science and some big words and all the rest of it but actually the really important thing is believing that your own lifestyle can make a huge difference. Nothing is set in stone. You can make a real difference.
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