What I Wish I’d Known about Brain Health

I walked into the waiting room with my brilliant, charismatic father, my mentor, my friend. He had come all the way from Bolivia to see a neurologist in the Texas Medical Center. “I don’t look like that, do I?” he asked, noticing the patients already there. I shook my head, reinforcing his notion that he didn’t belong there.

A few months earlier he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in our hometown Cochabamba, Bolivia. As often happens with the diagnosis of any major disease, particularly one that has no cure, disbelief was forefront. After careful research and months of waiting, we were able to get this appointment with a world-renowned specialist in Parkinson’s disease.

I will always remember that summer day. Going from sweltering Houston heat that sticks clothing to your skin in seconds between the parking garage and the frigid blast of air-conditioning upon entering a building.

Disbelief is the first stage of grief. It would morph into a roller coaster of bargaining, anger, grief, depression, acceptance, resistance and learning over the next fourteen years.

This is what I wish I had known that fateful day when my beloved daddy received confirmation of a Parkinson’s diagnosis. Cognitive decline is not inevitable. We can reduce the risks, and progression, of degenerative brain diseases.

  1. Food REALLY matters – Eat real food from nature. Get the right balance of macronutrients: quality protein, fats from nature, and carbs from plants. Essential fatty acids are especially critical for the brain. Avoid processed foods, minimize sugar and refined grains (wheat flour especially). There is a strong correlation wiht sugar and Alzheimer’s, so much that Alzheimer’s is called Type 3 diabetes.
  2. Micronutrients matter. Vitamins, essential minerals and phytochemicals (natural chemical compounds in platn foods that have protective and healing effects). Key micronutrients like Vitamin B and D and Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for normal brain function across the lifespan. Low levels can increase the risk of neurodegeneration. Get your micronutrients by eating a WIDE diversity of plant foods, including nuts and seeds, herbs and spices.
  3. Digestion matters – Digestion is the chemical and mechanical breakdown of food. Proper digestion releases nutrients for absorption through the lining of into the bloodstream and carried wherever needed. If digestion doesn’t function properly, nutrients are not adequately absorbed and delivered to the brain and rest of your body.
  4. Gut health mattersGut is the gastrointestinal system (GI) made up by the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine. Gut health is directly linked to brain health. People suffering from Parkinson’s have different patterns of gut dysfunction than healthy people. Gut dysbiosis (dysfunction) plays a pivotal role in the development and progression of Parkinson’s disease, and is also linked to depression and anxiety.
  5. Sleep matters – Improving your sleep promotes brain health and may reduce risks of developing Parkinson’s/cognitive decline. Your brains is most active when asleep — storing memories, removing toxins and waste, making repairs. Build a regular sleep routine in and in a dark room free of light pollution from electronic devices.
  6. Stress matters – Stress, anxiety, depression and strong negative emotions decrease brain activity. The communication between the brain and gut is clearly related to chronic stress. Excess cortisol (stress hormone) over time interferes with neuronal plasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and learn, can lead to a suppressed immune system, and to full-blown depression.
  7. Toxins matter – Environmental toxins, toxic mold, and air pollution are significant contributing factors in the development of Parkinson’s disease. Avoid, or minimize, the most pesticide-laden produce. There is a direct correlation with pesticides in Parkinson’s patients, and also with dry cleaner chemicals. Drink filtered water, invest in a water filter at home. Heavy metals such as mercury and aluminum can present dementia-like systems.
  8. Movement matters – Aerobic exercise (like walking) enhances neuroplasticity, promotes the growth and survival of neurons and appears to have the most favorable effects on brain health and Parkinson’s disease progression.

What to do?

  • Eat food as close to nature as possible. To support a healthy gut and a healthy brain, gradually increase consumption of plant foods until you reach 8 servings/day. Eat a variety of types and colors: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, rainbow vegetables and fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. Aim for 2 – 3 colors at each meal. Purple/blue/red foods are especially beneficial for brain health
  • Improve your digestive function and your gut health
  • Build sustainable stress resiliency practices — mindful breathing, movement, gratitude, nature…whatever works best for you.
  • Honor your sleep
  • Reduce your exposure to toxins

I will always wonder –  what if we had known this information years ago? How different would the outcome have been for my dad, for his quality of life? For all of us who loved him?

Former Congressman, senator, ambassador, powerful historian that he was, visionary and architect of democracy, how much more could he have contributed to the nation he so dearly loved? And to the cause of democracy he dedicated his whole life to?

I will never know. What I do know is that with this knowledge about functional nutrition and the brain, I can help others to improve cognitive function, physical vibrancy and reduce risks of degenerative brain diseases. Change-maker that he was, my amazing father would love that.

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Updatedfrom December 2021 post.


Good Mood Leafy Greens

Eating leafy greens regularly is one of the most powerful ways to care for your mental fitness, brain and physical health.  They are a rich source of B vitamins, linked with better mental functioning and keeping your brain healthier and sharper as you age. They contain vitamin K which has been shown to boost memory, and phytochemicals that protect neurons from damage caused by oxidative stress. Loaded with  immune protective micronutrients, leafy greens also:

  • reduce inflammation (high brain inflammation is part of depression and anxiety)
  • improve your immune system’s resistance to viral and bacterial infection
  • work together to enhance defenses against destructive toxins
  • detoxify and remove carcinogenic compounds from your body
[su_expanding_quote_book alignment=”full” source_author=”Leslie Korn, MD” source_title=”Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health” full_quote=”Green plants are rich in chlorophyll, the green color of plants that helps to clean and build blood. It inhibits bacterial growth, yeasts and fungi in the digestive tract, purifying the body of toxins. It is anti-inflammatory and helps to renew cells and support healthy gut bacteria. It is an energizing food important to people with fatigue-related conditions, depression and IBS (inflammatory bowel syndrome” short_quote=”Green plants are rich in chlorophyll. It is an energizing food important to people with fatigue-related conditions, depression and inflammatory bowel syndrome”]


Did you know there are at least 18 different varieties of lettuce? Leafy greens also include:

  • Arugula
  • Beet greens – cut thin like coleslaw and add to salads, add to soups and chili or stir-fry
  • Collard greens – you can use as a wrap instead or tortilla
  • Escarole
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens – add to omelets and frittatas, bean dishes and stir fry
  • Radicchio
  • Sorrel
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Turnip greens 
[su_expanding_quote_book alignment=”full” source_author=”Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD and Ayesha Sherzai, MD, MAS” source_title=”The Alzheimer’s Solution” full_quote=”When you want more bang for your nutritional buck, eat your greens. Greens are one of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world; that is, they are high in nutrients and low in calories. They pack so much in: phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, fibers, good carbohydrates, even protein. Almost all studies done on brain health and nutrition show that the foods that stand out for people who have the best brain health and general health are greens. It’s always greens.” short_quote=”Studies on brain health and nutrition show that the foods that stand out for people who have the best brain health and general health are greens”]

Kale is packed with

  • 45 different varieties of protective antioxidant flavonoids
  • vitamin A which can improve learning skills
  • mood-elevating vitamin C
  • vitamin K which boosts memory
  • essential minerals that protect against cognitive decline

[su_expanding_quote_book alignment=”full” source_author=”Rebecca Katz” source_title=”The Healthy Mind Cookbook” full_quote=”Swiss chard is agreat source of memory-boosting vitamin K. It’s also loaded with vitamin A, which has been linked with improvements in various learning skills. The array of B vitamins here, including folate and B6, may help keep the brain healthier and sharper as we age. Swiss chard also contains the minerals iron and zinc. Avoiding iron deficiencies is critical to avoiding cognitive complications in life. And zinc boosts our memories and may help keep depression at bay.” short_quote=”The array of B vitamins may help keep the brain healthier and sharper as we age.”]

Cruciferous vegetables

[su_expanding_quote_book alignment=”full” source_author=”Rebecca Katz” source_title=”The Healthy Mind Cookbook” full_quote=”Broccoli has B vitamins in abundance which is linked with better mental functioning, and as we get older, the prevention of dementia. Cabbages are especially powerful brain foods. Red cabbages have antioxidant phytochemicals that protect neurons from damage caused by oxidative stress. Cauliflower is a great source of vitamin C which is good not only for overall health of your brain but may elevate your mood. Kale is packed with 45 different varieties of antioxidant phytochemicals and mood-elevating vitamin C. ” short_quote=”Broccoli has B vitamins in abundance…”]

These are in the same nutrient dense leafy greens category. The name comes from the flowers, with four equally spaced petals in the shape of a cross. They have antioxidant phytochemicals that protect neurons from damage caused by oxidative stress. And lots of memory-boosting vitamin K. Cruciferous vegetables include:

  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Collards
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Mustard greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Watercress

What to Do?
Leafy greens are very versatile. Enjoy them in salads, soups and stews, or stir fries. Blend them into pesto and serve over fish or chicken, pasta or roasted vegetables. Add them to smoothies, blender muffins and pancakes.