8 Ways to Improve Your 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 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 of degenerative brain diseases.

  1. Food REALLY matters – Eat real food from nature. Get the right balance of macronutrients: quality protein, healthy fats, and carbs from plants. Essential fats are especially critical for brain. Avoid sugar, processed foods and minimize flour.
  2. Micronutrients matter. Vitamins, essential minerals and phytochemicals (natural chemical compounds in fruits and vegetables that have protective effects). Key micronutrients like Vitamin 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 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. Create a regular sleep–wake schedule and sleep 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. Use water filters and air 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.
[su_expanding_quote_book alignment=”right” source_author=”Mark Hyman, MD” source_title=”Food Fix” full_quote=”Food contains information that speaks to our genes, not just calories for energy. What you eat programs your body with messages of health or illness.” short_quote=”What you eat programs your body with messages of health or illness.”]

What to do?

  • Eat food as close to nature as possible. To support a healthy gut and a health brain, gradually increase consumption of vegetables until you reach 8 servings/day. Eat a variety of types and colors of veggies. This includes roots, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, beans, berries, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. Aim for 2 – 3 colors at each meal.
  • Improve your digestive function and your gut health
  • Build sustainable stress management practices — mindful breathing, movement, gratitute, 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 nutrition and the brain, I can help others to improve mental fitness, physical vibrancy and reduce risks of degenerative brain diseases. Change-maker that he was, my amazing father would love that.

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Revised from December 2021 post.


Seeds of this Blog

Does food affect our brain? How does what we eat affect our health? Those questions are the seeds that have grown the content of colormyfood. They’re the cornerstone of my eating lifestyle and why I cook the way I do.

My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008. This disease causes the brain to stop producing dopamine (a neurotransmitter) that helps regulate movement and ultimately affects common daily activities.

After going through shock, denial and grief, I launched into an all-out effort to learn about Parkinson’s, its prognosis and treatment. My dad is my friend and mentor. His life is the stuff books are written about and movies are made of — fighting the Communists at the height of the Cold War when Cuba sent Che Guevara into Bolivia to overthrow the government and use our country as the base for the Communist take over of all of Latin America. My childhood was interspersed with dad going into hiding because there was a price on his head for planning revolution, a brief exile, a bomb thrown at our house until finally after tremendous sacrifice, the tide turned and in 1979 my dad became an architect of Bolivia’s democracy. He served as Congressman, Senator and Ambassador in his passion for building a better country. But that’s a different story.

Back to Parkinson’s; we found a world-renowned Parkinson’s expert in Houston and for the next 7 years, my dad followed Dr. X’s prescriptions of continuously increased dosage. Every checkup, I asked if nutrition mattered. The doctor’s only diet recommendation was to reduce animal protein because it interferes with the absorption of Parkinson’s medications.

My blind faith in the world-renowned expert eroded as I witnessed my athletic, handsome father’s brisk walk convert to a shuffling gait, his hands freeze and handicap his ability to use his beloved camera or the computer so instrumental to his prolific writing. Reaching beyond “what the doctor said”, we sought additional alternatives: consistent exercise, physical therapy, acupuncture, and yes — food.

The more I researched, the more I kicked myself for not doing so earlier. Obviously diet has a direct impact on our health. Duh. But what I didn’t know is how much diet can impact the health of our brain.

I wish I knew in 2008 what I now know. Would it have made a difference in the progression of my father’s disease? I’ll never know. But I do believe what I’ve learned can help slow further progression. I have faith it will help my brain’s health. And I’m keenly motivated to share what I’ve learned with hope it may help others.

I’ve chewed through more books than I can recall, spent innumerous hours on the Internet seeking and digesting credible information and made endless notes.

Now I’m streamlining what I’ve learned into weekly blog posts on food and health.

Join me on this empowering discovery of food as a path to wellness. Jump in with your own experiences and lessons learned, with your questions or comments.

And on colormyfood you’ll also find recipes to incorporate knowledge into what you eat.

Next week’s blog post will be on food and brain health.

For Further Empowerment

Dr. Hyman: 7 Steps to a Super Brain

Dr. Amen: 10 Steps to Brain Healthy Eating

Dr. Greger: Treating Parkinsons with Diet

Plant-based diets in general, and certain plant foods in particular, may be used to successfully treat Parkinson’s disease.

The Healthy Mind Cookbook

More than a cookbook of colorful, flavor-bursting recipes, this wonderful resource show us how nutritional and culinary science can help us to live healthier.