Health & Fitness

Some people are born with naturally better brains. Childhood nurturing can help or hurt the brain's development. Later, some people study harder or read more than others. Some retain more facts and ideas and/or simply think more clearly. Ultimately our brains decline with age along with the rest of our bodies, some more than others. Thus we all differ in our apparent brain power throughout our lives, no matter how it's measured.

Could you have gotten a scholarship or that foreman's job if you were just a little smarter, or married that gorgeous doctor if you were just a little wittier or smarter? How often have you forgotten an acquaintance's name, a punch line, or even where you live? Does it happen more often as you approach middle or old age?

All other things being equal, more brain power is better, simply because it's so useful. We function better with it - better grades, better jobs, greater income, greater ability to solve problems, greater recollection of useful data, slower decline in brain function as we get really old. Dramatic loss of mental function, whether simply becoming eccentric or succumbing to Alzheimer's or some other devastating dementia, is not a natural product of our normal lifespan. There are ways both to elevate and to depress our brain power throughout our lives. Let's look at some of the effective, ineffective, and harmful things people can do to their brains.

They generally fall into three categories:

  • diet,
  • supplements, and
  • behavior.

We control all three, so we have some measurable impact on our own brain power from grade school on. Parents could have some impact on their children's lifelong brain power beginning almost with that post-conception cigarette. Homo sapiens should be able to remain sharp for more than 60 years, with only moderate decline during the following 20, and we can usually influence those numbers for better or worse throughout our lives.

Pound for pound, our brains burn calories 20 times faster than the rest of our bodies. Even while we sleep, our still-active brains burn and deplete calories. Our brains insist that all their energy comes from high-quality carbohydrates. A sound breakfast is thus one of the most simple, effective, and pleasant ways to achieve and maintain clarity through the morning. It doesn't have to be a big meal, but it does need to include fruit, whole grains, and protein. A bagel is just sugar by the time it hits our bloodstream, thus doesn't qualify, but whole wheat toast with peanut butter, a fruit, and a glass of low-fat milk is a great brain sharpener. [I expanded that idea and simply eat what most people call supper every morning. I haven't seen that after-lunch brain fade (i.e. bumped my nose on my desk) since the day I switched breakfast and supper nearly 20 years ago.] Small meals and snacks feed the brain, while a big meal starves it by diverting its blood flow to the digestive system. Snack and graze all day, rather than pigging out in the evening, for a long list of improvements including increased mental clarity.

There's no point in even discussing the most obvious brain-power killers. Drugs -- alcohol, nicotine, pot, and worse -- harm our brains, beginning many months before we're born if our mothers imbibe. Let's concentrate instead on the proven brain power boosters - a sound diet and a physically active life - which are very familiar to regular readers of this column.

By every measure, from test performance to brain dissection, lifetime exercisers maintain better brain function than sedentary people. Specifically, fitter old people maintain better brain volume and function in brain areas associated with memory and a broad range of skills including planning, multitasking, and execution of complex tasks quickly and efficiently under pressure ... in other words, real life. This doesn't come with occasional gardening and vacuuming; it comes with sessions of at least 30 continuous minutes of aerobic exercise and strength training - both of them independently and measurably important -- three days a week. That could include anything from brisk half-hour walks to any aerobic sport we enjoy, plus some weight lifting if our sport doesn't include strenuous muscle exertion. Mental exercise, including solving puzzles and discussing, reading, and writing about challenging subjects, is proven to sharpen our minds.

What about all the pills, herbs, and bars of brain candy hyped as brain food? Take ginkgo biloba, for example, a highly promoted brain booster. It's claimed to make us sharper and more alert, but a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of its effects on memory and recognition. proved only one thing: we spend a quarter-billion dollars a year on it for no valid reason. Neither the ginkgo users, the tests they took, nor their friends and family could perceive any improvement. Ginseng fared no better in its brain function tests.

Another supposed and somewhat promising brain booster was phosphatidyserine (PS), but it was made from cow brains, before mad cow disease surfaced. Soy-based PS has shown no benefit.

DHA (aka DHEA) has also shown no benefit to brain power in healthy people; even a DHA study funded by a supplement manufacturer remains unpublished. Besides being ineffective, it may quickly cause liver damage and may also cause some cancers, excess facial hair and an increased risk of heart disease.

Because Congress forbids the FDA from regulating foods, these supplements are sold as foods to deliberately bypass government oversight of both their effectiveness and their advertising hype. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently petitioned the FDA to halt the unrestricted sales and rampant false advertising of these and other so-called functional foods, including herbs. The legal battle rages on, and unless CSPI wins, we lose.

In the meantime, and in case CSPI loses, let's apply logic. Because drugs and supplements specify the safe dose on the bottle, your death from taking a whole bottle is not the manufacturer's fault. But if you eat a lot of some food laced by the maker with herbs, the maker might be held liable for any overdose. Thus for his legal safety, the maker puts in so little of the substance that it cannot possibly harm you in any amount. That's also too little to benefit (or harm) us, of course, but the manufacturer's goals are to make money and avoid litigation, not help us. If you want to eat brain food, try fish. Evidence is mounting that the fish high in omega-3 oils discussed in this column in August may support better brain function.

Some of the most common destroyers of brain function are referenced and discussed in the October 2002 issue of CSPI's excellent Nutrition Action Healthletter (subscribe at ):

  • alcoholism,
  • depression,
  • diabetes,
  • heart disease and heart surgery,
  • high blood pressure,
  • sleep deprivation including apnea (and simply not getting eight hours of sleep every night), and
  • stress.

Fortunately, they are all treatable and/or avoidable in the vast majority of cases, and resolving those problems -- not taking brain pills -- should be one's top priority.

So much for the chemical short cuts and obvious self-inflicted brain bombs. What about deficiencies in known nutrients affecting the brain? Deficiency in any of the three vitamins B12, folic acid (B9), or pyridoxine (B6) raises our blood levels of homocysteine through a variety of known mechanisms, and it ravages our blood vessels. The race is then on to see how it nails us first - via heart attack, mini-strokes which produce senility, major strokes, permanent nerve damage, Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's disease, to name a few of its established effects.

If we ingest, absorb and metabolize enough of these three vitamins, we don't need to supplement them. We should get plenty of them from ... ta da ... the right foods. No surprise here: whole grains, leafy greens, citrus fruits and juices, and beans and peas. In addition, we should cut back on meat, including chicken, to reduce our bodies' production of homocysteine. But, of course, you already eat that way, right?

Many people over 50, however, don't get enough B12 simply because their naturally declining stomach acid levels prevent its absorption. Antiacid compounds and drugs - right at the top of our drug intake nationally -- probably compound this effect. Fortunately, B12 is very cheap, and unless eaten "as a main dish" is harmless. Taking B12 won't boost brain power if we aren't deficient in it or can't transport it, but it can help reduce a number of very serious problems, including senility, if we are deficient in it. It's common in the whole grains our diets should be based on. The most useful tests for B12 function are a simple test for homocysteine blood levels and the MCV test for red blood cell size.

Eating right can make us smarter, but can aggressive weight-loss diets dumb us down? You bet! Women on very-low-calorie diets process information more slowly, react more sluggishly, and forget sequences more often than non-dieting women. Gradual weight loss of one to two pounds a week works better for both mind and body.

So eat better, play harder and more often and avoid the shortcut hucksters -- and keep reading this column - and you'll be a little smarter than the bear who does none of these things.

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