Reviewed by Stacey Nied
According to authors Daniel Amen, M.D. & Tana Amen, RN, BSN, people are more than likely a sheep or a sheepdog rather than a wolf who preys on sheep. Do you know which you are? A sheep is a person who is passive about his/her health. This person may not educate themselves or have the discipline to maintain health, including good food choices. A sheepdog is a person with tenacity and vigilance about maintaining their good heath, as it is vital to be well to take care of others who need help (be they children, parents, relatives or friends). After reading Daniel Amen’s book, it is clear to me that if we care about our own brain health -- if we want to serve both ourselves and others -- WE MUST BE SHEEPDOGS! Fitness and key blood levels numbers are important, but just as important is our relationship with food. Daniel Amen offers twelve tips to boost brain health based on his research on "super foods." These are guidelines for becoming a sheepdog, and for maintaining your mental clarity, brain health, and the importance of what we consume every day. Most of his conclusions are consistent with Suppers for Brain Health, where participants read books about the diet and lifestyle changes which may prevent cognitive losses and learn to embrace a lifestyle that may slow down, or even reverse, the development of dementia.
Below are some key takeaways to boost brain health:
Focus on High Quality Calories
A major challenge for a large portion of the American public is the vast consumption of refined sugar and or processed foods. Our society has produced and promoted these foods as enticing, indulging, and tasteful. However, society (including food producers) don’t educate consumers on the harm of sugar and processed foods. Sugars do three things that are harmful to our bodies and minds -- they increase cravings, increase stress hormones, and promote illness.
Drink Plenty of Water
Hydration increases strength, and supports focus and memory. Likely, it is the "sheep dogs" who sit at their office desk with a jug of water and send their children with water to school each day. They know this rule. Six to eight glasses daily are necessary to prevent dehydration which can lead to brain atrophy, poor concentration, poor school or job performance, and increased sensitivity to pain.
Eat High Quality Protein in Small Doses Throughout the Day
What does this do? Two important things: Protein balances hormones of metabolism to suppress symptoms of hunger and stabilizes blood sugar, preventing energy crashes. Protein supports healthy functioning of the hormone glucagon, necessary for insulin control. Insulin help the body store energy in the form of fat from the sugar and simple carbs we eat. However, beware: Large quantities of low-quality protein can cause oxidative stress and inflammation and may accelerate aging.
Eat Smart Carbs: Decrease High Glycemic and Low-Fiber Carbohydrates
Smart carbohydrates are found in many healthy plants, and therefore, vegetables. Replace high-glycemic, low-fiber foods with high-fiber foods such as berries, flaxseed, nuts, broccoli, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes (skins too) to maintain movement of foods from the intestine to colon. Eat a combination of soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber grows friendly bacteria, makes vitamins K and B and boosts immunity. Insoluble fiber passes through the system close to its original form and works to clean out the small intestine.
Focus Your Diet on Healthy Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids found in many fish may slow weight gain. Digestion of fats help produce the hormone PYY which allows the body to feel full and satiated. Healthy fats build healthy cells, necessary for proper brain function.
Eat From the Rainbow
This basically means eat non-processed foods -- fruits and vegetables of all colors from blueberries to pomegranates and yellow squash to red bell peppers. They all have a vast array of plant nutrients, enzymes, vitamins and minerals necessary for good health. These plant nutrients function on the cellular level by repairing DNA, preventing chronic diseases. Fruits and vegetables support the functioning of every system in the body.
Cook with Healthy Herbs and Spices
Some of Amen’s suggestions include turmeric to ward off Alzheimer’s disease, and saffron to alleviate depression. Rosemary, thyme, and sage to support memory. Cinnamon improves attention and regulates blood sugar. Garlic and oregano boost blood flow to the brain. Hot spices, such as ginger, cayenne pepper, and black pepper increase metabolism.
Make Sure Food is as Clean as Possible
"Clean as possible" means choosing organic, hormone-free, antibiotic free, grass fed or free range animal products. In addition, Amen recommends eliminating MSG, gluten, corn, soy and dairy in order to maintain optimal mental and physical health.
Eliminate Potential Allergens and Internal Attackers
Amen believes it it important to eliminate gluten sources such as barley, rye, spelt, imitation meats, MSG, and soy products to support gut and brain health (which are connected). Removing gluten may improve weight loss, brain fog, irritability, eczema, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Eat Healthfully During the Day but Fast 12 Hours a Night
Breakfast is a must to stabilize your blood sugar and jump start your metabolism. Also include a healthy fat in the morning. Preventing blood sugar drops is critical. When this happens, cravings often cause a person to make poor food choices. Eating small meals frequently is one solution. However, this is not always feasible, but having healthy snacks ready when hunger strikes is a good idea. Leaving 12 hours between dinner and breakfast and 3 hours between dinner and bed is also recommended. It appears that this allows a cleansing process in the brain to clean up beta amyloid (associated with Alzheimer’s) and other unwanted harmful proteins.
Following a proper diet is one piece of brain health that we have total control over. If we can create a mindset and lifestyle that supports a healthy relationship with food and practice these principles with consistency, we will we on our way to better brain health -- including energy, focus, mood, and memory.