Among developed countries, Japan has the lowest prevalence of dementia and neurocognitive decline. Japan’s Okinawa Island has been nicknamed “the island of longevity,” as many of its citizens live beyond the age of 100. In general, the population of Okinawa Island has lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Beyond their rich social life and sense of ikigai (an individual’s unique purpose in life), Okinawans have a diet that is hypothesized to be a contributing factor in the population’s low rates of dementia. Their meal plans are typically high in vegetables and legumes, fish, carbohydrates, and antioxidant-rich foods and low in sugar and fatty meats.
Research shows that diet has a direct impact on inflammation within the body, which can ultimately impact brain health, mental health, memory, and concentration. Eating foods that reduce or mitigate inflammation can provide a positive impact on brain function and can help control risk factors for neurocognitive decline and neurological disease. Additionally, emerging research suggests that there is a connection between an individual’s microbiome and brain development and function. Let’s take a closer look at foods that support brain health and the brain-gut connection as well as the best way to measure brain health over time when modifying one’s diet.
The human body has the remarkable ability to protect and heal itself via the process of inflammation. While inflammation is supposed to protect the body, it’s not always beneficial to overall health. Regularly eating foods that cause inflammation can lead to chronic inflammation of the gut, which can impact brain function and may trigger the onset of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as well as generalized anxiety disorder.
Research suggests that risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, may also be linked to neurological diseases like dementia. Thus, it is believed that adhering to a heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory diet can contribute to the prevention of brain-related disorders and diseases. Heart-healthy diets that aim to reduce or mitigate inflammation often incorporate a reduced intake of sugar and saturated fats and an increased intake of unprocessed fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds as well as monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats.
Many elements and patterns of the traditional Okinawan diet are shared with Mediterranean diets and the MIND diet. The MIND diet combines two heavily researched diets—the Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Helpful tips from these diets include:
Mediterranean diets are well known for the cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory benefits they provide with foods that support brain health. The Mediterranean and MIND diets both suggest implementing a high intake of plant foods, using extra-virgin olive oil as a primary source of fat, and limiting meat consumption. Both diets incorporate foods rich in antioxidants, monounsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids and avoid foods high in saturated fats.
New and emerging research points to the idea that diet influences the human microbiome and that there may be a connection between the microbiome and brain development and function. The gut-brain relationship is a developing area of research aiming to link diet to neurophysiological development and functions. Studies are being conducted to investigate how biochemical processes of food intake and digestion contribute to changes in the brain. Such studies suggest that the gut microbiome—or community of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes—may have an impact on brain development as well as brain function. Neurological diseases may be linked to changes in the gut microbiome.
Positively influencing one’s unique microbiome may involve changes in diet or the addition of probiotic and prebiotic supplements. However, more research is required to further investigate this connection to understand which dietary changes will have a meaningful impact on gut health to further promote brain development and neurocognitive function.
It is clear that diet is linked to brain health and that controlling one’s diet while incorporating foods that support brain health can control brain function as well as risk factors for neurocognitive decline and neurological disease. When modifying your diet to improve brain function, you or your provider will likely want to measure and quantify brain function over time to understand how dietary changes may be affecting it.
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