Are you interested in protecting your brain function? Do you sometimes feel like you can’t think straight, or that you’re losing memory recall? Do you have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in your family and are wondering how to protect yourself from heading in the same direction?
You’ve arrived at the right place.
Functional Medicine has a comprehensive framework for addressing cognitive function. To get started, we want you to be empowered with the four common lifestyle modifications that form the foundation of our work with all patients who are interested in preventing or reversing early cognitive decline. Read on to find out more.
The scientific and Functional Medicine communities are buzzing with the accumulating evidence that supports lifestyle interventions for the prevention of cognitive decline. In January 2018, the prestigious JAMA Neurology Journal published the FINGER study (The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability). This large study demonstrated that lifestyle modification significantly reduces risk even in those carrying the genetic risk marker APOE ε4. (Read Dr Ken Litwin’s detailed review of the FINGER study here.)
This landmark study confirms a core tenet of Functional Medicine, and of our clinical practice—that our genes are not our destiny. Epigenetics and lifestyle modification are powerful levers are your disposal to reduce risk and slow the progression of cognitive decline diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In our clinic, we have been integrating the esteemed Dr Dale Bredesen’s ReCODE protocol for cognitive decline with our full Functional Medicine approach. The overlaps are significant of course, but we find that the Functional Medicine foundation allows us to capture and address even more, highly individualized contributors to healthy brain function. It’s a perfect combination.
When we work with patients on prevention and reversal of early stage cognitive decline, what we do with one person is never completely the same as what we do with someone else. Depending on the specific Alzheimer’s subtype, or subtype risk, and in combination with each individual’s unique presentation, we’ll tailor our interventions accordingly. However, and this is key—there are four principle lifestyle factors that we address with ALL our patients.
This is where you can get started. Today. Without even booking an appointment.
The four principle lifestyle factors for reversing cognitive decline are sleep, stress, exercise and diet. Simple, right? Sometimes it can be. Let’s dive into each of these in turn:
Several recent studies demonstrate associations between disrupted sleep patterns and measures of reduced cognitive function.
We know that chronic sleep deprivation, or poor-quality sleep, damages neurons, increases inflammation, and interferes with the brain’s own clearing system. During sleep, the brain rids itself of neurotoxins including beta-amyloid, the protein responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep deficiency also increases the risk for metabolic diseases – heart disease, obesity, and diabetes – which are strong drivers of cognitive decline in susceptible individuals.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60% of Americans are sleep deprived. Common contributors to poor sleep include stress, a diet high in processed foods and carbohydrates, consumption of caffeine, nicotine and/or alcohol, and sleep apnea. Certain conditions and medications can also contribute to difficulty with sleep or may influence the amount of sleep you need.
Read our blog on sleep hygiene to learn more about the impact of sleep on your health and 6 easy sleep tips to get better sleep tonight!
Stress activates the “fight-or-flight” response center, the sympathetic arm of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). When stimulated, the HPA signals the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This is an essential mechanism we’ve developed for survival. The problem occurs, however, when stress mechanisms aren’t shut off. Chronic elevations of cortisol are linked to poor blood sugar control, increased belly fat, weakening of the immune system, and direct loss of neurons in several areas in the brain including the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.
We can, in many circumstances, make life changes that reduce our exposure to stressful situations. But we can’t prevent all stressful life events from happening; and in those situations, we must find ways to change how we respond. Almost half of Americans (44%) report that they don’t think they are doing enough to manage their stress. Learning stress management techniques can dramatically improve your quality of life and dramatically slow progress of cognitive decline.
The most useful tools for reducing stress and improving brain function include meditation, yoga and breathing techniques. Research shows that even 5-10 minutes of meditation a day or just 15-20 minutes of yoga can temper your stress response for the rest of the day and improve cognitive function.
There are some great smartphone apps to help get you started, like Headspace or the Calm app for easy-to-use guided meditations and breathing exercises. If you’re new to yoga*, it’s a good idea to begin with an introductory class with a qualified yoga instructor.
Read more about the impact of stress and 5 tips for how to manage it. Exercise is also a great stress buster…
Research continues unabated on the importance of exercise for preventing and managing chronic disease. In fact, sitting has been dubbed “the new smoking” because the risks of having a sedentary lifestyle on chronic health are comparable to that of smoking.
Some benefits of exercise* for cognitive health include:
- Reduced insulin resistance, a known driver of Alzheimer’s disease
- Increased brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a compound which is known to strengthen cognition by building new neuro-connections in the brain
- Growth of the brain hippocampus, a region shown to shrink in Alzheimer’s in response to stress
- Improved vascular function, which boosts blood flow and the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain
- Better stress management
- Improved sleep quality and duration
Not surprisingly, brain-stimulating exercises are another form of exercise that are vitally important too. Just like your muscles, your brain thrives when you exercise and challenge it. Consider learning a new instrument or a new language to stimulate your brain activity. Even socializing with people you haven’t met before can challenge the brain in new ways. Brain training games like Luminosity and BrainHQ make it fun too!
Nutrition is perhaps THE most powerful tool we have to beat cognitive decline. There are some common threads that appear in most of our nutrition plans, that you too can incorporate starting today:
- Take out harmful dietary components like added sugars, food additives, and trans fats
- Choose foods with high levels of antioxidant and cell-repairing phytonutrients, like berries, green tea, and cacao
- Include omega 3-rich foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, and especially cold-water fish (sardines or wild salmon, for instance)
- Don’t forget leafy greens, and other methylation-rich foods that support epigenetic balance and detoxification – a natural process that occurs in the body to promote the release of toxins, medications, or hormones
- Get our free guide, Foods for Brain Health, where we share our top 7 foods for brain health.
Another tool in our dietary arsenal is intermittent fasting, in which meals are spaced to promote better regulation of blood sugar and insulin levels. Simply finishing your last meal 3 hours before bedtime and allowing for a 12-14 hour overnight fast improves sleep and can help improve blood glucose and insulin.
When You Need More
The four lifestyle factors above can take you a long way towards keeping your brain as sharp as you want it to be. However, when that isn’t enough, or if you’re getting stuck implementing these, leaning on Functional Medicine clinicians and the full Bredesen ReCODE protocol is the next step.
Our physician and nutritionist team tailor intervention plans to meet your individual needs. These precise adjustments are based on your unique metabolism, hormonal patterns, genetics, immune reactivity, gastrointestinal health, microbiome balance, nutrient status and more. Chronic infections, environmental toxins, and existing conditions are all considered and addressed as needed for their relevance to cognitive function. Certain interventions can be dialed up under the guidance of a qualified practitioner, such as the strategic use of well-planned ketogenic diets** for greater impact. Advanced Functional Medicine testing can be extremely helpful to uncover hidden contributors to brain deterioration.
When working with a Functional Medicine practitioner who combines lifestyle modification with this the FxMed root cause approach, Alzheimer’s risk reduction and even reversal of early-stage cognitive decline is possible.
*always check with your physician before starting an exercise program.
**ketogenic diets should be supervised by a qualified healthcare practitioner