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Regular exercise, targeted nutrition linked to brain health

The data on holistic treatments for dementia, memory loss and overall brain health has been exploding in recent years, nutritionist Nonie De Long says
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Dear Nutritionist,
I’m a 65-year-old woman with a husband with a failing memory. He was officially diagnosed with the first stages of Alzheimer’s early last year and it has gone downhill since. I’m frustrated that we have been given drugs that have conflicting information about their safety and he hasn’t improved at all. I keep asking for information about what I can do naturally to help with his memory, and now mine, which has deteriorated with the stress. Are there any foods or supplements that target this and is it reasonable to expect any improvement at this stage? — Keitha

Dear Keitha,

As our population ages, the question of age-related memory decline is becoming increasingly relevant and many readers will benefit from it. 

First, I want to say I know how exhausting it is to be a caregiver and I urge you to double up on your efforts to take care of yourself. Caregiver burnout is a serious concern when a loved one is ill for an extended period and you’re of no use to him or anyone if you’re a walking zombie.

As you’ve pointed out, this will deplete your health and ability to care for him further. So taking time and care for yourself should be No. 1 on your list. As such, I want to preface what I say by suggesting you use the information to improve your health, also. Brain health is tied to nervous system health and my recommendations will apply to both. 

The data on holistic treatments for dementia/ Alzheimer’s/ memory loss and overall brain health has been exploding in recent years. I particularly like the work of self-proclaimed maverick-psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen. If you’re not sure who this is, you can see one of his moving TED Talks here, wherein he describes his use of, and advocacy for, SPECT brain imaging to help identify and track brain-related disease.

The tools he uses to target brain disease are varied, but he is the first brain specialist I know of to confirm his results via imaging. Symptomatology is typically used, but now we have evidence of how that relates to physical changes.

Recently Dr. Amen has written“The most crucial thing we can do to maintain and improve brain health over time is to increase blood flow to the area through regular exercise and targeted nutrition.” 

You can find his online brain assessment here. It asks questions about some key factors in brain health and should help you realize what is connected to the troubles you’re having or how to better prevent those troubles going forward. Out of this free assessment you will get a link to a summary video of your “type” and a downloadable report or summary with ideas you can use to improve your scores.

Some considerations are stress management, sleep quality, mental exercise, physical exercise, having a sense of connectedness in your community, and of course, nutrition.

Dr. Amen’s work validates what orthomolecular nutritionists have been saying all along: food is medicine and supplements do work. What we eat greatly impacts our brains and can totally transform their structure and function over time. In his clinical work, Dr. Amen uses foods and supplements (nutriceuticals or nootropics) to improve brains that show areas of dysfunction or altered structure. His latest book on memory, Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most, can be found with reviews here.

Dr. Drew Ramsey is another such maverick. It would seem a no-brainer (couldn’t help myself) to those of us in the industry, but Dr. Ramsey has likewise become known for heralding the link between mental health and nutrition. A clinical psychiatrist, he became frustrated when patients were not getting well despite the best medicine and conscientious clinical care.

He started exploring what they were eating and came to the conviction that good food is essential for good mental health. He shares his discovery that the brain is capable of exponential change and growth via brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which basically allows the brain to develop new neural pathways throughout the lifespan, which is, in turn, influenced by the available nutrients. To hear a rousing talk by Dr. Ramsey on the link between nutrition and mental health, go here

And my area of specialty is holistic, integrative mental health care , from psychosis to mood dysregulation to memory and trauma to anxiety.

So of the data that’s emerging on age-related memory and overall brain health, two points aren’t surprising: good nutrition and regular exercise improve outcomes and shoddy nutrition and a lack of regular exercise deteriorates them.

We also have data that heavy metals correlate to decline, as shown in autopsied brains. Aluminum is indicated in particular. And what naturally chelates (binds and removes) heavy metals in the body? Specific foods and supplements and, despite many articles in the mainstream media to the contrary, sweating. Read the data for yourself here

Stress and sleep also play a role in cognitive function, as captured in Dr. Amen’s questionnaire. 

But other data is a bit surprising: there’s now data that low cholesterol levels can increase cognitive decline in certain age groups; and social isolation or not having deep and satisfying connections with others greatly correlates to cognitive decline.

A new area of nutritional supplements with brain-specific, cognitive-related benefits is emerging. These are called nootropics. I want to share a few of the better established ones. I have included in each a link to information about each by clicking on it. 

  • Phosphatidylserine: This is a phospholipid. Every cell in the body is encapsulated in a membrane formed of phospholipids. The body can make phosphatidylserine but gets it mostly from foods.
  • Dococahexanoic acid (DHA): This is an essential fatty acid, often referred to as an omega fatty acid. Along with the other essential fatty acid, EPA, it is known to play an important role in brain health throughout the lifespan. Historically EPA was better regarded for brain health but now we know DHA is particularly important.
  • Jiaogulan (Gynostemma): This is a herb from southern China, where it is known as a longevity herb. It has a number of noted properties, but is especially known for helping the immune system adapt to stressors and protecting the organs and brain. 

In addition, three foods that are known to help with brain health are:

  • Eggs (nest laid free range) - very high in choline, which is essential for brain health
  • Oily fish like sardines or salmon, for a boost of essential fatty acids
  • Turmeric, the circumin in this spice has been shown to reduce the plague involved in Alzheimer’s

Thank you for your question, Keitha. I hope you’ve found some information here to help you and your partner build better health going forward. Obviously, memory loss is a serious marker of inflammation that usually gets worse with age without targeted interventions, and if you can, it’s best to see a holistic health care provider to help direct the therapies most suited to your husband’s needs. 

As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website and sign up for my free newsletter at Upcoming events are posted in the newsletter, including the Kombucha class at the Bradford Library and the Fun with Fermenting and No Sugar Know How classes held at the Newmarket Library. It would be great to see you there!

Nonie Nutritionista

Nonie De Long is a registered orthomolecular nutritionist with a clinic in Bradford West Gwillimbury, where she offers holistic, integrative health care for physical and mental health issues. Check out her website here. Do you have a question about health and wellness? Email