Turn on Brain Health: Live Smart to Stay Sharp

By Dr. David Wang, B.Sc., ND

Aging is inevitable, but ultimately, your age is just a number and what you do today will improve your chances of living a vibrant and energized life for many years to come. The healthier choices we make, the better we will fare as we get older.

This goes beyond just simply keeping a healthy weight. Nutrition and lifestyle choices help to take care of your brain, too! Neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and Dementia are not only becoming more and more prevalent, and they can put large strains on the healthcare system. It is estimated that by 2050, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia will increase 3-fold. In 2008, 5.3 million Americans had Alzheimer’s, at a cost of approximately $91 Billion on the healthcare system.

Science has begun to show amazing things about the brain’s ability to adapt and remap neural pathways. Neuroplasticity is the concept that brain function can change with behaviour, environmental influences, thoughts, emotions, and nutrition. This has huge implications for our ability to adapt, prevent, and even reverse the effects of neurodegeneration through the lifestyle choices we make. Drug treatments for neurodegenerative conditions only modestly improve symptoms, so prevention is key!


Genetics can play some role in whether or not you develop conditions like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. However, just because you may be genetically predisposed to neurological conditions, this doesn’t mean that you WILL develop them.

Epigenetics is the idea that you can change the expression of your genes depending on your lifestyle choices. For example, even though Alzheimer’s Disease may run in your family, by making healthy choices such as exercising, eating a plant-based diet, and keeping stress at bay, these genes may not be activated.

Environmental & lifestyle factors that could contribute to cognitive decline include:

  • Stress levels
  • Diet
  • Exercise[1]
  • Obesity[2]
  • Sleep patterns
  • Social contact
  • Toxic exposure
  • Bad habits, like smoking[3].


We all know that eating healthfully is a must, yet most might not realize the impact that your diet can have on brain health. Diets that are high in saturated fat and copper, which can cause oxidative stress on the body, can actually increase your risk of cognitive decline[4].

Additionally, people with low levels of B-Vitamins and high levels of homocysteine is a predictor of cognitive decline and dementia. What is homocysteine? It is an amino acid produced by your body, and when present in high concentrations could potentially lead to cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer’s Disease[5]. Homocysteine levels can be too high when you consume too much animal protein, and not enough leafy green vegetables.

Nutrient deficiencies including Vitamin A, B12, C, D, E, and Zinc have also been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease.


Even more important than eating your veggies is to eat ORGANIC veggies! There are reams of research linking pesticide exposure to neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s[6]. Go to www.beyondesticides.org to read some of the research for yourselves.

Brain tissue is fatty tissue, and many pesticides are lipophilic, meaning they can deposit into fat tissues. So – pesticide chemicals and heavy metals tend to deposit in fatty brain tissue, which can lead to neurological diseases. Autopsies have shown increased levels of mercury in the brain tissues in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease[7]. Those exposed to pesticides and heavy metals due to occupational conditions have a 300-400% increased risk of developing dementia and Parkinson’s[8].


Depression is also a major risk factor in developing Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, because it causes oxidative damage[9]. Research has shown that even just one depressive episode can lead to cognitive decline[10]. Additionally, stress (both physical and emotional) is a cause of both depression and Alzheimer’s disease. We will discuss in detail how stress can affect the brain.

First, let’s define stress and its many causes. Stress is an individual’s total response to environmental conditions, known as stressors. Stressors are more than just psychological. They can also include:

  • Nutritional deficiencies and toxic accumulation
  • Physical causes such as inflammation[11], or prolonged exposure to cold or heat
  • Mental overstimulation or insomnia
  • Emotional loss, dependency, abuse, financial worries, and
  • Spiritual issues.

Stress is problems of the mind and the body – problems of tissues and issues!

Your body’s adrenal glands respond to stressors in your life. These small yet powerful glands sit above your kidneys and secrete either cortisol or adrenaline, depending on the type of stress that you are experiencing. Cortisol is the hormone released during times of chronic, prolonged stress. Adrenaline is released during times of acute stress, which is your fight or flight response.

Let’s discuss CORTISOL, as that is what most people experience. Triggers for cortisol release are:

  1. CHRONIC STRESS, such as financial or emotional upset, and
  2. LOW BLOOD SUGAR, from skipping meals.

Cortisol’s job is to stimulate your metabolism by changing fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into energy so your body has fuel to respond to stressors. However, when you are in a state of chronic stress, your adrenal glands become exhausted and don’t secrete enough cortisol to help you through your stressors. This is like trying to run a marathon without eating enough food. When low cortisol occurs, this is called HYPOADRENIA, and can lead to:

  • Low metabolism
  • Increased inflammation, and
  • Hormonal imbalance

Hypoadrenia is aggravated further by liver toxicities (drinking excessive alcohol), sugar and simple carbs, coffee and caffeinated drinks, fasting and extreme weight loss programs, working night shifts, and over-commitment.


So, how do we combat chronic stress and get our bodies back on track and prevent cognitive decline? It’s not as difficult as you’d expect.

  1. Conserve Cortisol Levels & Restore Your Circadian Rhythm

Maintaining a normal sleep-wake cycle is key to controlling and conserving cortisol. A normal, healthy circadian rhythm involves:

  • 6am: Wake up
  • 6am – 3pm: Highest natural levels of cortisol. Do most of your mentally and physically demanding work in this time, and be sure to feed your body every 3-4 hours to avoid low blood sugar.
  • 3pm: Natural dip in cortisol – feed yourself with a healthy, non-sugary snack to maintain your energy.
  • 6pm-9pm: Wind down by relaxing, doing yoga, turning off TV and electronics etc.
  • 9pm-10pm: Go to bed.

By following this routine, you will naturally match your activity levels with your natural cortisol levels and maximize your ability to perform your tasks. Deviating from this cycle can cause your adrenal glands to work overtime, go into Hypoadrenia, and increase inflammation in your body[12].

  1. Control Inflammation with a Plant-Based Diet

Inflammation is the root cause of all chronic diseases, not just neurodegenerative conditions[13]. Uncontrolled inflammation can lead to cardiovascular disease, which in turn increases your chance of cognitive decline[14]. Cortisol is a factor in your body’s ability to control inflammation. In addition to maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm, eating an anti-inflammatory diet is a must.

We all know that eating more fruits and vegetables is important. Plants contain anti-inflammatory and disease-preventing phytonutrients, compounds that help us reverse oxidative stress in our bodies. Numerous research studies have linked the benefits of a plant-based diet to a lower risk of dementia and a slower rate of cognitive decline[15].

In my practice, I recommend eating a diet of at least 80% plants to my patients to ensure they are receiving enough whole-food nutrients and phytonutrients to support their bodies. It is important to include complex carbohydrates and protein with every meal. This helps regulate blood sugar and lets your adrenal glands know you aren’t going into starvation-mode.

  1. Change Your Perspective About Stress

The new paradigm in psychology is more about changing the way we think about stress rather than avoiding it, because it is unrealistic to think that you can avoid all stressors all the time. In a 2012 study, researchers asked participants if they viewed stress as harmful or helpful. Those who indicated they felt stress was harmful and reported that they had a lot of stress had a 43% increased risk of premature death[16].

Shifting your perspective around stress will condition your “stress muscle” to be more resilient rather than falling into being a victim of stress. Stress and challenges ultimately make us better people; they can help us improve our lives and the lives of others, make us more social, and help us learn.

  1. Practice Self-Care & Compassion

The old adage “you can’t take care of others unless you first take care of yourself” is very true. Practicing self-care and compassion is an important component to getting back on track. Self-care doesn’t need to be anything ground-breaking. It can be as simple as:

  • Listening to music[17]
  • Going for a massage[18]
  • Practicing meditation & proper breathing[19]
  • Laughing[20]
  • Exercise[21]


Your body works as a system – the diet and lifestyle choices you make affect your body as a whole, not just one part in isolation. Stress, in its many different forms, is a common thread that affects body, mind, and spirit. By being smart in managing your stress through diet, exercise, mindfulness, and self-care practices, you can set yourself up for a lifetime of happiness and health that can keep your brain sharp no matter what your age.



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Exercise and the brain: something to chew on, Trends in Neurosciences, 2009, 32(5):283-290

[2] Obesity and central obesity as risk factors for incident dementia and its subtypes: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Obesity Reviews, 2008, 9(3):204-218

[3] Smoking as a Risk Factor for Dementia and Cognitive Decline: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies, American Journal of Epidemiology, 2007, 166(4):367-378

Smoking, dementia and cognitive decline in the elderly, a systematic review, BMC Geriatrics, 2008, 8:36

[4] Copper and iron in Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic review and its dietary implications, British Journal of Nutrition, 2012, 107(1):7-19

[5] Homocysteine and folate as risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer disease, Am J Clin Nutr, 2005, 82(3):636-643

Homocysteine, B vitamins, and the incidence of dementia and cognitive impairment: results from the Sacramento Area Latino Study on Aging, Am J Clin Nutr, 2007, 85(2):511-517  

Plasma Homocysteine as a Risk Factor for Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, N Engl J Med, 2002, 346:476-483

[6] Association between environmental exposure to pesticides and neurodegenerative diseases, Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2011, 256(3):379-385

Alzheimer disease: Risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease increases with occupational pesticide exposure, Nature Reviews Neurology, 2010, 6(7):353

Occupational exposure to pesticides increases the risk of incident AD: The Cache County Study, Neurology, 2010, 74(19):1524-1530

Elevated serum pesticide levels and risk for Alzheimer disease, JAMA Neurol. 2014, 71(3):284-90

Neurodegenerative Diseases and Exposure to Pesticides in the Elderly, American Journal of Epidemiology, 2003,157(5):409-414

Association of Parkinson’s Disease and Its Subtypes with Agricultural Pesticide Exposures in Men: A Case–Control Study in France, Environ Health Perspec, 2015, DOI:10.1289/ehp.1307970

[7] Exposure to lipophilic chemicals as a cause of neurological impairments, neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, Interdisciplinary Toxicology. 2013, 6(3):03-110

Does Inorganic Mercury Play a Role in Alzheimer’s Disease? A Systematic Review and an Integrated Molecular Mechanism, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2010, 22(2):357-374

[8] Occupational pesticide exposure and screening tests for neurodegenerative disease among an elderly population in Costa Rica, Environ Res. 2013, 120:96-101

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[9] Is depression associated with increased oxidative stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2015, 51:164-175

[10] A meta-analysis of cognitive deficits in first-episode Major Depressive Disorder, Journal of Affective Disorders, 2012, 140(2):113-124

Hippocampal atrophy in first episode depression: A meta-analysis of magnetic resonance imaging studies, Journal of Affective Disorders, 2011, 134(1-3):483-487

Pathways linking late-life depression to persistent cognitive impairment and dementia, Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2008; 10(3):345–357

Severe Life Stress and Oxidative Stress in the Brain: From Animal Models to Human Pathology, Antioxidants & Redox Signaling. 2013, 18(12): 1475-1490

[12] “Sleep disturbance, sleep duration, and inflammation:  A systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies and experimental sleep deprivation.”  Biol Psychiatry, June 2015, online

“Serum inflammatory markers in obstructive sleep apnea:  A meta-analysis.”  J Clin Sleep Med, 2013, 9(10):1003-1012

[13] A Meta-Analysis of Cytokines in Alzheimer’s Disease, Biological Psychiatry, 2010, 68(10):930-941

Inflammation in neurodegenerative diseases – an update, Immunology, 2014, 142(2):151-166

[14] Cardiovascular risk factors and dementia mortality: 40 years of follow-up in the Seven Countries Study, Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 2009, 280(1-2):79-83

[15] Role of plant-based diets in the prevention and regression of metabolic syndrome and neurodegenerative diseases, Trends in Food Science & Technology, 2014, 40(1):62-81 

Fruit, vegetables and prevention of cognitive decline or dementia: A systematic review of cohort studies, J Nutrition, Health & Aging, 2012, 16(7):626-630

Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review, Epidemiology, 2013, 24(4):479-489

Association of Mediterranean diet with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, J Alzheimers Dis. 2014, 39(2): 271–282

Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta-analysis, Annals of Neurology, 2013, 74(4):580-591 

Polyphenol-rich foods in the Mediterranean diet are associated with better cognitive function in elderly subjects at high cardiovascular risk, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2012, 29(4):773-782

Accruing evidence on benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet on health: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis, Am J Clin Nutr, 2010, 92(5):1188-1196  

[16] “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality.”  Health Psych, 2012, 31(5):677-84

[17] “Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress.”  Ann New York Acad Sci, 2003, 999:374-376

“The effect of music on decreasing arousal due to stress: a meta-analysis.”  J Music Ther, 2004, 41(3):192-214

“The anxiety- and pain-reducing effects of music intervention:  A systematic review.”  AORN J, 2008, 87:780-807

[18] “A preliminary study of the effects of repeated massage on HPA and immune funtion in healthy individuals:  a study of mechanisms of action and dosage.”  J of Alt & Comp Med, 2012, 18(8):789-797

[19] “Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being:  A systematic review and meta-analysis.”  JAMA Intern Med, 2014, 174(3):357-368

“Effect of Buddhist meditation on serum cortisol and total protein levels, blood pressure, pulse rate, lung volume and reaction time.”  Physiol & Behav, 1991, 50(3):543-548

[20] “A meta-analysis of positive humor in the workplace.”  J Managerial Psych, 2012, 27(2):155-190

[21] The Effect of Exercise on Hippocampal Integrity: Review of Recent Research, Int J Psychiatry Med, 2005, 35(1):75-89

The effects of exercise training on elderly persons with cognitive impairment and dementia: A meta-analysis, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 2004, 85(10):1694-1704


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