EAT WELL, LIVE WELL: How to feed an aging brain and body
“According to a variety of research, some vitamins and minerals are linked to improved memory, including vitamins B6, B12, D, C, and E; folate; biotin; coQ10; omega-3 fatty acids; and antioxidants, particularly in the flavonoid family.”
I read the above statement in a paper on Nutritional Concerns and Aging, and I can’t help but think that this list basically describes the food we eat and that healthy aging is basically about taking care of ourselves. The nutrients that fuel a healthy body also fuel a healthy brain. When we are consuming optimal amounts of these nutrients, there is plenty of nourishment for all of our systems. When we are underconsuming or overstressing, we have nutrient shortages that impair our physical and mental functioning.
So what does the research tell us about the roles of some of these nutrients in healthy aging?
Dietary needs change with aging in several ways:
- People may become less active; as they become less active, their metabolism slows, their energy requirement decreases, and they either gain weight from continuing to eat as they have or they have difficulty consuming adequate nutrients as they decrease their caloric intake
- Our ability to absorb certain nutrients diminishes and may require support
- Loss and loneliness may impair the ability of some or us to meet our nutritional needs
- Loss of mobility may impair our ability to access healthy food
- Changes in oral health may impact what we are able to eat
Let’s look at some nutrients:
- Protein – recent literature points to a higher need for protein to maintain and/or build muscle mass as we age; eating a higher protein diet does not appear to pose a risk to the kidneys for most people. We may encounter increased difficulty in breaking down proteins for absorption as we age, leading to digestive concerns with protein intake. Use of digestive bitters or supplementation with Betaine Hydrochloric Acid (HCl) can help to alleviate this problem. Protein is used for many metabolic functions before it is used for muscle so it is important to exceed your metabolic needs if you are to maintain/build muscle; the number of grams and quality necessary for this is controversial and, no doubt varies among individuals. It is also important that we use our muscles so they can use the protein we consume. Loss of muscle mass with aging slows our metabolic rate and can lead to weight gain. It also increases our risk of falling and other injuries while decreasing our sense of independence and capability.
- B vitamins – these function best as a complex but when we talk about aging, the B vitamins that are most often looked at are B6, B12 and folate. There is evidence that the aging population is often deficient in these nutrients, whether from inadequate intake or issues around absorption, including, again, HCl deficiency. B vitamins are necessary for everything from producing energy from food to detoxification to cognitive function. In addition, B vitamin metabolism can be impacted by our genetics and, as we age, these impacts are felt more strongly.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – provide protection against cardiovascular events diabetes, and cognitive decline. Omega-3 fatty acids tend to be limited in the standard American diet, with the main sources being fatty fish, flax seeds, and walnuts. The omega-3 fatty acid we get from flax seeds and walnuts has essential functions, but also needs to be converted into EPA and DHA; our efficiency at this conversion often decreases with age.
- Vitamin E – is an antioxidant and plays an important role in maintaining immune function. This also comes from nuts and seeds, like almonds or sunflower seeds, in the diet.
The Mediterranean diet is often touted as the best diet for meeting our nutritional needs; there are diets in other places that are equally health supporting. What they have in common is the following:
- high quality protein, primarily from fish, but including eggs, poultry and meat; also, vegetable sources of protein such as nuts, seeds, legumes.
- a wide array of healthy fats including the fish oils, nuts, seeds, olive oil; some include the tropical coconut or palm oils.
- lots of vegetables and fruits as well as whole grains, all of which can play a role in health. Fruits and vegetables are an essential key to healthy aging because of the anti-oxidants, flavonoids and phenols they provide to signal our cells to function optimally.
We can be achieve this quality of diet in the US if we pay attention to what we eat and where it comes from. In our present environment it is becoming increasingly important that we look for meat that is pastured and animals that are raised on the ground. The fewer pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers we use the better. And the less processed the food is that we eat, the healthier we will be.
Medications which are widely used to address chronic and acute illnesses can create a significant challenge to the ability of our diets to meet the nutritional needs of healthy aging:
- Antacids, H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) which decrease the acid available in our stomach for killing pathogens and for digesting and absorbing nutrients
- Statins and beta blockers that deplete Coenzyme Q10, Vitamin K2 and magnesium
- Anti-depressants that may increase our need for B vitamins
- Anti-hypertensive diuretics that deplete potassium, which is often supplemented, but also magnesium and many other minerals and sometimes B vitamins and Vitamin C
- Metformin that can deplete B vitamins
- Antibiotics that deplete B vitamins and Vitamin K as well as altering the gut flora necessary for gut health
- Oral contraceptives and HRT can deplete B vitamins and magnesium
- Tylenol – depletes glutathione which is necessary for detoxification
If you must take medications, it is important to understand their impact on your nutritional status because you can alter diet or take supplements to compensate for these deficiencies.
These are also some of the chemicals that are added to foods and that are used in growing foods that can contribute to negative symptoms associated with aging.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup– associated with increased risk for obesity and the metabolic syndrome as well as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Artificial sweeteners – increased risk of metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes;
- Glyphosate (Round-up) – is present in much of our conventionally grown foods and is shown to increase the risk of cancer as well as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and cardiovascular disease.
Healthy aging is within our reach. It starts with healthy sleep and stress management. It continues with continued physical activity – continued use of your muscles and continued engagement of your cardiovascular system (strength training as well as aerobic activity). It is enhanced by social connections.
What you eat and what you avoid has a greater impact on your well-being than you might imagine.
Try these experiments for at least two weeks each and see if you feel any differently:
- Try avoiding all processed/packaged foods — no chips, breads, crackers, pastries; instead, enjoy fresh fruits, nuts and seeds, and whole grains like brown rice or quinoa.
- Try avoiding all added sugars – no sugar in your coffee, honey in your tea, maple syrup in your oatmeal, as well as avoiding baked goods.
- Make sure you eat at least 7 servings of vegetables each day – add vegetables to your eggs for breakfast or have vegetable hash on the side, make sure you have a large salad once a day, snack on veggies with hummus or nut butter, add greens to your smoothie or have a veggie juice.
Here is a handy recipe to make these experiments both easy and pleasurable:
Start by cooking up 2 cups of quinoa (you can use yellow, red, or mixed color)
- Roasted beets, walnuts, scallions with a balsamic vinaigrette seasoned with cinnamon
- Chick peas, scallions, shredded carrots, with a white balsamic vinaigrette
- Black beans, red and green peppers, scallions, cilantro lime vinaigrette; top with cherry tomatoes or tomato chunks
- Arugula, cucumber, red onion with a lemon, white wine vinaigrette
And any other combination you have handy.