US Med Voice

US Med


Vol. 2, No. 7 | July 2010




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Better Brain
Keeping the mind "Fit as a Fiddle"

US MED Gives Back While there is no fountain of youth for the brain, there are lots of things you can do right now to preserve, protect and enhance your brain power.

  • Foods for thought and memory. When it comes to keeping your brain in shape, eating certain types of food can improve and preserve our mental powers. Keep unhealthy fats to a minimum and be sure to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, a minimum of red meat, plenty of fish, and daily wine. Choose dark-colored fruits and vegetables, including apricots, cantaloupes, watermelon, mangos, kale, chard, spinach and broccoli. Eating these foods increases the production of acetylcholine, a key chemical released from nerve cells that improves communication between cells. Salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and herring also give your brain a boost. The omega-3 fatty acids are the vital ingredients to enhance brain activity, specifically one called DHA, which is an essential component of neural cell membranes that helps to transmit information into and out of those membranes. Brains are made up of about 60 percent fat, but the fuel they rely on is glucose, a simple sugar. To give your brain ample energy, eat complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta and couscous. Whole grains are superior because they break down more slowly and don't cause big upswings in insulin production, which can cause a number of health problems associated with poor mental performance.

  • Don't Forget to Drink. Alcohol kills brain cells, and the more you drink the more brain cells are destroyed. So it's important to keep your consumption in check-no more than a couple of drinks per day for a man, one drink for a woman. In these amounts, alcohol in any form-beer, wine or spirits-is beneficial to the brain. But if you want optimum brain health, red wine should be your drink of choice. Red wine contains a high amount of the antioxidant resveratrol. Resveratrol is also found in berries and peanuts and is a compound produced by plants to ward off disease, in response to stressors such as fungus invasions, injury or infection. Wines with the most resveratrol are those made from pinot noir grapes. White wines contain less than 5 percent of the average amount of resveratrol found in red wines. Red wine has also been shown to reduce the risks for cancer and heart disease, and may also slow the degeneration of neural processes.
  • Calm for the mind. You don't have to join a monastery or get a guru to reap t

    he substantial rewards of daily meditation. As little as 15 minutes a day can be enough-whether it's sitting in the car waiting to pick up your child from school or in a quiet room at lunchtime. For several years, western doctors have commended the virtues of meditation in treating a number of medical conditions, including chronic pain and high blood pressure. The evidence for its effectiveness comes from several studies, including one showing that people with normal to high blood pressure who practiced daily meditation were 23 percent less likely to die-from any cause-than those who didn't. Amazingly, meditation was more effective at preventing death than other more conventional non-drug therapies, such as exercise, weight loss and salt restriction. Besides counteracting the kinds of cardiovascular ailments that can lead to poor brain function, meditation may also reduce levels of the stress hormone called cortisol. This chemical can wreak havoc with cognitive abilities such as memory recall. But that's not all- a group of U.S. researchers recently found an association between meditation and an increase in the thickness of the cortex, the part of the brain that handles a variety of higher functions. This growth in density suggests that meditation, performed regularly, may put the brakes on the natural thinning of the cortex that takes place as we age.

  • Laugh it up. Laughter has been said to be the best medicine, and science keeps reaffirming the concept. Laughter reduces the stress hormone cortisol in your body; it relaxes your arteries so that cholesterol is less likely to build up; and it engages you in a little bit of exercise (belly laughs activate hundreds of muscles throughout your body). Scientists believe laughter may release endorphins, the "feel good" hormones associated with rigorous exercise. These hormones are known to cause blood vessel dilation.

  • Social studies. All primates, including humans, are highly social animals. Our brains have spent a couple of million years fine-tuning themselves to social interactions. But today's technologically savvy society has turned many of us into near-hermits. And that's not only unnatural, it's unhealthy for the brain. Isolation can cause depression, which the Alzheimer's Foundation of America says leads to higher rates of dementia. Not only do people with wide social networks report a higher quality of life, they also have lower death rates. One large-scale study observed significantly less mental decline in people who had the strongest relationships with others. Relationships stimulate our brains. There are dozens of ways to engage with fellow humans. Volunteer at a charity or organization, join a book club, bowling league, or any group dedicated to being actively engaged. And don't forget that pets, especially the highly social dog, can serve some of the same functions as humans in stimulating our minds and relieving stress.

  • Get your ZZZ's. We cannot survive more than a few weeks without enough sleep. When we are denied good, restful, sustained sleep on a regular basis, our brains fluctuate in concentration, learning, memory and alertness. The best explanation science has come up with for the healing power of sleep is that brain cells use the "time out" to close down and repair damage. Without sufficient sleep, neurons may not have time to repair all the damage, and so could malfunction during the day. Sleep also may give the brain a chance to perform a workout of sorts among important neuronal connections that might go dormant, explain researchers. Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep each night. If you have trouble sleeping, here are a few tips:
    • Don't eat a heavy meal late in the day.
    • Avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day.
    • Get regular exercise, but not close to bedtime.
    • If you can't fall asleep or you wake up in the middle of the night, get up and read until you feel drowsy.
    • If you lie awake worrying about things, make a to-do list before going to bed.

  • Train the brain. By stimulating your mind, you may be able to improve cognitive function, and perhaps delay or prevent mental disorders such as dementia. Numerous large-scale studies have shown that brain training works. The trouble begins when we fall into routines that seldom challenge our mental faculties. We may be masters at what we do, but we aren't learning new things. And that seems to be key. The mind, according to neuroscientists, is a machine that thrives on learning. It requires change. Scientists aren't sure yet what exercises are the best, but they agree that anything that expands your knowledge will be effective. The emphasis is on new, as in learning a new language, dance step or sport (the more social the setting the better, as this increases the effect due to the brain benefits of human interaction). Or read a new book, do crossword, or sudoku puzzles. All these activities build more connections between neural cells, which recent research indicates may even forestall dementia and Alzheimer's.

  • Pump that iron. Exercise can help by improving blood flow, releasing stress-reducing endorphins, strengthening the connections between brain cells and increasing the number of brain cells themselves. Regular, cardiovascular exercise, like walking, bicycling, swimming or even aerobic gardening or house cleaning, is a powerhouse of benefit for both your heart and brain. Studies of fit people show that their attention and concentration are superior to those who don't exercise. And that their gray matter is thicker, suggesting that exercise could protect against the natural decline of mental faculties as we age. One part of the brain that's known to be directly influenced by exercise is called the hippocampus. It's sort of a "clearing house" for the brain, deciding which information sent to it by the senses gets stored away into memory, and then retrieving it when necessary. It's vital for learning and making associations. Research has shown that physical exercise stimulates the production of new brain cells, called neurons, in the hippocampus.

  • Neurobics. A hybrid of the "neuron" (brain cell) and "aerobics," neurobics is the brainchild of the Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence Katz and author Manning Rubin. In the book Keep Your Brain Alive (Workman Publishing, 1998), they outline an brain exercise program that's based on a solid foundation of neuroscience research. Specific kinds of sensory stimulation, they believe, causes brain cells to secrete molecules called neurotrophins that act like nutrients to improve cellular health. What's the best sort of stimulation? Katz and Rubin offer 83 activities that make you "experience the unexpected and enlist the aid of all your senses." Try showering with your eyes closed, tuning in to the sounds and feel of water on your skin. Use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth or comb your hair. Wear earplugs at the dinner table. Take one of your children to work with you. Learn to read Braille. What's important is that the activity be completely removed from your regular routine. And the more senses you engage, the better. If you normally go to work using the same route, try a different one. At a stop light, roll down the window and close your eyes, listening to the sounds, feeling the air on your face. Your brain is forced to work with a new set of sensory inputs, which builds connections in your neuronal network.

By keeping your brain and your body fit, you can utilize your brain power to it's highest potential!

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