If you’re like many of my patients, you’re concerned about your memory. It’s easy to understand why. Our memories are an essential part of who we are. Plus, it’s awfully frustrating – not to mention embarrassing – when memory fails and you’re left struggling to remember a name, date, or other bit of information. No wonder we all dread those “senior moments”!
But aren’t memory problems just a normal part of aging? Don’t believe that for a second! I have lots of older patients who are not just smart as tacks but in better health than many younger people. Let me say that again: Memory loss is not inevitable as you age. And here’s more good news: A number of recent studies show that what you eat makes a major difference to your brain, particularly when it comes to the type of fat you consume.
Why Fat Matters
Here’s one example: In groundbreaking research from Australia, scientists learned that people who eat a diet high in saturated fat, the kind found primarily in meat and dairy products, raise their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Moreover, scientists in Finland discovered a link between saturated fats and cognitive difficulties. Specifically, individuals who eat less than 21.6 grams of saturated fat daily are far less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who eat more than 21.6 grams.
But what about genetics? As many of you know, research has identified a gene believed to make us more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. So why bother cutting back on fat if you’re going to get the disease anyway? Actually, the Finnish scientists found that even individuals with the gene can minimize their risk of developing Alzheimer’s if they consume less than 21.6 grams of saturated fat daily. For those who eat more, the risk of the disease increases dramatically, making them nearly five times more likely to develop the condition.
So we’re going to look at one very important thing you can do – starting today – to protect not only your memory but also your general well-being. I’m going to show you how to reduce chronic inflammation, a prime suspect in memory loss and a long list of other serious health issues, by focusing on healthy fats, the kind that protect your heart and brain.
How Inflammation Helps — and Hurts
It’s been several months since I last wrote about inflammation, so here’s a brief recap:
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to a threat, such as a wound or invasion by microorganisms (bacteria or virus). In limited amounts, inflammation is protective and helpful, bringing healing white blood cells to the scenario and then disappearing when the work is done.
Left unchecked, long-term or chronic inflammation creates big problems. Chronic inflammation, caused by everything from environmental toxins to a processed- or fast-food diet, is like a slow cooker in the body, damaging cells and tissues while serving no real purpose. For example, it may make you vulnerable to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, and more, including memory challenges.
Inflammation can be turned around with diet and lifestyle changes as well as appropriate supplements.
The important thing to remember is that reducing the amount of inflammation in your body improves just about all aspects of your health, including everything from your heart to your head. That said, here are five ways to tame inflammation. Today we’re focusing primarily on diet and other simple changes to keep your brain fully functioning.
How to Protect Your Memory in 5 Easy Steps
1. Start with a Mediterranean-style diet.
Focus on vegetables, fruits, lean protein, nuts, beans and other legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oils. I strongly recommend you stop using vegetable oils (corn, soybean, safflower, and sunflower). At the same time, increase your intake of olive and grapeseed oils, which have known health benefits. Multiple studies show the Mediterranean diet decreases the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, obesity, and other chronic health issues. To my knowledge, there are no downsides to this eating plan, unlike other popular but less-healthful diets.
Be particularly choosy about meat. Remember, research shows that saturated fat from meat and dairy products is a factor in difficulties with memory and mental functions. The key word when it comes to meat is lean. And don’t forget you can get plenty of protein from beans and other legumes.
My patient Greg had a very hard time with the idea of giving up meat — until I assured him that just cutting back on the amount and type of meat he was eating could be helpful. Greg, who described himself as a “devout carnivore,” was in the habit of wolfing down quarter-pound burgers on a daily basis. So I explained that paying attention to serving size could help him have his beef and eat it, too. Replacing the quarter pound of poor quality, fatty beef with a few slices of lean, grass-fed roast beef would make a big difference in his saturated-fat intake. As it turned out, it also made a big difference in his waistline. “I had to buy new pants!” he told me after a few months away from burgers. “And here I thought beef was beef, and all protein was healthy. Now I know better.”
There are dozens of books on the Mediterranean diet to help guide you. Note that this eating plan does not include any processed or prepared foods, something I regularly remind my patients to avoid. And that brings us to the second point…
2. Cook your own meals.
I can’t stress this strongly enough. There’s no way to maintain good health on a diet of prepared or processed foods. Yes, take-out meals and frozen dinners are easy and sometimes cheap. But you actually pay a high price for that convenience because those foods erode your health.
When you do your own cooking, you have the advantage of controlling the amount and type of fat in the food. I recommend investing in at least one “good fat” (like organic extra virgin olive oil) to use in cooking.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, get rid of cooking fats made with corn, soy, safflower, canola, and other vegetable-based oils. These oils are loaded with omega-6 fatty acids. Although omega-6s are not necessarily unhealthy, Americans eat far too many of them, which makes it harder for our bodies to take advantage of the extraordinary benefits of omega-3s, the brain- and heart-friendly fats that humans must have to function properly.
If you can’t bear the thought of giving up your favorite cheesecake or ready-made snack, then try this: Set aside one meal each week when all bets are off. Have the cheesecake, chili fries, or frozen candy bar (but hopefully not all three at once), and move on. Once a week, eating something that’s not on the good-food list can help tame cravings without completely undermining the benefits you’re getting on the other six days.
3. Conduct a saturated-fat audit of your own diet.
This tip came from Lynn, a long-time patient who watched both parents struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and was terrified of developing it herself. When I told Lynn about reducing her intake of saturated fat to protect her brain, she shrugged it off, telling me, “I eat only chicken without skin – no red meat or milk or ice cream – so I don’t think I’m getting a lot of saturated fat.”
Later, though, Lynn decided to measure how much saturated fat she was actually consuming. So for two days, she carried around an index card and pencil so that she could record what she was eating and calculate how much saturated fat was in her diet. “Surprise! Even without skin, a chicken leg still has 5 grams of saturated fat,” she explained at our next visit. “And when I included the fat in yogurt, granola, salad dressing, microwave popcorn, grated cheese for pasta, cream for my coffee, and all the rest, I was stunned! I thought I was eating healthy, but I was way over the 21.6-gram guideline.”
4. Have your C-reactive protein (CRP) levels checked.
During your next doctor visit, ask your physician to check your CRP levels. This simple blood test measures the general levels of inflammation in your body. Once you have a baseline, you can compare next year’s reading with the current one to see if you’ve improved. If not, you may need to adhere to the eating plan more closely, or take a second look at your supplements to see if there’s room for improvement there.
5. Take supplements that target inflammation.
Regular readers know that I consider the following lifestyle elements essential for long-term health – and that includes brain as well as body:
- Regular, moderate exercise, such as walking
- A nutritious, whole-foods diet
- Plenty of deep, restorative sleep
- Sufficient fresh, pure water for your individual needs
- Stress reduction
- Appropriate nutritional supplements
You can review those topics at the links above, but let’s take a more detailed look at how supplements can improve inflammation.
Mother Nature has provided us with quite a few different compounds capable stamping out inflammation. So while eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is the highest priority, you may also want to include one or more of these safe and effective supplements.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
A good way to start fighting inflammation is by decreasing your consumption of vegetable oils (safflower, corn, soy, and canola) and increasing your intake of health-promoting omega-3s. These good fats are found in fish like herring, salmon, tuna, trout, cod, and anchovies.
If you’re not a fan of fish or if, like me, you’re concerned about toxins and chemicals found in fish these days, supplements are a perfectly acceptable substitute. It takes a few weeks to feel the full effects of omega-3 supplements. But as my patient Monica noted, the difference they can make is profound. “One day I noticed that my skin wasn’t dry and cracking in the cold weather like it usually did,” she told me. “Then I realized my joints weren’t so creaky, and I wasn’t experiencing seasonal affective disorder even though it was a brutal winter. Finally, it dawned on me that you mentioned omega-3s could improve those things. It’s just that it all happened gradually, and it took me a while to notice.”
If you opt for supplements, look for a product that contains a healthful balance of the two omega-3s, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). The ideal ratio for these nutrients is twice as much DHA as EPA, according to recent research. To make sure my readers have access to a toxin-free product with the correct proportion of ingredients, I developed my own version of omega-3s, which you can find here.
There is a large and impressive body of research showing how beneficial omega-3s are for fighting inflammation. In one recent study, for example, researchers concluded that omega-3s from fish oils were “incredibly potent” anti-inflammatories, capable of warding off diabetes and heart disease. I recommend 1,000 mg two times per day.
A powerhouse anti-inflammatory, curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, the spice used in curries and other Indian foods. Research shows that curcumin is as effective as cortisone for treating arthritis (a form of inflammation) of all kinds. In addition, curcumin lowers cholesterol, improves circulation and digestion, and reduces the risk of developing certain cancers.
Furthermore, hundreds of clinical trials have demonstrated curcumin’s ability to lower inflammation on multiple fronts. And researchers point to repeated successes while using curcumin to treat arthritis, allergies, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic conditions associated with aging. I suggest a daily dose of 500 mg one to three times daily. To ensure that my readers are getting the very best this nutrient has to offer, I have formulated a high-quality curcumin product that is eight times more absorbable than other curcumin extracts.
Curcumin does have a blood-thinning effect, so, if you’re taking medication such as warfarin (also known as Coumadin), consult your physician before adding curcumin to your daily regimen.
The spice ginger has been used for medicinal purposes – especially fighting inflammation – for centuries. Many arthritis sufferers swear by ginger supplements, and studies show that it decreases inflammatory substances linked to various cancers, including colorectal and ovarian.
You can use the spice or fresh root in cooking. Ginger is available in supplement form, too. I recommend 500 mg daily divided into two equal doses. Like curcumin, ginger is a blood thinner, so if you are taking blood-thinning medication, consult your doctor before taking ginger.
Inflammation and memory are both complex topics, so we’ll be discussing them further in the future. In the meantime, remember to eat your fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices, and keep a close eye on your saturated fat intake. The payoff is huge in terms of health benefits, including protecting your priceless memories.