Preventing neurodegeneration | Precision Nutrition

Preventing neurodegeneration

By Bryan Walsh


Take a moment and think about an elderly person you know.

  • How well do they taste or smell their food?
  • How good is their memory?
  • How well can they balance or walk?
  • How healthy is their digestion?

If they haven’t aged gracefully, chances are they can’t do any of those things very well.  And you can thank their brain function for these symptoms of degeneration.

Anti-aging gone wrong

The degree to which the elderly can perform normal daily activities is directly related to the amount of brain degeneration they’re experiencing in their twilight years.  In fact, the anti-aging movement has it completely wrong.  It’s not about hormones.  It is about brain function.

When your brain stops functioning, your body stops functioning.  And conversely, the healthier your brain, the healthier your digestion, your response to stress, your hormones and your response to exercise.

In this article, we’ll provide a broad overview of a very complex system in the body, the brain.  Plus, we’ll share some ways of nutritionally improving your brain function today.

Your brain – the basics

Your brain is a vital organ that helps run every other system in our body.  For example, 90% of the brain stem’s output goes into something called the pontomedulary reticular formation, which stimulates the vagus nerve.

Uh, what?

Well, that’s just a fancy way of saying that 90% of your brain’s output directly impacts activities such as digestion, gastrointestinal motility, enzyme production and salivation, and other parasympathetic activities.

Of course, there are a vast array of anatomical structures in your brain.  And covering them all is well beyond the scope of this article.  Just know that there are at least 30 distinct parts to the brain with a dizzying number of connections between them all.  It’s this communication that’s critical for health, performance, and body composition.

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The brain’s chemical messaging system

One important communication method worth noting is chemical messaging.  Through this method, certain chemicals,  called neurotransmitters, travel around and relay messages between the neuronal receptors of different parts of the brain.  Their signals impact mood, behavior, memory, coordination, and more.  Some examples of powerful neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinepherine, and acetylcholine.

The brain’s immune system

In addition to an elaborate communication system, your brain also has its own independently operating immune system!  These cells, called microglia cells, are found throughout the brain and serve the purpose of searching the brain for unwanted invaders and then destroying them.

Unfortunately, the microglia cells can be hypervigilant at times.  And this means they can end up destroying healthy brain tissue in the process.  The other problem with microglia cells is, once they turn on, they don’t easily turn off.  Unlike other immune cells in the body that receive a signal when it is time to end the attack, microglia cells turn on and attack virtually everything in their path, including neurons.  This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because, if something were to attack your brain, your quality of life would quickly disappear.  Therefore, microglia cells are there to protect one of your body’s most critical organs.  And they do so with a vengeance.

The brain’s hormonal system

In addition to having its own immune system, the brain also manufactures its own hormones.  Hormones have a critical impact on brain function.  For example, many people are familiar with the personality changes that occur during a woman’s monthly cycle.  This is largely due to hormonal impacts on the brain.  Hormones play a very important role to the brain, which is why it’s not surprising to learn that the brain can independently produces its own hormones, including testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.

The brain’s protective barrier

Lastly, the brain is protected by a semi-permeable membrane called the blood brain barrier.  This barrier is designed to protect the brain from unwanted substances and invaders.  Again, knowing that the function of the brain directly impacts the health and function of the rest of the body, learning that it has a structure designed to protect it is not surprising.

Hundreds of thousands of pages have been dedicated to describing the intricate structures, mechanisms and functions of the brain.  So, obviously, this article doesn’t do it justice.  What must be known, however, is that the brain is an incredibly sensitive organ, governing multiple functions in the body.  It has the ability to synthesize, secrete and utilize a number of different substances including hormones and neurotransmitters, has an independent immune system, and it has a barrier to protect it.

Those are the basics.  Now let’s look at what can go wrong.

Causes of neurodegeneration

One point that must be understood is this.  When a neuron dies, its dead.  Permanently.  There’s nothing you can do to get it back.  In fact, you will have probably lost quite a few neurons by the time you’re done reading this article.  It happens.  It’s normal.  But there are things you can do to speed up the process of neurodegeneration, and there are things you can do to slow it down.  It’s all up to you.

Again, ask yourself, do you want to age gracefully?  If so, don’t worry about anti-wrinkle cream or hormone balancing, you should worry about your brain.

The brain only needs three things for proper function:  Oxygen, Glucose, Stimulation.    Let’s look at how each of these can impact neurodegeneration.

Lack of oxygen and glucose

If the brain does not receive adequate amounts, or stable levels of, oxygen or glucose, brain function will diminish.  One way to know if you have poor circulation in your brain is to see if you have poor circulation to the other extremities.  If you have cold hands and feet you may have poor blood flow, which means you probably have poor circulation to the brain.  Also blood sugar issues, either chronically elevated or low, will impact neurotransmitter synthesis and ATP production, which impacts neuronal firing.

Lack of antioxidants

Another issue is oxidation.  As much as we need oxygen in the brain, we also need anti-oxidants to combat free radical damage that occurs to neurons.  Unfortunately neuronal tissue is highly sensitive to oxidative damage and therefore must receive adequate amounts of antioxidants to reduce this damage.  The caveat is that these antioxidants must be able to cross the blood brain barrier to effectively protect the brain.  Inadequate levels of antioxidants, or excessive amounts of free radical damage greatly contributes to neuronal death, or neurodegeneration.

Overactive microglia cells

As previously discussed, activation of the brain’s immune system is important for reasons of protection.  But over-activation of microglia cells is a major promoter of neurodegeneration.  Activated microglia cells serve an important function, but can lead to neuronal death if left unchecked.  There are a number of natural compounds that have been shown to reduce microglia cell activity, which can be important in anyone with a history of head trauma, blood brain barrier permeability, or immune activation elsewhere in their body due to the impact these have on microglia cell activation.

Lack of stimulation

Another issue is lack of stimulation.  Sure, failing to engage in varied activities such as exercise, stretching, music, art, math, learning and reading can cause this lack of stimulation.  But you also need neurotransmitter stimulation too.  As discussed, neurotransmitters are necessary for neuronal signaling and communication, which are required for healthy brain function.  Therefore if any given neurotransmitter is deficient or out of relative balance with other neurotransmitters, brain function will decline.

Lack of brain protection

As a somewhat separate issue to the brain itself, a damaged blood brain barrier can lead to neurodegeneration simply because it allows substances into the brain that otherwise should not be there, including compounds that can lead to microglia cell activation or that are damaging to brain tissue.  Things like alcohol, the stress hormone cortisol, homocysteine, oxidative stress and blood sugar dysregulation have all been shown to break down the blood brain barrier.

There are more, but these are some of the most common triggers for neurodegeneration.  Next, what to do about them.

How to prevent neurodegeneration

Optimal brain health and function is far more complex than can be described in this article.  But here are a few key things you can do to protect your most vital organ.

1. Improve oxygen flow to the brain – Firstly, rule out any subclinical anemic tendencies you may have using blood work.  Secondly, there are things you can take that can help increase blood flow to the brain.  Compounds like ginkgo biloba, capsicum, and feverfew have all been shown to increase oxygen to the brain.

2. Improve blood sugar management – Using blood work, identify any tendencies towards either hypoglycemia or insulin resistance.  Either will decrease glucose flow to your brain and negatively impact its function.

3. Decrease oxidative stress – Oxidative damage to mitochondira in our brain promotes massive neurodegeneration.  Therefore it is important to take nutrients shown by research to stop free radical damage in the brain.  Such nutrients include N-acetyl-cysteine, alpha lipoic acid, milk thistle, N-acetyl carnitine and creatine monohydrate.

4. Decrease inflammation – There are strong connections between the gut and the brain.  Therefore, following an anti-inflammatory diet and improving gut function can have profound impacts on brain function.  Also compounds such as curcumin, rutin, resveratrol, apigenin and luteolin have all been shown to have a positive impact on reducing neuroinflammation.

5. Improve fatty acid status – One of the most important fatty acids for the brain is Docosahexaenoic Acid, or DHA.  There is ample research showing DHA to be helpful in brain function, including with cell signaling and neurotransmitter function.

6. Balance neurotransmitters – There are no valid laboratory tests to evaluate neurotransmitters.  Some labs do exist, but the neurophysiology and scientific literature do not validate their use.    Therefore the only clinically valid way is to use subjective questionnaires, which can be found online, but are best evaluated by a medical professional.

7. Evaluate Blood Brain Barrier function – Take 500mg – 1000mg of GABA on an empty stomach during a time when you’ll be able to evaluate symptoms.  If you have any response from taking the GABA, such as getting sleepy, lethargic or even anxious or giddy, that may be a strong indication you have a breach in your blood brain barrier.  While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into what to do about this, the first step is to know whether or not your BBB is intact.

The health of your brain directly impacts your entire life including your ability to taste and digest food, your ability to lift weights, your ability to recover from exercise, and your long term success in life.  The more you do to protect your brain today, the better off you will be throughout the rest of your life.

So if you do most of your time thinking about your muscle mass and body fat, it’s time to start thinking more about that organ between your ears.  And if you’ve been thinking about your brain, it’s probably time to do something about it.

A great first step is to contact a medical professional who can help you evaluate your brain function with questionnaires and physiological assessments.  Then, armed with data, an appropriate nutrition, supplement, and lifestyle plan can be put into place.

Learn more

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