Dementia-proof your diet to ‘Upgrade your Brain’

We were thrilled to host Patrick Holford for a talk last month in Bantry. Patrick came to Bantry to visit us at Organico and promote his new book, called ‘Upgrade your Brain’. In the book Patrick takes a deep dive into what is causing the deterioration of our mental health, memory and intelligence. He explores why we are experiencing increasing numbers of Alzheimers and Dementia cases, and what we can do on a daily basis to improve our brain function. 

About 20 years ago Patrick started a Foundation called ‘Food for the Brain’, which has to-date tested the cognitive health of nearly half a million people. The aim of ‘Food for the Brain’ is to assess and improve dementia risk, and also to encourage people to take action and improve their own brain function. In his new book (and the talk he gave in Bantry) Patrick unravels why and how our modern diet and lifestyle have led to a brain-health meltdown. He suggests changes and shows how to improve mental energy, improve our mood and our ability to relax, sleep better, reduce anxiety and most importantly, dementia-proof our diet and lifestyle. 

The good news is that all the changes we make to improve the health of our brain also benefit the rest of our body. “If we get our diet and lifestyle right for our brain, they will also be right for our body. If our brains are working well, we will have the resources we need to keep ourselves healthy and well, and if we do encounter a health challenge we will be able to deal with it” Patrick argues. 

The leading cause of death in the UK is Alzheimers and Dementia (11.5pc of deaths according to the Office of National Statistics in UK) and scarily the youngest person diagnosed to date with Dementia is only 19, which means that it’s no longer safe to say it’s an older person’s disease. Patrick was keen to dispel some common myths about dementia – stressing firstly that dementia IS a disease, that it’s not a normal progression of ageing. It’s a disease and what’s more – it’s avoidable. The second myth he wanted to reject is that dementia is ‘in the genes’. “Less than one per cent of Dementia is caused by genes,” he told us, and even in those cases, the progress is manageable – you can slow it down. “We can prevent up to 73 per cent of cases of dementia right now if we tackle what we know,” Patrick said. 

He went on to explain that the main risk he sees as increasing the chance of developing dementia is high levels of Homocysteine, a “toxic amino acid that literally damages your brain as well as your arteries”. High homocysteine levels are increasingly being recognised as one of the most important indicators of many diseases including Motor Neurone Disease, which is very close to home for me, as my mother had it. According to a study in Norway, poor grades in school for children is another homocysteine effect. And at the other end of life ‘if Homocysteine goes up, memory goes down. If Homocysteine goes down, memory goes up”. How do we develop high levels of this toxic amino acid? Risk factors include smoking, stress, lack of exercise, excess weight, poor sleep, and lacking certain nutrients in our diet. 

Luckily it’s possible to test for Homocysteine levels and also correct them with the right nutrient – the main nutrients we need to reduce Homocysteine levels are adequate B vitamins including folic acid and B12. 

However, B vitamins do not work without adequate Omega 3. Patrick is very keen on making sure everyone consumes enough healthy fats. He tells us that our brains are about 60 per cent fat, which is way more than any other organ, and means that the kind of fat we eat, which becomes part of our brain, changes how we think and feel. 

Patrick went on to discuss how we evolved to become Homo Sapiens, which he argues was made possible because of our seafood diet, which caused our brains to grow much bigger than other land-based mammals. “Our ancestors came from the water and ate everything from along the water’s edge” including mussels, oysters, crab, seaweed and small fish like mackerel and herring. “When we are born, we instinctively know how to swim, but it takes us two years to learn to walk”, and we are born with a waxy waterproof layer on our skin, just like seals, which is not found in any other land-based mammal. We also share a lot of similarities with dolphins – every single bone they have in their flippers we have in our hands. Patrick argues that these traits link us to the sea and mean that we should concentrate on eating a seafood diet. 

In recent years though many people have moved away from the seafood diet, with increasing numbers of children in the UK and Ireland not eating any fish at all, let alone the recommended two to three servings of oily fish a week. So supplementing fish oils (omega 3 Fatty Acids) is all the more important to keep our levels of Omega 3 high enough to feed our brain. And in relation to the concern of mercury levels in seafood, Patrick tells us that the benefits of omega 3 far outweighs the mercury risk, and interestingly seafood often contains Selenium, a mineral that helps offset mercury. 

Apart from eating oily fish twice a week and supplementing fish oils (Patrick takes two grams a day, but suggests up to four grams a day if you suffer low mood or don’t eat much fish), we can eat chia seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, kale and seaweeds to keep our levels of fatty acids healthy. ‘Higher Omega 3 levels are associated with 20 per cent less Dementia, and low Omega 3 increases your risk of depression by 28 per cent’. Patrick told us. 

Another vital nutrient for Brain Health is vitamin D. ‘Low Vitamin D equals worse mood, and low vitamin D in childhood means aggression in adolescence’, and cognitive decline is 10 times more likely if someone has low vitamin D levels – so Patrick recommends we all supplement with Vitamin D through the whole year, including children. In terms of sunshine, his advice is 1.5 to two hours as being the optimal time outdoors and ‘don’t overheat the brain – some sun is good, too much is bad – so wear a hat!’

Another important part of taking care of our brain is to keep our sugar intake as low as possible. ‘Sugar kills brain cells’ Patrick said. Higher blood sugar levels equals higher risk of Alzheimers. His advice is to follow the Low GI Diet, which means keeping carbs and sugar low, and eating plenty of high quality proteins and plenty of vegetables.

Patrick’s overall message? “We don’t develop dementia from a lack of drugs – It’s in our control – we can reduce our own risk by how we choose to eat and live”. This is very encouraging for me – one of my grandmothers developed Alzheimers at 70, and the other developed dementia. So I’m certainly going to be following Patrick’s advice. I’m going to be getting a number of Homocysteine Tests soon, so let me know if you’d like to take one. And of course we have Patrick’s book here in Bantry and online also. 

What’s happening this month?

On Saturday June 8, we are celebrating World Oceans Day with our annual Organico Sea Swim. We will be fundraising for the Kelp Campaign by matching all donations, so come along to the Abbey in Bantry at 6.30pm for a high tide dip and a chat about the Kelp Campaign. Oh, and we’ll bring Organico brownies and tea. See you there. 

Hannah Dare

Hannah Dare co-runs Organico, the café, bakery and health shop in Bantry, West Cork.

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