Maintain Your Brain

By Jarrod Denson / January 9, 2013

Striped Bass with Golden Tomato and Sweet Pepper Stew. Photo by Caren Alpert


A portion of my practice is devoted to working with memory-care patients, some with severe Alzheimer’s disease. Trust that this serves as powerful inspiration to discuss the principles of brain fitness in every program that I teach.

An optimal brain fitness program takes into account heart health, as whatever ails the heart ultimately challenges the brain. This includes reducing inflammation and boosting healthy blood flow wherever possible. An emotional component plays into this as well.

My brain fitness program includes meditation (it grows your gray matter!) and visualization, pranayama (healing breath work), physical activity/yoga, optimal nutrition (including supplementation), optimal sleep, and sensory modulation techniques like aroma, massage and sound therapies.

The brain weighs only three pounds, but it utilizes about 20 percent of the oxygen supply of the entire body. If you’re having problems with clarity of mind, focus, memory and fatigue—poor breathing patterns may often be the culprit. You’re not getting enough oxygen-rich blood to the brain!

Experts now believe you can prevent or at least delay dementia even if you have a genetic predisposition. How? Reduce Alzheimer’s risk factors like obesity, diabetes, smoking and low physical activity. Eat a healthy diet. It’s critical in delaying the onset of cognitive impairment or any of the various types of dementia.

So what does healthy brain nutrition look like? Data from several large studies suggest that those who eat the most fruits and vegetables, especially the leafy green variety, may experience a slower rate of cognitive decline and a lower risk for dementia than meat lovers. And you can get your servings from a bottle as well. One study showed that having three or more servings of fruit or vegetable juice a week provides a 76 percent lower risk for developing Alzheimer’ disease than those who drank less than a serving a week. Other brain-healthy foods include olive oil and vinegar, nuts, fish, poultry, along with cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage), green leafy vegetables, and fruits, including tomatoes.

Boost your brain health well into your later years by adding the following “smart foods” into your daily diet:

FISH Oily fish, such as salmon (wild caught, please!), mackerel, sardines and herring, is rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids. Getting omega-3s from fish at least twice a week not only protects the brain but also stabilizes mood and fights off depression. These healthy fats contain powerful anti-inflammatory substances, too. If you don’t eat fish, consult with your physician about taking omega-3 supplements. Please note that fish oil is a blood thinner.

BLUEBERRIES Blueberries protect the brain from oxidative stress. Studies have also shown that they significantly improved the learning capacity and motor skills of aging rats. Try to get a serving every day in any form—fresh or frozen. And enjoy other anti-inflammatory, antioxidant berries like blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.

AVOCADOS Avocados are right up there with blueberries for promoting brain health. They contain monounsaturated fat, which contributes to healthy blood flow, and can lower blood pressure. Since hypertension is a risk factor for cognitive decline, lower blood pressure should promote brain health

NUTS AND SEEDS Nuts and seeds are good sources for vitamin E, which promotes healthy blood vessels. Add an ounce a day of walnuts, almonds, or other nuts/ non-hydrogenated nut butters—as well as sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seed—all organic, of course. Other sources include vegetable oils like olive and sunflower, along with green vegetables, like spinach, broccoli and collards..

WHOLE GRAINS Whole grains, like oatmeal, whole-grain breads, and brown rice promote cardiovascular health, thus good flow to the organ system, which includes your brain. Get 1/2 cup of whole-grain cereal, 1 slice of bread two-three times day, or 2 tablespoons of wheat germ a day.

BEANS Beans (and peas) give you lots of fiber and protein, and they’re also a rich dietary source of B-complex vitamins. These anti-stress vitamins are important for a healthy nervous system. Beans also stabilize glucose (blood sugar) levels. Our brain has a voracious need for glucose for fuel, so beans provide a steady stream of energy. Try to get at least 1/2 cup every day.

CITRUS Citrus fruits and colorful vegetables are high on the list of brain foods because of their antioxidant properties—which can protect the brain from freeradical damage. Numerous studies now show that vitamin C dissolves the toxic plaque that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Get your Cs with all form of citrus—oranges and orange juice, grapefruit, tangerines, lemons and limes. You’ll also boost C levels with strawberries, melons, sweet peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, leafy greens and cabbage. If taking prescription medications, check with your physician regarding grapefruit, as there are contraindications.

COFFEE AND TEA Caffeinated coffee—in moderation—was shown to decrease blood levels of a plaque-forming protein and reduced Alzheimer’s-like cognitive impairment. Decaf did not have the same benefits. Freshly brewed black tea also contains a modest amount of caffeine which can enhance memory, focus and mood. Tea, especially the green and white varieties, have high levels of antioxidants known as catechins, which promote healthy blood flow. Smaller amounts are contained in grapes, black tea, chocolate, and wine.

DARK CHOCOLATE Polyphenols in dark chocolate have powerful antioxidant properties and contain natural stimulants, including caffeine, which enhance mental capacities and also stimulate the production of endorphins, to help improve mood. One-half to 1 ounce a day provides the medicinal benefits.

SPICES AND HERBS Herbs and spices may help protect our brain cells from the wear and tear of aging. Some of the more potent ones include black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, basil, rosemary,turmeric, parsley, ginger and vanilla. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is receiving a lot of attention from the medical community. Researchers have demonstrated its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-amyloid properties believed to protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease. (Beta-amyloid is the sticky “goo” that accumulates on the brain and prevents neurons from “talking” to each other. Too much beta-amyloid is believed to cause Alzheimer’s symptoms.) Curcumin is available in capsule form at health food stores, or as turmeric in the spice section at the supermarket. Please remember to make your choices certified organic or biodynamic wherever you can—an elemental part of preventive health and self care.

On the Horizon: Look for my upcoming news on research into how coconut oil may offer profound benefits in the fight against dementia/Alzheimer’s disease.

MARY BETH JANSSEN is a certified mindbody health educator for the Chopra Center for Well Being and the author of five books. Send questions to