June is Brain Health Awareness Month, so it’s only fitting that brain health be the central focus of this week’s blog post. Over my years as a functional medicine doctor, I’ve seen firsthand the incredible connection between brain health and gut health—and how one can seriously affect the other.
Nowhere is this connection more obvious than with the rise of Alzheimer’s disease — a condition that already affects an estimated 5.8 million Americans ages 65 and over. According to the CDC, by 2060, that number is expected to triple, totalling nearly 14 million people. Unlike what I learned in medical school over 20 years ago — that Alzheimer’s was solely a genetic condition that ran in families — it is obvious genetics alone could not account for the dramatic rise in this condition (as well as dementia) in the last two decades. With that said, I’d be surprised if you don’t know at least one person who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The Surprising Connection Between The Brain & The Gut
Since I started understanding the gut-brain connection, I’ve spent years teaching my patients about it—with regards to their mental health, traumatic brain injuries, and more. To put it simply: Our gut health influences our brain health in both positive and negative ways, depending on what the state of your gut and gut microbiome is.
This includes our brain health in the short-term (like our productivity and ability to focus) and the long-term (like our memory and cognitive function as we age).
In recent years, more and more studies have uncovered the link between the brain and the gut as it pertains to the acceleration of neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s and dementia. The idea that bacteria in the gut could be linked to the development of Alzheimer’s is not a new one, but recent research has confirmed past findings and reignited discussion around this topic in the medical community.
In particular, a new study from researchers at the University of Lund in Sweden found that mice suffering from Alzheimer’s had a different composition of gut bacteria compared to healthy mice. Why is this significant? Well, the researchers saw that mice with no gut bacteria (aka germ-free mice) had significantly less beta-amyloid plaques — which are lumps that form on nerve fibers and cause damage to the brain in Alzheimer’s disease — on their brains. When the researchers transferred bacteria from the Alzheimer’s mice to the germ-free mice, they developed more beta-amyloid plaque than if they had received bacteria from healthy mice. In short, this study confirmed that gut bacteria is directly linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s—the best treatment is to not develop it in the first place. The only options conventional medicine currently offers are treatments that can ease or delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. This can leave many people feeling hopeless and frustrated, with nothing to do but wait until their memory starts to fail them. But as you can see from the emerging research, focusing on healing the gut may be a good way to prevent Alzheimer’s and slow it’s development, offering millions of patients some hope.
That said, it’s not the only thing you can do! A rapidly growing body of research on brain and gut health shows the immense power that lifestyle habits can have on our overall health, especially with regards to increasing or decreasing our risk for developing Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t until Dr. Dale Bredeson showed that a multifactorial approach to treating Alzheimer’s, very much founded on the principles of functional medicine, could actually reverse or delay cognitive decline in some cases. The Bredeson Protocol showed that our approach of looking for magic bullets to treat complex conditions is not only wrong, but it’s misguided. Complex conditions require complex approaches that can account for all the possible underlying triggers for a condition. And many of these triggers are things we have direct control over on a daily basis if we pay attention to them.
Here’s where you can start…
5 Things That Accelerate Alzheimer’s & Dementia
As a first step towards prevention, avoiding the following habits and managing modifiable triggers has been linked to a healthier memory for life.
1… Too much stress
If you frequently experience high levels of stress, chances are your cortisol levels are high. Believe it or not, stress can quicken the onset of Alzheimer’s, because high stress levels cause the hippocampus to shrink. I have seen this many times with patients in my practice, where they will experience a trauma that leads to memory loss and emotional distress. One patient lost his wife to a brain tumor after almost a year of battling with it, and with the stress of the situation, developed severe memory loss with word-finding difficulties.
The first step in memory recovery is to lower stress, and by doing so lowering cortisol levels. A few ways to lower your cortisol levels include getting enough sleep, exercising at a moderate effort level, pursuing a hobby that makes time stand still for you, spending time in nature (my favorites are the sea shore or a hike), and developing a meditation practice.
2… Too little stress
While too much stress is considered detrimental to our brain health, not enough stress can be just as harmful. People who retire early tend to experience lack of brain stimulation, which can hasten the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. For example, one French study showed a 3 percent reduction in dementia risk for each extra year past the age of retirement. Our brains need some level of stimulation to stay healthy and sharp. In fact, studies have shown that hormesis, types of stress that increase resilience like cold water exposure, can protect our neural systems. For example, Wim Hof breathing and ice baths I mentioned in a previous post, offer incredible brain protective properties. In other words, not all stress is bad stress. Keep your brain stimulated and it will thank you for it! This includes doing something that feels challenging, like learning a new language.
3… A high-sugar diet
Most people know about Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, but have you heard of Type 3 diabetes? Type 3 diabetes is essentially another name for Alzheimer’s disease, and it comes from the fact that insulin resistance in the brain is a key characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Numerous studies have found that high-sugar diets can lead to cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. I recommend keeping track of your daily sugar intake for a few days and seeing where you can cut back, and make sure to check nutrition labels on your foods. The food industry sneaks sugar into everything these days. As a result, the average adult American in 2012 was consuming 77 grams of sugar daily. Try to keep total daily added sugar consumption to less than 25 grams (= 6 teaspoons).
4… A diet rich in unhealthy fats
Another established fact: Dietary fat intake is associated with Azheimer’s and dementia risk. Specifically, eating a diet that is high in saturated fats can double your risk of Alzheimer’s. Even a moderate intake of trans fat can double or triple your risk. To avoid saturated and trans fats, steer clear of highly processed foods, like processed meats, fried fast food and most packaged snacks. I can’t stress enough the importance of reading labels and knowing exactly what you are putting into your body. An ounce of prevention goes a long way when it comes to our long-term health, and it’s the little daily habits that can have a positive (or negative) cumulative effect.
5… Lack of movement
Lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, among other life-threatening diseases. Considering the average adult sits for 6.5 hours a day (and that in our post-covid world, sitting is the new smoking), it’s safe to say we all need to move more. General guidelines recommend getting 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week for a total of 2.5 hours per week.
Now that we’ve talked about the factors that can lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia, let’s talk about what you can do to prevent it.
7 Things You Can Do Right Now To Prevent Alzheimer’s & Dementia
1. Move Your Body Every Day
If a sedentary lifestyle contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s, it makes sense that getting sufficient movement and physical activity can help prevent it. Also, in general, people who exercise have a lower risk of cognitive decline compared to those who don’t exercise. Whether it’s walking, running, cycling, dancing, or doing yoga, find activities you enjoy doing and work on developing a realistic and sustainable exercise routine. Turning up the music and shaking to the beats can be just as good as any other workout — plus, it’s a load of fun. I recommend you check out the morning, sober pre-work dance party put on by my friends, Eli and Radha, known as Daybreaker, for something new to do to start your day on the right foot. And the great thing is it’s for all age groups!
2. Keep Your Brain Active
Studies have found that early retirement is associated with higher rates of developing Alzheimer’s. Similarly, it’s been shown that retirement accelerates the decline in verbal memory function. How can you combat this? Keep your brain active. Learn a new language, read, learn a new skill like knitting, or do crossword and sudoku puzzles. You can also add a social aspect to it and invite friends over to play card or board games.
3. Eat More Fiber
High fiber diets are associated with a number of positive health outcomes, especially when it comes to brain health and disease prevention. This holds true for Alzheimer’s, as existing evidence suggests that high fiber diets may provide protection against Alzheimer’s. I discuss this in depth in my book Happy Gut, but fundamentally, the majority of Americans are getting less than half of the fiber they need to achieve optimal health. I recommend adding foods like oats, dark leafy greens, berries, apples, and avocados to your diet. Aim to get anywhere between 25 – 35 grams of fiber daily. For more on fiber-rich foods, check out my article on how to detox with fiber.
4. Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Your Diet
We have long known that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for brain health, but it can also aid your body’s fight against Alzheimer’s. Over a dozen studies have demonstrated that decreased levels of omega-3s are associated with increased risk of cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. Fatty fish like wild salmon and sardines are packed with omega 3s, as are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and seaweed.
5. Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Ferments
Circling back to gut health, one of the best ways to improve your gut microbiota—and by proxy, lower your risk of Alzheimer’s—is to eat foods rich in probiotics. My go-tos for probiotics are fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, and kombucha, but you can also find them in greek yogurt, tempeh, sourdough bread, and even pickles.
6. C.A.R.E For Your Gut
To reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, you have to care for your gut. You may be asking yourself: “What does that actually mean?” Well, I’ve boiled it down to four words: Cleanse. Activate. Restore. Enhance. These are the core principles of my gut-healing 28-day program, my own gut health healing journey, and the basis of my Happy Gut Reboot Program. The Gut C.A.R.E Program is perfect for anyone looking to say goodbye to their stomach issues for good, without feeling like they’re on a restrictive diet that sucks the joy out of mealtimes! To find out if the Gut C.A.R.E Program is right for you, check it out on my website today.
7. Expand Your Circle
Did you know that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia? That’s right, socialization and emotions can have a significant impact on our health. As we’ve learned from blue zones, having strong connections to your community, socializing with other people, and feeling a sense of purpose can reduce stress and inflammation, which lower your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by proxy. With much of the world finally opening up, it’s time to reach out and hug each other again.
There is certainly more work to be done in the field of gut and brain health, but it’s clearer now than ever that the connection between the brain and the gut is undeniable. Hopefully, this research leads to a greater focus on Alzheimer’s prevention through the power of upleveling our lifestyle habits, which in turn could improve the quality of life for millions of people.