Nutrition changed my life. Food influenced my fertility, my acne breakouts, my focus, and my energy levels, all for the better. These shifts were so powerful that they shook me out of my 9-to-5 accounting job and inspired me to enroll in nutrition school.
I was fresh-faced and ready to learn everything about nutrition, how amazing food could be, and what effect it had on our bodies. What I wasn’t ready for was a diagnosis. I received the news that my mother-in-law had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
My family’s world stopped turning. Everything felt wrong, and a sense of sorrow pervaded our day-to-day life. How could this happen? How was it possible that this beautiful, kind, and loving person would soon begin to unravel before our eyes?
It’s estimated that more than 6.5 million Americans suffer from this disease, with women representing two-thirds of those suffering. When Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, there is no hope or silver lining, just a grim warning to prepare for things to gradually and continually get worse. Despite billions of dollars spent on clinical trials and other research, there are currently no meaningful pharmaceutical treatments. There is no pill that will stop the march of the disease.
Yet in the darkness, a fire was lit. I felt certain that if nutrition affected the body, it must also affect the brain. Surely there is a connection between what we eat and how our brains function?
The Preventative Power of Plants
I dove into all the books about Alzheimer’s I could find at my local library, scoured PubMed, and listened to many brain health podcast. I discovered many amazing resources, the most valuable being the work of two neurologists, doctors Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, authors of The Alzheimer’s Solution. (For a summary of their work, check out this article: “5 Ways to Protect Your Brain from Cognitive Decline.”)
Through my research, I discovered that food can positively impact Alzheimer’s prevention. While the damage from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease is not reversible (at least not currently), for those suffering in the early stages of the disease, lifestyle changes may help slow the decline.
According to the Sherzais, the main pillars of prevention include nutrition, exercise, stress management, sufficient sleep, and brain optimization (or cognitive challenge). Other reports and trials echoe many of these areas of prevention.
The real power players when it comes to food for brain health are plants; the nutrients in plants provide essential nutrition for the brain while also providing protection against damage. Including more plants in your daily meal choices can make a big difference in brain function, providing you with clarity and focus as well as reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s down the road. This includes everything from nuts and seeds to fruits and vegetables to leafy greens and algae oil—basically anything that doesn’t come from an animal.
The MIND diet stands out as an eating plan that includes ten brain-healthy food groups and reduces or eliminates five unhealthy food groups. It’s a cross between the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, centering on foods and nutrients that have been associated with dementia prevention by increasing plant-based foods and minimizing animal foods or sources of saturated fats.
In particular, beans, greens, berries, and omega 3s (from our algae friends) are among the top brain foods identified by the Sherzais and included in the MIND diet. These foods have specific nutrients that may help protect your brain and balance your blood sugar, important factors in the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Long-Term Prevention, Short-Term Benefits
When it comes to prevention, there is good news to share. More and more research points to lifestyle factors that can aid in prevention. (The Sherzais estimate that as many as 90 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are preventable.) The challenge is creating awareness and supporting patients in taking action before the damage is done.
Alzheimer’s develops slowly, thanks to our incredibly resilient brain, leaving few clues or indications that this insidious disease is beginning to wreak havoc. And while the damage can begin as early as our 30s, as human beings, it’s difficult to look ahead 10 or 20 or 30 years and make choices now to protect our brain. We tend to be more motivated by a current crisis or pressing need. If only our brains came with a dashboard warning light that lit up when damage began!
Our family has made changes to include more plants in our diet in the hopes of preventing or slowing the progress of the disease in the future, and we have found ourselves experiencing benefits now. It has been a blessing to experience the positive effects in real time: less brain fog, greater focus, better digestion, and more energy, to name a few.
And while there is no clear path out of the Alzheimer’s woods, we have had the opportunity to use food to help slow symptoms for my mother-in-law, watching her hold fairly steady over the past six years. Everyone’s experience is unique, but in her case, we have seen her perform at about the same level on cognitive scoring tests over the past five years, which her doctor remarked is unusual for the patients he sees. And while this example is anecdotal, we are happy to see evidence in our own family of what the aggregate research is showing in more and more studies.
Starting Slow With Alzheimer’s Prevention
Let’s pause and acknowledge the elephant in the room: Lifestyle changes are difficult for many reasons. It’s one thing to know that prevention is possible, but it’s another to act on that knowledge.
To make things easier, begin with changing one thing—yes, just one! As a nutritionist, I often suggest beginning with breakfast. By focusing on one meal, we can give our attention and effort to getting consistent with one part of our day. When breakfast starts feeling easy, we can move on to lunch and then dinner. It’s much better to tackle one thing at a time, see success, and keep going with that momentum than to take on multiple changes and feel like you can’t maintain all of them. Start slow, take one step at a time. It’s all about the long game.
If you’re curious about brain health and would like to take that first step with breakfast, here is a simple and brain-supporting recipe to try.
Brain-Boosting Blueberry Smoothie
- 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 cup water (or unsweetened non-dairy milk)
- 1 cup spinach
- 1 tbsp hemp hearts
- 1/4 cup plant-based protein powder
- Optional: add 1/4 cup frozen avocado
Directions: Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy!
This simple smoothie combines the memory-supporting anthocyanins found in blueberries, nutrient-dense spinach, and omega-containing hemp hearts. It also provides protein, fiber, and healthy fat, the magic trifecta for balancing your blood sugar and helping you feel full longer.
Want more? Listen to our podcast episode with Sara Gottfried on eating for energy and mental sharpness.