Nutrition for Cognition Pt. 2

More Micronutrients and the Brain

Whenever I think about the way chronic low grade inflammation affects the brain, I’m reminded of that old chestnut, “good fences make good neighbors.”

Neuronal cell walls serve essentially the same function as a good fence, or maybe a little better, a good wall. They keep what we want to keep out out, and what we want to keep in, in. And this lets us get things done ... like make a home.

Inflammation chews away at our cell walls like termites chewing through a wood wall. We might not notice anything at first. But eventually doors start to stick and cracks appear in the woodwork. Left to themselves those cracks become holes. No one with better options wants to live in a house with holes in the walls. Yet when we expose ourselves to large quantities of pro-oxidant free radicals, or if we neglect our anti-oxidant consumption, that’s essentially what we’re doing to our brains. If one’s paying attention, one may notice it or not. But there’s a somewhat better chance that those around us will.

So what, then, is there to be done?

The first thing to realize is that, in the medical research world, this is cutting-edge stuff. So we can expect over the next few years to see pharmaceutical-industry funded studies in the press "debunking" these ideas. The problem is ... different combinations of pro-oxidants attack us from many different directions depending upon our lifestyles, and our bodies succumb or protect us in idiosyncratic ways. Attempts to address this issue with small or even large doses of one or two anti-oxidants, with no corresponding change in habits, are unlikely to be enough to alter the picture substantially. And using large doses of concentrated nutrients sometimes doesn't work ... typically better to use lower doses of a broad spectrum of nutrients as a general rule.

The next thing to do is become aware of the things in our environment that can oxidize us, and reduce our exposure. Air pollution is oxidizing ... one might want to consider getting an air filter if one lives close to a freeway or in a community where pollutant levels are high. Many common pesticides and industrial chemicals are oxidizers ... this is why those of us who eat organic food and use organic cleaners do so. Deep fried food is oxidizing because the oils are usually rancid. Cigarettes and alcohol, too. And addictive, allergic eating patterns ... the kind that have us eating the same foods compulsively over and over again ... especially when we're stressed ... can also create low-grade, chronic inflammation in sensitive individuals.

It's a good idea to increase anti-oxidant consumption. The scientific evidence supporting this approach is still weak but growing. (I'm working on an online video course on this at the time of this writing; I'll let you know a little later this year when it's ready for public consumption.) But judging from the available evidence and my own clinical experience, if one wants to preserve one's mind as one grows older it's wise to get in the habit of eating lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. These are rich sources of bioflavonoids and carotenoids ... thousands of anti-oxidant chemicals with a rich diversity of roles in the body.

And then I think it's a good idea to back up that rich dietary intake of anti-oxidants with plenty of supplemental vitamin C, E, beta-carotene (unless one's a smoker) and ... especially .. alpha-lipoic acid.

Why alpha-lipoic acid? What is alpha lipoic acid?

Alpha-lipoic acid is a specialized anti-oxidant that preferentially preserves and helps in the repair of mitochondrial DNA. It's been used in Germany to treat diabetic neuropathy for more than a generation ... a disease characterized by a degradation of the metabolism-controlling DNA in our cells' mitochondria. And mitochondria is where our cells generate their energy.

This is one of the hottest areas in dementia research these days ... tracking down relationships between a progressive loss of our brain cells' ability to generate energy in the mitochondria, and the progression of various forms of dementia. Degradation of mitochondrial DNA has also been implicated in rapid aging. So it makes sense to me to take a little extra alpha-lipoic acid. I consider it a form of insurance.