A Pageant of Supplements or a Healthy Diet and Exercise

July 22, 2014 in Antioxidants, Food and the Brain, Foodland Chronicles, Health, Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Have you seen the pageant-like procession of claims, that supplements and processed foods with certain additives can prevent cognitive impairment? Or have you heard any of the FTC’s precedent-setting crack down on those inflated claims? What are we supposed to believe? Can we do anything to decrease our risk of cognitive decline?

I’ll admit right at the beginning of this piece, that eating a healthy diet and doing physical exercise is not as alluring as effortlessly popping a pill or eating a cookie with the magic ingredient. But there is evidence that what’s good for the entire body includes brain health. Research on brain health is a hot bed of current pursuit. There is an enormous market for cure and prevention of suffering caused by dementia and other neurological maladies. Whenever this happens and is recognized, the marketers and entrepreneurs get busy. That’s just what is happening as related to supplements and brain health.

Hank Schultz reports on Stuart Pape’s exclamation in his article Cognitive health claims range from sublime to ridiculous, experts say, “Even with the new clarification from the FTC in the iHealth case, the market still has something of the Wild West about it. … Over time the marketplace has become so chaotic it has become difficult if not impossible to separate the legitimate companies from the illegitimate, the made-up claims from those that are supported scientifically. The barriers to entry in this industry are relatively low and there are folks who go way over the line (on claims) and get in trouble and do get their profits confiscated.  But for every one of those there are probably 10 or 100 who don’t.”

Wild West, indeed! It’s always interesting to me that the food and supplement manufacturers take the giant leap from epidemiological research linking low vitamin E tocopherols and tocotrienols and Alzeheimer’s to the supplementation stage in one fell swoop. The same goes for B vitamins and vitamin D. Being a nutritionist who prefers staying close to nature; I’d have to say that I’d rather choose enjoying blackberries, blueberries and strawberries instead of taking antioxidant supplements.  I doubt that I’ll reap any of the problems that taking supplements can deliver – like upsetting the balance of nutrients. Until there’s more definitive research and better answers, maybe there are some sound choices that we may want to concentrate on.

Lowering blood sugar – Too much sugar in the blood (hyperglycemia) whether you’re diabetic or not can promote inflammation of the lining of the small blood vessels, the resulting thickening of the vessels plays a role in both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One study published in Neurology gave some interesting and strong evidence for controlling blood sugar: Higher glucose levels were associated with lower memory and reduced hippocampal microstructure. The most interesting part of this study for me was that it was not limited to just persons with the diagnosis of diabetes; it found correlations with those having high blood sugar, and were not diagnosed with diabetes. Eating a diet of whole grains, vegetables and fruit and avoiding the highly processed grains and sweetened drinks are a great goal to put oneself in a position to benefit from this established correlation. In addition, the New England Journal of Medicine published another compelling piece of research reminding us to be careful with sugar. This study was compelling because the results made it clear that you do not have to be diabetic to suffer brain decline from higher levels of blood sugar.

Mediterranean style of eating – The Mediterranean- style of eating is both delicious and nutritious and may reduce the risk of dementia. Part of the reason may be connected with the above idea – lowering blood sugar. In addition, consuming fish may be another of several factors that make the Mediterranean style of eating a good choice for protecting your brain. In a recent study: Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review, published in Epidemiology the researchers reviewed eleven studies; they found slower cognitive decline in those who adhered to the Mediterranean diet.

Eating fish is an old adage for brain health (fish/brain food) and may have gotten it right long before being verified by modern science. DHA (dexa hexanoic acid) is a more modern bit of knowledge. One study that found that eating fish containing the DHA omega-3 fatty acid was helpful. It was published in the Nutrition Journal. A study that found taking supplements of omega-3s were not helpful was published in The Cochrane Library.

Managing blood pressure – high blood pressure is a hazard to the brain. So managing weight and salt intake seem to logically follow, if we are pursuing a healthy brain.  If you’re trying to control salt intake be careful with processed foods, fast foods and restaurant foods.  Certainly, we want to remember that exercise is key to managing a healthy weight and keeping our blood pressure in a healthy range.

There is no shortage of research on the subject of cognitive decline and impairment. There’s a huge consumer demand for products that can alleviate neurological health problems. But as usual, we may want to be cautious with preliminary, incomplete or downright flawed reports of a magic nutrient, an enchanted ingredient or captivating supplement. Some supplement purveyors are willing to say just about anything to pander to the desire to get promised benefits effortlessly, without considering diet and exercise. Are we doing all we can to live a life style that incorporates the heart of strong research? Are we eating a truly healthy diet and getting our exercise?