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Welcome back for the first installment of our 3-part series on cognitive wellness and the interactions from other body systems.
Heart health and brain health are intimately connected.
We know that cardiovascular disease can compromise the function of other organs, including the brain. Restricted blood flow means reduced delivery of oxygen, hormones, and nutrients that the brain needs to function optimally, and reduced blood flow to the brain is a major risk factor for dementia.
Before age fifty-one, the average age when women reach menopause, more men have high blood pressure and develop cardiovascular disease than women. Once menopause hits, the statistics flip. Why is this relevant? In the United States, 75% of women over the age of sixty develop hypertension. Though it isn’t entirely clear why, researchers are studying protective effects of estrogen and how the menopausal drop in estrogen levels may contribute to higher risk of heart disease and dementia in women. Estrogen helps keep LDL cholesterol levels low while improving HDL levels, thereby possibly protecting women from atherosclerosis, a critical risk factor for stroke and heart disease. By taking care of our hearts, we’re taking care of our brains, and vice versa. While there are definite genetic predispositions that can leave us more vulnerable to developing cardiovascular disease and/or cognitive impairment, research is now showing that environmental factors may play an equal, if not more, influential role.
When a patient presents with borderline to high levels of blood cholesterol, it is common for doctors to prescribe a statin. Doctors also often prescribe statins to people with symptoms of mild cognitive impairment. The reason for this is because long-term statin use is believed to reduce blockages in blood vessels that carry blood to the brain.
Statins are one of the most widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs. According to the CDC website, 43 million adults in the U.S. who could benefit from taking cholesterol medications are taking them. They work by inhibiting an enzyme used to synthesize cholesterol. Lower levels of blood cholesterol help reduce the risks associated with arterial plaque buildup; but, while cholesterol is a component of arterial plaque, it is not the root cause of arterial damage. Several factors lead to the formation of arterial lesions, including chronic, low-grade inflammation and insulin resistance, or the cellular resistance to insulin due to consistent high levels of blood sugar.
The body uses cholesterol to make cell membranes, testosterone and estrogen, Vitamin D, and myelin sheath, which are the protective coatings around axons of nerve cells that allow electric impulses to travel quickly along nerve cells. The brain uses HMG-CoA reductase to produce cholesterol; this is the same enzyme that statins inhibit.
When it comes to heart health, we ought to be looking further upstream and addressing why damage is occurring in blood vessels in the first place.
Here’s how to support your heart health with food:
Eat anti-inflammatory foods: chronic, low-level inflammation is damaging to blood vessels and contributes to the narrowing of arteries, arterial plaque, and higher risk for heart conditions. Foods that are highly inflammatory keep this low-level fire going. We want to put out the flames, not stoke them. The best way to adopt a way of eating that is naturally anti-inflammatory is to cut out fast food, most sweets, pop, and packaged foods, and replace all of this with whole foods. Eat the way your grandparents did when they were young, not necessarily as they got older. My grandma loved Little Debbies snack cakes. She ate them for breakfast as she got older, which was definitely different from how she ate as a kid!
Eat vegetables: Focus on filling your plate mostly with a variety of cooked and raw vegetables.
Chase color: Can you eat one color of the rainbow in your fruits and vegetables each day? Green vegetables are the most important for brain health, but every color deserves a place on your place and has its own special package of nutrients.
Know your source: As your budget allows, seek out grass-fed sources of meat, pastured poultry and eggs, and wild-caught fish. Start with eggs and canned wild-caught fish if that’s what you can afford, while cutting back on red meat if it’s not raised on pasture and grass-fed. All meat is not created equal, and the nutrients found in responsibly harvested animals are important for brain and heart function. Animals that have been raised in CAFO (Concentrated Feed Lot Operations) are given hormones and fed unnatural diets that are designed to speed up their growth. CAFO practices seriously harm the environment and the animals. The stress and harm induced upon CAFO animals trickles down to us when we eat them.
Read labels: If you could choose just one way to improve your health with food, I’d recommend that you start reading food labels. Look for sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup in the ingredients list, pay attention to how much added sugar is in one serving, and calculate how much sugar is in the whole package. Partly because we’re not taught to read labels, the average American consumes between 22 and 30 teaspoon daily without even realizing it. Aim to cut down to the American Heart Association’s recommended amount of 6 tsp, and even better, to 3 tsp of added sugar per day. Three teaspoons is equal to 12.6 grams of added sugar.
Second, start paying attention to the oils in packaged foods and swap out any of the following fats if you’re using them to cook: vegetable, canola, cottonseed, peanut, soybean, corn, sunflower, and safflower oils. These oils are pro-inflammatory and damaging to the heart and brain. Instead, choose extra virgin olive and avocado oils when cooking at low temperatures. Use extra virgin olive oil in homemade salad dressings. Use ghee, coconut oil, and grass-fed beef tallow when cooking, roasting, and baking.
Examples Of Small Changes To Make Now:
- Add a leafy green salad to lunch or dinner every day.
- Read the labels on your bottled salad dressings. Identify pro-inflammatory oils. Swap bottled salad dressing with the homemade dressing (a simple dressing can be made by mixing extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of Dijon mustard).
- Find a local source of pasture-raised eggs; check your local farmers market.
- Get a daily serving of purple foods (i.e. handful of blueberries, blackberries, or pomegranate, steamed beets, purple cabbage salad).
- If you eat chocolate, switch from milk chocolate to dark chocolate (85% cacao or more).
Given these tips, try to think of at least a dozen additional ways to support your heart health that fit your lifestyle specifically.
Check Back Here For Part 2. Next up, we’ll explore how hormone health is intimately tied to brain health.
About the Author:
Jacqui Gabel is a graduate of NTI. She is passionate about child nutrition and health equity. She cooks privately for individuals and families in the greater Denver area and creates content for Sticky Fingers Cooking. She’s happiest with her hands in the dirt, behind a camera, at a concert, or in a noisy, crowded kitchen. Visit Real Food Desire for more, including an eBook for additional tips on how you can optimize your long-term cognitive health.
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