What Does Brain Protection Mean?
Brain cells are unlike other cells in the body designed to last a lifetime, or 80 years at the very least. But this long lifespan can be depreciated by factors common to modern life such as stress, pollution, chemicals, drugs, alcohol abuse, and depression. So a comprehensive strategy to maintain a fully functioning brain should include the classic tenets of healthy living: a balanced diet and being physically and mentally active. Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables will supply the body with the antioxidants it needs to combat the cellular damage caused by free radicals, as well as supplying us with crucial vitamins and minerals. Keeping our bodies and minds active also helps to stimulate certain areas of the brain associated with memory and learning.
But what else can we do to give ourselves the best chance of enjoying old age with mental clarity?
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1. Does CBD Protect The Brain?
Many people find it hard to believe that a compound found in cannabis might actually protect the brain. But when it comes to the cannabinoid CBD, this might just be the case. But don’t just take our word for it: The United States Government has taken out a patent on CBD and other cannabinoids as neuroprotectants, based on their properties as powerful antioxidants. The patent clearly states how these compounds “are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.”
This neuroprotectant potential has inspired several key studies into CBD and other cannabinoids for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Scientists believe these age-related conditions can be caused by excessive levels of the neurotransmitter, glutamate, resulting in excitotoxicity and ultimately brain cell death.
In one study carried out on rats, CBD was “was demonstrated to reduce hydroperoxide toxicity in neurons. In a head to head trial of the abilities of various antioxidants to prevent glutamate toxicity, cannabidiol was superior to both alpha-tocopherol and ascorbate in protective capacity.”
An additional age-related toxicity that researchers believe may bring about the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is excessive levels of iron in the body. Researchers from Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil studied the effect of CBD, finding it to potentially protect the brain from the rapid cell death associated with high levels of iron.
Preclinical research also suggests that CBD may slow the onset of some neurodegenerative diseases. One trial has shown how cannabidiol can reduce neural inflammation in mice injected with amyloid-β (Aβ), the protein that scientists believe leads to the neuronal cell death associated with Alzheimer’s.
But the cannabinoid’s potential for brain protection doesn’t end there. Scientists believe CBD might potentially limit the damage caused by strokes and brain injuries. Again this relates to glutamate suppression; by blocking its production, researchers believe this may reduce neuron death.
In a study published in 2010, scientists concluded that “CBD had a potent and long-lasting neuroprotective effect and prevented progressive post-ischemic injury” and “that repeated treatment with CBD from 1 day or 3 days after cerebral ischemia improved the functional deficits, such as neurological score and motor coordination, and survival rates.”
It should be noted that until now, these studies have been carried out on cell cultures or animal models and so far haven’t transferred to human studies. But still, as more research takes place, CBD’s future as a brain protecting compound, looks promising.
2. Care For Your Brain With Omega 3 Oil
Omega 3 fatty acids - polyunsaturated fats found in foods such as oily fish, seeds such as hemp and flax, and some green vegetables - are known to provide a crucial role building cell membranes throughout the brain and the body.
However, there is increasing evidence to suggest that including a good source of Omega 3 in our diet can help prevent deterioration in our brains. One study observing 8,085 subjects over 65 showed no sign of dementia and found that “regular use of omega-3 rich oils was associated with a decreased risk of borderline significance for all cause dementia.”
In fact, research on mice has found Omega 3 oils both improves memory and helps protect the brain from further damage after brain injury, concussion or stroke. It is even suggested that taking Omega 3 oil regularly could be used as a preventative measure against strokes.
3. Take The Fungal Approach To Brain Health - Lion’s Mane
Never heard of Lion’s Mane? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. But it is increasingly getting a reputation as a mushroom to watch. Traditionally used in Chinese medicine, it is high in antioxidants, and according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, “antibiotic, anticarcinogenic, antidiabetic, anti-fatigue, antihypertensive, anti-hyperlipodemic, anti-senescence [anti-aging], cardioprotective, hepatoprotective, nephroprotective, and neuroprotective, and improves anxiety, cognitive function, and depression.”
Once again, most studies have been at preclinical level, but so far, they show that the mushroom may have brain-protecting potential due to its ability to positively affect neurite outgrowth in the brain. This refers to the growth of new axons and dendrites in brain cells, which allow for the effective passing of information between neurons, something of particular interest when it comes to slowing the progression of certain neurodegenerative diseases.
Lion’s Mane has also been found to improve cognitive function and memory in rats showing symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. This finding was echoed in a small study on humans with low level cognitive impairment, who, during the course of treatment with Lion’s Mane, showed a mild improvements in symptoms.
4. Exercise Your Way To An Age-Resilient Brain
Losing weight, sculpting the perfect body, improving heart and lung capacity, and looking after our mental health are just some of the reasons people work out.
But did you know that sustained aerobic exercise can promote new brain cell growth in the hippocampus - the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning? Once again using rodents as subjects, scientists have discovered that exercise actually causes a growth in the size of the hippocampus by 2%, which they say reverses age-related loss in volume by 1 to 2 years.
Researchers see a correlation between exercise, an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor - a molecule responsible for increased neuronal survival - and hippocampus growth. So it would seem that incorporating regular, sustained aerobic exercise should be a central pillar in a multi-pronged approach to keep our brains healthy, both now and in the future as we move into old age.
5. Dancing Keeps Our Brains Young and Agile
Not everyone is a natural mover on the dance floor, but if shaking your booty or learning new dance steps is your thing, this can be a fun way to promote mental agility and better brain-body coordination.
Last year, I starting taking African dance classes. Aside from the physical benefits of jumping around and sweating, I could literally feel new neural networks being formed as I assimilated new sequences of movement I’d never done before. This was a good example of neuroplasticity, the formation of new neural connections - something that happens throughout our life, even into old age.
Scientists have seen through PET imaging that dance activates key areas in the brain, including the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum. While maintaining coordination and balance is certainly desirable on a physical level in old age, researchers have discovered that dancing offers extra brain health benefits as well.
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine contrasting different forms of exercise for the elderly, dance was the only form of physical activity that lowered participants risk of dementia. And just last year, scientists found that, in dementia-free subjects aged 60-80, dance fared better than brisk walking and stretching/balance training at protecting against cognitive deterioration.
6. Expand Your Brain by Learning A New Language
Learning a new language is challenging for most people, but most of us have probably tried picking up a few words before going on holiday, or at worst we have some rusty French left over from our school days.
It makes sense that the act of memorizing new words must have some effect on the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. And we’d be right. Studies show that learning a new language increases the size of our old friend, the hippocampus. Not only that; whether you’re a natural whizz at languages or an enthusiastic tryer has a direct impact on which area of the brain is affected.
In a study carried out on Swedish military recruits who were given a crash course in languages such as Arabic, Dari and Urdu, those with a linguistic flair showed increases in the hippocampus, while others that struggled learning the new language elicited changes in the cerebral cortex.
MRI scans on English speakers learning Chinese also showed a greater connectivity between different regions in the brain, as well as detectable changes in brain structure after 6 weeks.
But what about those of us who already speak a second language? You’ll be pleased to know that speaking more than one language can postpone the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s by 4.5 years.
What’s more, according to the scientists responsible for the paper, ‘Lifelong Bilingualism Maintains Neural Efficiency for Cognitive Control in Aging,’ being fluent in two languages “can maintain youthful cognitive control abilities in aging,” comparable to those of much younger adults.
7. Meditation And Brain Health
Meditation and Mindfulness are the buzzwords of mental health at the moment. Essentially, techniques to still the mind through concentration and present moment awareness can be found in environments as diverse as Buddhist retreats to the offices of Google.
Many turn to meditation as a way to reduce stress, but it seems that there could be some long-term, brain health benefits that make meditation an even more attractive proposition.
Like dancing and learning a language, meditation can create the conditions for neuroplasticity to occur, the formation of new neural connections. Not only that, meditation has been seen to protect against brain decline. In one study carried out at the UCLA on long-term meditators, they were found to have higher concentrations in areas of the brain most depleted during ageing. Researchers went as far as to say that “at age fifty, brains of meditators were estimated to be 7.5 years younger than those of controls.” So, a consistent meditation practice can literally shave years off your brain’s age.
Another potentially neuroprotective aspect of meditation could stem from its ability to reduce inflammation. In a recent study, 35 highly stressed adults were recruited and sent off to learn meditation or relaxation techniques on a 3-day retreat. Brain scans before and after the retreat revealed that the subjects who’d learned meditation not only showed improved brain connectivity, but also reduced levels of Interleukin-6, a biomarker that can indicate unhealthy levels of inflammation in the body. These changes were not noted in the relaxation technique group. It’s commonly recognised that excess inflammation is a cause of many age-related conditions, in particular neurodegenerative diseases.
We all want to live long and happy lives. But if remaining lucid and cognitively agile into our golden years is a priority, it’s up to us take proactive steps. So whether it’s taking CBD oil as a dietary supplement, ballroom dancing or learning mandarin, in the end, it’s your call. But don’t take any chances. Being kind to your brain now will pay dividends in the future.
If you are interested in learning more about the neuroprotective and antioxidant effects of CBD and other cannabinoids, check out these two in-depth articles:
Cannabis - a powerful antioxidant and why it’s important for our health
Seven surprising ways cannabis can protect our brain
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