Many people don’t realize that their diet and lifestyle can either positively or negatively impact their brain health. Last week, I provided an overview of how anemia, dysglycemia, and inflammation can affect the brain and this week I will provide you with an overview of a few lifestyle and nutritional interventions that can help to enhance brain health. Over the next few weeks we will discuss different components of brain health and the role that diet, and lifestyle can play.
Neuroplasticity “can be defined as the ability of the nervous system to respond to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, function and connections” (1). Plasticity of the brain is either adaptive when connected with a gain in function or maladaptive when connected with negative effects, for example the loss of function or increased injury.
There are many lifestyle and nutritional interventions that help to increase neuroplasticity.
Aerobic physical activity has been found to increase neurogenesis and angiogenesis. Physical activity is also correlated with the production of neurotrophic molecules (i.e. brain-derived neurotrophic factor and other growth factors) who participate in the neuroprotection and promotion of cell survival, neurite outgrowth and synaptic plasticity (1). Studies have shown that even short-term aerobic exercise can lead to considerable benefits to cognitive functioning in people who are aging and those with early signs of dementia. People with schizophrenia may also benefit. An exercise program lasting just a few months has shown many of the benefits mentioned. Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase brain volume in many regions and to enhance the brain network functioning (1).
The hippocampal and medial temporal lobe volumes were shown to be larger in size in adults who were physically fit (2). In addition, physical activity increases hippocampal perfusion. Meeusen (2014) discussed a research study (120 older adults aged 55-80) that showed the following results (2):
Aerobic exercise increased the size of the anterior hippocampus
The larger hippocampus lead to enhancements in spatial memory
Exercise increased hippocampal volume by 2%, which helped with reversing age-related losses in volume by 1–2 years
Hippocampal volume declined in the control group
Caudate nucleus and thalamus volumes were unaffected by the intervention
The reversal in hippocampus loss lead to improved memory function
Since the brain is an organ that is very metabolically active it accounts for a high percentage of the body’s total metabolic rate. Nutrition can possibly help to influence the functioning of the brain from moment to moment (2). I found this to be interesting, imaging tests have shown that just thinking about food can modify neural activity in certain parts of the brain that are involved in the cognitive controls of appetitive behaviors.
Polyphenols are micronutrients found in plant-based foods and they are known to be powerful antioxidants. Polyphenols can be found in many fruits, tea, red wine, cocoa, and coffee. Polyphenols have shown to produce their neuroprotective actions through their ability to:
Protect neurons from injury brought on by neurotoxins
Promote memory, learning, and cognitive function
Cause decreases in oxidative/inflammatory stress signaling
Increase protective signaling and neurohormetic effects, resulting in the “expression of genes that encode antioxidant enzymes, neurotrophic factors, and cytoprotective proteins” (2).
Flavonoids are the largest group of polyphenols. There are six groups of flavonoids:
Flavones (apigenin, luteolin)
-parsley and celery
Flavanones/flavanonols (hesperetin, naringenin/astilbin, engeletin)
-citrus fruit, herbs (oregano), and wine
Isoflavones (daidzein, genistein)
-soy and soy products
Flavonols (kaempferol, quercetin)
-onions, leeks, and broccoli
Flavanols ((+)-catechin, (−)-epicatechin, epigallocatechin, and epigallocatechin gallate)
-green tea, red wine, and chocolate
Anthocyanidins (pelargonidin, cyanidin, andmalvidin)
-red wine and berry fruits.
Flavonoids have been found to be capable of improving memory function and neurocognitive performance for the following reasons: they help to protect weak neurons, flavonoids enhance existing neuronal function, and finally they can stimulate neuronal regeneration (2). Long-term potentiation is thought to be the major mechanisms that leads to an increase in memory function and the consolidation and storage in the brain. Long-term potentiation is also known to be controlled at the “molecular level by the activation of a number of neuronal signaling pathways” (2).
Music has been found to be beneficial to neuroplasticity. Music can be a complex and multisensory activity that has been shown to have a positive influence on neuroplasticity in many areas of the brain (3). This occurs because music necessitates the integration of audiovisual information, in addition to the appreciation of the abstract rules of music. Trained musicians were found to have a greater neuroplastic response and the anterior prefrontal cortex played a central role in this response. One study found that people aged 60-84, who took 4 months of piano lessons, had an improvement in mood and people also saw improvements in their cognitive skills of attention, control, motor function, visual scanning, and executive functioning (3).
Reducing Calorie Intake and Intermittent Fasting
Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting have both been found to benefit neuroplasticity. However, the diets must provide adequate nutrition in order to be beneficial (3). Research has found after three months, reducing caloric intake by about 30% each day was correlated with an approximate 20% improvement in verbal memory function. It is believed that the benefit of caloric restriction is related to a reduction in inflammation and oxidative damage (3). It is well known that chronic inflammation can lead to a decline in cognitive function, especially as people age. Therefore, it is vital to get inflammation under control. Studies have found that intermittent fasting has produced benefits that are equal to, if not greater than, calorie restriction. In animal models, intermittent fasting has shown that the cells in the brain were “capable of resisting the injury of an injection into the hippocampus that has known toxic effects” (3). An increase in neuroplasticity can be seen with restricting calories because the restriction has been shown to improve synaptic resilience to damage. Caloric restriction can also allow for the modification of the number, architecture, and performance of synapses (3). Intermittent fasting can bring about adaptive responses systematically in the brain. In addition, it can also lead to a reduction in inflammation which results in the preservation of cognitive function (3).
About the Author: Leanne DiMaio earned her Master’s degree in Applied Clinical Nutrition from New York Chiropractic College in December 2017. She is currently working on her Doctorate degree in Clinical Nutrition at Maryland University of Integrative Health. Leanne is passionate about helping others achieve their optimal state of health and wellness. She is currently earning clinical hours toward the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential under Kim Ross's supervision.
1. Cramer, S. C., Sur, M., Dobkin, B. H., O’Brien, C., Sanger, T. D., Trojanowski, J. Q., … Vinogradov, S. (2011). Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications. Brain, 134(6), 1591–1609. http://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awr039
2. Meeusen, R. (2014). Exercise, Nutrition and the Brain. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.), 44(Suppl 1), 47–56. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0150-5
3. Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1118. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01118
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay