Did you know there are currently 47 million people worldwide who are living with dementia, and by the year 2030 that number is likely to climb to 75 million?1 In America, $259 billion has been spent in 2017 just on caring for those with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, and $56 billion came directly out-of-pocket.19 These statistics show the importance of maintaining brain health.
The brain lives by the motto of “use it or lose it.” Our brain is similar to that of a muscle; it can be continually strengthened, and with that strength can come a lifetime of enhanced cognitive function. It’s impossible to strengthen the brain too much because it has an unlimited amount of power. However, it is very possible for our brain to show a decrease in its overall health. The most common effect in the decline of brain health is Alzheimer’s disease, which affects 10% of the population over the age of 65.19
Thankfully, there are daily things we can do to strengthen our brain, which can drastically decrease our risk for dementia. Furthermore, if you have friends or family who are already suffering from dementia, there are many natural ways to help reduce the symptoms, including the use of a brain health ingredient called Huperzine A that has shown evidence of enhancing brain function. In this article, you’ll learn about the brain, brain health, and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, you’ll learn how to increase brain functions through natural ways involving diet, lifestyle, Huperzine A, and other brain supplements. Cheers to brain health!
What is the Human Brain?
The brain, which some say looks like a wrinkled walnut, is the most complex organ in the human body, and it makes us who we are as human beings. It manages our intelligence, emotions, creativity, and memory, while also being responsible for our personality and perspective of the world. Encompassing only 2% of our body’s weight, the brain is also the command center for our nervous system.2 With having approximately 100 billion nerve cells, the brain is in control of our active body’s functions, such as moving our arms and legs, as well as our unconscious body processes, such as digestion and breathing.2 Weighing in at about three pounds, the brain has three main parts:
- Cerebrum – the largest part of the brain (accounts for 85% of the brain’s weight) and has two hemispheres: the right side is used when you’re being artistic and creative, and the left side is used when you’re focused on anything academic, analytical, or logical.2, 3
- Cerebellum – the second largest part of the brain and tucked beneath the back of the cerebrum, it receives messages about anything you see, touch, hear, and taste; and it controls your movement, speech, intelligence, and personality.
- Brain Stem – located at the base of the brain, it controls your autonomic systems, like breathing, heart rate, and digestion.
Why is Brain Health Important?
Too often it’s easy to not think about the health of our brain because, after all, we can’t physically feel our brain or see our brain. It’s ironic that the very thing that produces our thoughts is the very thing we never think about. However, we should focus on the health of our brain just as we focus on the health of our body. Overall health includes a healthy body and a healthy brain.
Everybody’s brain changes with age. Neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change due to new learning or experiences, continues throughout our lifespan. And this is a great thing because it means that we can continue to strengthen our cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, as we age, our brain tends to lose some of its elasticity.4 What this means is that our brain starts becoming a little more challenged with change, adaptation, and reorganization. Where once we might have been able to easily change or adapt to a new idea or way of doing something, with the loss of elasticity, this becomes more difficult to do – not impossible, just more difficult. Loss of elasticity can also lead to difficulties in focusing, remembering, or having energy.4 Specific brain diseases that can occur due to an unhealthy brain are:
- mild cognitive impairment
- dementia (which includes Alzheimer’s disease), and
- cerebrovascular disease (which includes strokes)
Maintaining brain health is imperative in the possible prevention of these types of challenging conditions.
What Can We Do To Support Our Brain Health Naturally?
With age, there comes a natural decline in mental function. A study done by researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada concluded that our brain may start declining as early as age 24.5 You read that right – age 24! They also concluded that there could be cognitive decline by 1% every year thereafter. In our battle against declining mental health function, there are some natural ways to support our brain health.
One of the easiest things to do to help your brain function is to eat healthy foods. Yep, eating healthy foods isn’t just good for our heart and body; it’s also great for our brains! And the good news is that eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to follow a specific diet. All it takes is incorporating some fruits, veggies, good fats, and proteins into your eating regimen (bonus – these types of food are also excellent for your body!). Below is a list of good brain foods to consider in promoting your brain health.
Brain Healthy Foods:
Dark green leafy vegetables - the benefits of green leafy vegetables seems to be endless, so it’s not really a surprise that they are also good for the brain. In a study, it was found that older adults who ate a serving of leafy green veggies at least once a day had a slower mental decline than those who ate no vegetables.6 Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, swiss chard, and romaine lettuce, are great sources of vitamin E and folate (folate is an essential vitamin that supports nerve functions). Though it’s not entirely clear how folate protects the brain, it is thought to lower levels of homocysteine, which is an amino acid that triggers the death of nerve cells in the brain.7 An easy and delicious way to incorporate a serving or two of leafy vegetables is to throw in some spinach or kale into a morning smoothie. Just add some fruit, crushed ice and water and you’ll never know the green vegetables were even in there.
Avocados - this wonderful fruit contains the “good” fat which contributes to a healthy blood flow. Healthy blood flow isn’t just important for the body, but it’s also important for the brain. Due to the vitamin K and folate, avocados aid in preventing blood clots in the brain (this means a prevention in strokes), and they’ve been known to improve memory and concentration.6 Being that avocados are high in calories, just add ¼ to ½ to a morning breakfast sandwich or to your lunchtime salad. If you want to kick up the taste of the avocado, a sprinkle of pepper will do the trick!
Blueberries - one of the highest antioxidant-rich foods, the blueberry is a great brain food because of the Gallic acid, which is effective in inhibiting neuronal death.8 That’s right – eating blueberries helps to prevent neural disorders. Eating a cup of blueberries a day can reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, 9 so throw some in your morning oatmeal or smoothie. With the vitamin C, vitamin K, and fiber found in blueberries, you’ll really doing your body and mind good!
Salmon - EPA and DHA are the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, and EPA and DHA are vital for the maintenance of normal brain function because they preserve cell membrane in brain cells, and they facilitate communication between brain cells.10 Omega-3 fatty acids have been suggested to improve brain function for mild cognitive impairment or decline. In a study, older adults with cognitive decline were given 900 mg of DHA, and after 24 weeks were found to perform better on memory and learning tests.10 Another study showed those who took omega-3 fish oil had brain function improvement.10 Salmon is an excellent way to get those essential omega-3 fatty acids, so grill some up to top off your salad or rice pilaf. Yum!
Egg yolks - no more egg whites only for you! Break open that egg and eat it in its entirety and enjoy the effects of choline, which egg yolks are filled with. Choline is an essential nutrient required for normal development of the brain. Scramble up some delicious eggs each morning and reap the benefits of the protein needed for your body’s health and the choline needed for your brain’s health.
Broccoli - another food high in vitamin K and choline is broccoli, making it a great brain food. Cold or steamed, you can never go wrong with broccoli as it’s a good for heart health and brain health.
Beets - this oddly shaped vegetable reduces inflammation, protects against cancer due to the antioxidants, and helps to rid toxins from the blood. Along with these benefits, beets also boost blood flow to the brain, which helps with mental performance.6 Raw or roasted, beets are a good brain food to consider.
Beans - a primary benefit of beans is the stabilization of glucose (blood sugar) levels. The brain is dependent on glucose for fuel, and because the brain is incapable of storing glucose, it has to rely on a consistent stream of glucose.9 Beans help to ensure the brain has glucose. Just a ½ cup a day of any kind of bean will do the trick.
Dark chocolate - it’s been said that a little dark chocolate is good for your heart, but did you know that it’s also good for your brain? Along with its antioxidant properties, it contains several natural stimulants, such as theobromine that enhance focus and concentration.9 When you need a quick pick-me-up in the afternoon, grab an ounce of dark chocolate and enjoy!
Nuts and seeds -these are good sources of vitamin E, and vitamin E has been shown to correspond with less cognitive decline as we get older.9 When you’re enjoying that leafy green salad, add some almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, or flax seed and really boost your brain health. Another option is a handful of walnuts, hazelnuts, or Brazil nuts as a snack. Not in the mood for raw nuts? You could have peanut butter, almond butter, or tahini as an alternative option.
Bone broth - a large quantity of an amino acid called glycine is found in bone broth, and has been shown to promote mental alertness and improve memory.12 Bone broth is an excellent base for many soups and stews.
Coconut oil - the fat found in coconut oil breaks down into ketones (byproducts that break down fat for energy), and the ketones can be used by brain cells for fuel.11 Give your brain a little extra fuel, and it might just run a little better and help to prevent memory loss. You could put a little coconut oil into your coffee or hot tea, or you could add it to baking recipes.
Extra virgin olive oil - the powerful antioxidants (known as polyphenols) that are found in extra virgin olive oil have been found to improve learning and memory, as well as fight against certain proteins that are very detrimental to the brain and even contribute to induce Alzheimer’s disease.6 However, don’t use extra virgin olive oil for cooking because this causes it to degrade. Instead, consume it at room temperature by adding it to your favorite vinaigrette salad dressing or in some sauces like marinara.
Rosemary - this tasty herb helps protect the brain from neurodegeneration (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, and age related decline of the brain) by protecting the brain from chemical free radicals.6 Sprinkle ½ teaspoon of rosemary on your pasta or add a bit to some extra virgin oil salad dressing and really get a boost in your brain health.
Turmeric - a great tasting spice that has been used for a variety of healing purposes. Curcumin, the chemical compound found in turmeric, is a strong anti-inflammatory agent that boosts the immune system and also improves the brain’s oxygen intake.6 Oxygen is a lifeline to the brain’s survival, and increasing the oxygen can make you more alert, energized, and focused on processing information. Adding a dash of turmeric to eggs is a super easy way to boost your brain health. Just be careful that you don’t add too much because it could really overpower the eggs. Add it in slowly until you find the perfect amount for your taste buds.
In addition to brain boosting foods, there are several other things you can do naturally to improve memory, focus, and concentration.
How to Improve Memory, Focus and Concentration to Benefit overall Brain Health:
- Exercise your body – as mentioned previously, oxygen is the lifeline of the brain. Your brain uses about 20% of the oxygen you take in every day.4 If you increase your oxygen levels, you can boost the brain’s ability to retain information and focus. Daily exercise will increase your oxygen levels, thus giving your brain a boost in its overall health. Also, according to research, high aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of the cells in the brain.13
- Exercise your brain – this might be the most fun and the easiest way to boost brain cognitive functions. To exercise the brain, you can do crossword puzzles, try and figure out jokes or riddles, work on number challenges, or solve games. Nowadays, everyone seems to have their smartphone attached to their hand, so find a fun app that promotes memory, focus, and/or concentration, and get your brain that exercise it needs.
- Mental stimulation – you don’t always have to do brain games. You can do some mental stimulation such as reading, taking a class, or working on a hobby. Just the fact that you’re learning and engaging in something can improve your overall brain function.
- Get a solid night’s sleep – poor sleeping patterns can hurt your memory. How many times have you dragged yourself out of bed after getting just a couple hours of sleep and have felt foggy in your head and unable to focus throughout the day? A good night’s sleep can significantly help to reduce memory and concentration problems.
- Take an omega-3 supplement – our bodies cannot make omega-3, therefore, taking a supplement can be a great way to get the essential amino acids needed to maintain brain functions, which includes memory and concentration improvement.13
- Drink alcohol moderately – excessive drinking can be a major risk factor for inducing dementia.14. Limit yourself to just two drinks a day.
- Protect your head – head injuries, even moderate ones, can significantly increase the risk of cognitive impairment,14 so ensure to put that helmet on when you go bike riding, rollerblading, skateboarding, motorcycle riding…well, you get the picture. If you’re on anything with wheels and nothing between you and the hard ground, put that helmet on.
- Water your brain – your brain is 73% water, and it only takes 2% dehydration to decrease your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills.15 So, don’t be part of the 75% of the population that isn’t drinking enough water5. Drink at least 8 glasses a day to prevent mild dehydration. Your brain will thank you.
- Meditate – the average person has 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day.15 Calming the mind down with meditation can actually be hard work. Our minds are so accustomed to rapidly moving from thought to thought that it can be challenging to stop all those thoughts. The benefits of calming the mind is memory improvement and increased focus and attention.15
- Memory supplements – a great way to enhance memory function is to take a daily supplement with proven effects of decreasing memory and focus problems, such as Huperzine A.
What is Huperzine A and What is the Hup-A Supplement Used to Support?
An alkaloid compound that has been known to help with brain function is Huperzine A, which has been found in a species of moss that is native to India.16 Huperzine A is a supplement that supports Alzheimer’s disease, memory and learning enhancement, and age-related memory impairment.17 We have a chemical in our brain called acetylcholine (a learning neurotransmitter) that our nerves use to communicate in the brain and throughout our body. Huperzine A supports an increase in acetylcholine, thus leading to healthy brain functions, memory, and concentration. 16, 17
13 Huperzine A Benefits
Huperzine A helps, protects, enhances, and promotes the following brain health benefits:18
- Protects against toxic organophosphates. Organophosphates inhibit acetylcholine (remember that acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that helps communication of nerve cells), so Huperzine A is a great way to combat organophosphates.
- Protects neurons against glutamate toxicity. Glutamate is an amino acid neurotransmitter that kills neuron cells by overstimulating receptors.
- Protects the brain from oxidative damage. Oxidative damage can occur from iron overload, so Huperzine A helps to protect the negative effects of the excess iron.
- Helps with recovering from a traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury. It has been shown to aid the recovery from brain bleeding by preventing damage to the mitochondria and delaying cell death.
- Protects brain health from Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It has been shown that Huperzine A has had a stronger effect in mitigating Alzheimer’s than other interventions, and it helps improve mental functions.
- Helps with brain damage from severe bacterial infections. In studies of rats, it has been determined that Huperzine A protects the brain by reducing inflammation and increasing the functions of neurons.
- Helps with cognitive symptoms from depression. It does not cure depression, but it can reduce some of the cognitive symptoms associated with depression.
- Helps with epileptic seizures. It’s been shown in studies done on animals that Huperzine A protects the brain cells from over-excitement and death associated with convulsions, and it can increase the resistance of seizures.
- Could be a safe way to treat addiction. There could be a decrease in a person’s perception of the effects of cocaine and could be a safe way to treat addiction.
- Promotes liver health. Liver cells that receive oxygen after an extended period of deoxygenation, needs some protection to prevent cell death. Huperzine A can provide this protection.
- Enhances memory and other cognitive functions.
- Promotes growth of neural cells.
- Helps with Myasthenia gravis, which is an autoimmune disease in which the acetylcholine receptors are attacked by the immune system. Huperzine A can help with muscle weakness in Myasthenia gravis patients.
Huperzine A – a Potential Treatment for Alzheimer’s
Some research suggests that taking the Huperzine A supplement for up to 8 weeks may improve memory, mental function, and behavior in people with conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia.17 In 2013, a study was conducted to evaluate the effects of Huperzine A as a treatment of Alzheimer’s.20 In 20 random clinical trials, 1,823 participants (Alzheimer’s patients) were divided with some given Huperzine A, and others given a placebo. They were monitored weekly, and those who took Huperzine A demonstrated an improvement in their cognitive function. It was concluded that Huperzine A does have beneficial effects on the improvement of cognitive function and daily living activity.20
Huperzine A increases the level of acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter used to make connection throughout our brain and body) by blocking the actions of cholinesterase.21 Cholinesterase is an enzyme that breaks down unused acetylcholine, and this causes memory loss. If the cholinesterase can be blocked from doing their job, this results in more acetylcholine, which is a very good thing to help maintain healthy brain functions. Just like the 5 FDA approved drugs used for Alzheimer’s, this is exactly what Huperzine A does – blocks the cholinesterase from breaking down the acetylcholine – making it a great choice for being a potential treatment of Alzheimer’s and general brain health support.
Other Vitamins and Herbs that are Good for Brain Health & Why
Along with Huperzine A, there are other vitamins and herbs that have shown to be beneficial to brain health.
- Vitamin B-6 helps the body make several neurotransmitters (the chemicals that carry signals from never cell to nerve cell). This vitamin is essential for normal brain development and function. And there’s a bonus – it also increases serotonin and norepinephrine (mood boosters) and increases melatonin (regulates our sleep cycles).
- Vitamin B-12 works to keep a brain healthy. A lack in vitamin B12 can lead to brain shrinkage, which results in cognitive decline. In a study, it was shown that those who had higher vitamin B12 levels were 6 times less likely to experience brain shrinkage compared to those who had lower levels of vitamin B12.24
- Bacopa (aka Brahmi) is a herb that comes from a plant that has been used in traditional Indian medicine; it’s been used for memory improvement and to calm the nervous system. In a 12 week study, it was concluded that Bacopa significantly improved visual information processing, learning rate, and memory consolidation.25
- Ginkgo Biloba is a tree in which the leaves have been used in Chinese medicine throughout history. Ginkgo Biloba improves the blood flow to the brain which can modestly boost memory and cognitive speed.26 In addition, it can slow down the progression of dementia symptoms.
- Vinpocetine is a derivative of an alkaloid (an organic compound) found in the periwinkle plant. It has been reported to have cerebral blood-flow enhancing and neuroprotective effects, and it has been used as a drug in Eastern Europe for the treatment of cerebrovascular disorders and age-related memory impairment. Vinpocetine is used for enhancing memory and cognitive function.27
- L-Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea leaves. Research suggests that L-Theanine has positive effects on cognitive function when combined with caffeine.28 In addition, it boosts mood and calms stress.
Brain health is something we all need to work on maintaining. Instead of only focusing on the health of our body, let’s also focus on the health of our brain. Right now, it’s estimated that the number of dementia cases is going to nearly triple by 2050.1 Let’s take action to try and ensure that projection doesn’t happen. By eating the right foods, engaging in mental stimulation, and taking brain enhancing supplements, like Huperzine A, you’ll be on the right track to having a healthy brain.
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