What Your Brain Needs to Stay Sharp!

Scientists at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Coimbra, Portugal just published a study in the August 2010 Journal of Alzheimer’s Disorders that involved 70 patients with mild cognitive impairment.  Here’s what they found.

The researchers followed these 70 patients over time and found that those who developed Alzheimer’s disease had a significant decrease in their antioxidant defenses.

Those who remained stable (and didn’t develop Alzheimer’s) had better antioxidant defenses.

Specifically, decrease in vitamin E was associated with deteriorating cognitive function.

So what do antioxidants do, anyway, and why are they so important?

Glad you asked.

Imagine leaving your car outdoors in the rain for years without any protection. What would it look like?

I’d say “Junkyard Ready”.

If you looked underneath that car you’d probably find many areas that had rusted. That rusting is caused by oxidative damage. Preventing — or combating — oxidative damage (also known as oxidative stress or oxidation for short) is one of the major anti-aging strategies under your control, and you’re more likely to do it if you understand why it’s so important.

Here’s how oxidative damage works in your body. You may remember from chemistry 101 that every atom and molecule has electrons circling around it. These electrons like to fly around in pairs, which keeps the atoms and molecules    nice and stable and balanced. But once in a while, one of those electrons breaks free — and that’s when all the trouble starts. [

Once one of the paired electrons breaks off, the molecule or atom where it used to reside is now running around with an unpaired single electron. The presence of that “unpaired” electron turns our formerly stable molecule into what is known as a “free radical” — the raging bull of molecules. It’s not a happy camper. In fact, the free radical acts like a college kid on spring break without adult supervision — it literally goes wild looking for a “mate” for its newly separated electron.

If you’re a man, you can think of a free radical as the obnoxious drunk single guy at your high school reunion who keeps trying to pick up your wife. (Women, just reverse the image!)  The free radical starts “hitting” on every molecule it encounters, looking for another electron to steal away from a normal, stable molecule that still has all its electrons neatly paired up.

The irony, of course, is that when it does finally steal an electron away from a stable molecule, that molecule becomes unstable itself and turns into a free radical (since it’s now left with an unpaired electron). And the process begins again. The whole process is kind of like a having vampire on the loose: each time a new victim gets bitten, it turns into a vampire and the whole sequence repeats. Anti-aging expert Ron Rothenberg, MD, has a clever name for the sequence: he calls it “Cellular World War lll.”

Every time these free radicals “hit” on your cells looking for a mate for their unpaired electron, they damage the cells. This cumulative damage is a huge part of aging. “If the DNA is damaged when the cell divides to make new cells, the copies will be wrong and whatever function that cell performs will not be done correctly,” Rothenberg says.

If “aging” is another name for “breakdown” you can see immediately why free radicals age us. Cells break down, organ systems don’t function as well, DNA becomes damaged, and DNA replication — an incredibly complex and delicate, enzyme-dependent process — doesn’t happen efficiently, and DNA can become mutated. When this kind of damage accumulates in the brain it contributes to all sorts of disorders typical of “aging”. For example, when it accumulates in the heart or vascular system, you have heart disease. When it accumulates in the skin, you have aging skin.

Free radicals can really damage your brain and all its important functions, which is why antioxidant protection is so vitally important to keeping your mind sharp and agile all through life.

I recommend this three-point program for antioxidant defense, specifically for the brain:

  1. Take antioxidant supplements: My favorites include Gamma-tocopheral vitamin E (400 IUs),  vitamin C (500-2000 mg),  Alpha-lipoic acid (100 mg or more),  Selenium (200 mcg)  and zinc (15-50 mg)
  2. Eat Foods Rich in Antioxidants (and Anti-Inflammatories): My favorites include berries (wild blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, etc), apples, prunes, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beans, wild salmon, tea, pomegranate juice, spices, herbs and cocoa
  3. Avoid these foods: Sugar and processed carbs, trans-fatty acids

Reference: “Oxidative Damage and Progression to Alzheimer’s Disease in Patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment,” Baldeiras I, Santana I, et al, J Alzheimers Dis, 2010 Aug 6; [Epub ahead of print]. (Address: Laboratory of Neurochemistry, Neurology Department, Coimbra University Hospital, Coimbra, Portugal Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal