In my last post on neurodegeneration and diet, I focused on why it is beneficial to avoid consumption of gluten (and possibly other grains) and other high glycemic index/load foods, if you are looking to reduce your risk of neurodegenerative diseases and age related dementia. It is also important to note that this information can be applied to those who have a genetic risk of such conditions and those who don’t. Remember how genetics play a role but they are not sufficient on their own to cause a condition in most cases, it can be controlled with environmental factors (diet, stress, exercise, chemical exposure, etc.). The following information is a great example to illustrate the fact that it’s not genes themselves, but rather the species specific control over activation and inactivation of genes that create a species. Humans and chimpanzees share 98% of our DNA yet we are so different. Some of you may not agree that we are all that different from chimps? Then chew on this…humans and mice share 92% of our DNA.
Don’t mind the slight tangent, now back to this post where I will focus on dietary prevention of neurodegeneration specific to fat and protein.
Neurodegeneration – Fat
Before I even begin to discuss this topic, it would be beneficial for you to jump over and read my post of why saturated fat and cholesterol are healthy for a bit more background. I will list some of the same references but just put in a different context. Scientific evidence from the last number of years is bringing to light the fact that there is actually no link between saturated fat and conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer (1, 2, 3). Not only is there no clear support indicating that saturated fats are bad for you, there is actually supportive evidence to indicate that saturated fats can reduce markers of inflammation in our bodies and protect us from some of the not so great lifestyle choices we make from time to time (ie, drinking), but I will get to that in a minute.
Another important point to make is that cholesterol (a type of fatty acid absolutely required for tons of bodily processes) is essential for proper brain function and 25% of our bodies total amount of cholesterol is in our brain!! Of note, please do not mistake how I have referred to cholesterol above with blood levels of what medical practitioners call cholesterol (LDL, HDL, VDL, etc). These acronyms do not actually refer to cholesterol molecules directly, but to the molecules that carry cholesterol to the cells in our body for use. Aside from cholesterol, our brain is made of a large amount of fat and we know that proper levels of fat in our central nervous system is essential for optimal function. This fact is illustrated by research showing that the brains of Alzheimer’s patients have reduced levels of cholesterol, phospholipids, and fatty acids (4). Unfortunately, I could not find anything on this topic related to Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration; however, given the similarities in dysfunction and underlying mechanisms, I am sure future studies will reveal something much similar.
Now that we know saturated fat and cholesterol are not scientifically proven to be associated with disease and that decreased brain levels of fat and cholesterol can actually be detrimental, let’s have a look at why this may be. As you all know from my previous posts on neurodegeneration, inflammation, both systemic and in the central nervous system, is tied to pretty much all types of neurodegenerative conditions. The importance of this point is the fact that saturated fat has been shown to reduce inflammation while Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are shown to increase inflammation (3, 5).
Not only are high healthy fat (saturated, mono-unsaturated, omega-3) diets not pro-inflammatory (6, 7), they have actually been shown to reduce levels of inflammation (8, 9). Surprisingly, saturated fat actually protects us from alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, most likely due to it’s positive effects on inflammation (10, 11, 12).
Another interesting point is that medium chain triglycerides (a type of saturated fat found in coconut and palm oil) have actually been shown to improve symptoms of neurodegeneration (13). I know I have not specifically spoken about omega-3 fat intake; however, the positive impact of this type of fat is well known to the public at this point in time, so I didn’t want to waste time on it.
In light of the above information, the most important thing to consider would be limiting omega-6 fat intake and increasing saturated, mono-unsaturated, and Omega-3 fat intake to reduce inflammation levels. To do this, simply stop using industrial seed oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut, cotton seed, etc, and use animal fat, coconut oil, olive oil, or palm oil instead. Just don’t cook with olive oil as it is not as resistant to high temperatures as the other listed oils.
Neurodegeneration – Protein
I wasn’t able to locate a great deal of research on this; however, I was able to locate some supportive evidence linking higher protein diets in the elderly with less cognitive decline (14). Although the limiting factor here is that there was no differentiation between protein itself and the vitamins, mineral and fats that are contained in whole food proteins from animals and fish. The final takeaway here is that if you eat whole food proteins it is going to protect your cognitive function whether it is because of the protein or because of the healthy fats, minerals, and/or vitamins contained in such foods.
Based on the above evidence, there seems to be good support that healthy (saturated, monounsaturated, and Omega-3) dietary fats and proteins are protective of our cognitive function likely due to their positive effects on inflammation and the fact that they contain many of the required vitamins and minerals needed for healthy neurological functioning. So, stay away from those seed oils, use animal and coconut oils, and eat real animal and fish foods to ensure you are getting the fats and proteins you need.
I hope you found the above post informative. This is a very complex and involved subject and I know I am not touching on everything. Feel free to jump in and provide some of your own thoughts. My next post in this series will tackle how probiotics, antioxidants, and specific vitamins and minerals can be preventative for neurodegeneration.
The Barefoot Golfer