Again remembering the basic premises, that neurodegenerative diseases are caused by a combination of oxidative stress and inflammation, we want to find a diet that’s low in free radicals and which is anti-inflammatory. This is actually not hard to do, but it may involve different choices than you’ve been used to. Here are the major steps:
- Reduce your Blood Sugar
- The Right Kinds of Fat
- How you Cook Matters
- The Low-Carb Advantage
- Late Breakfast, Early Dinner
- Revenge of the Lectins
Reduce your Blood Sugar
Regular sugar intake is hazardous to your health. Sugar directly contributes to chronic low-level inflammation. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21677052]. Consequently, if you have any of the diseases where inflammation is a risk factor (including not only Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but also heart disease and cancer), regular consumption of sugar is just a bad idea. (I’d go so far as to say that any consumption of sugar is a bad idea, leading as it does to an immediate inflammatory response, but it’s much worse if you’re getting sugar every day.)
There’s also the impact on your insulin system. Regular spikes of blood sugar often lead to insulin resistance, which is the first step in developing Type 2 Diabetes. This has been strongly correlated with all forms of dementia; a 2016 study concluded that “Individuals with type 2 diabetes are at ∼60% greater risk for the development of dementia compared with those without diabetes.” [https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/39/2/300]
Insulin resistance that hasn’t yet become full diabetes is also a concern. When our bodies are continuously engaged in raising and lowering blood sugar, an enzyme called “Insulin-Degrading Enzyme” (IDE) is all devoted to breaking down the insulin in your blood. When we take some of the sugar & insulin load off, that same enzyme is effective at breaking down amyloid plaques. “This means that one of the easiest and most effective ways of reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s is to simply stop eating sugar.” – Dave Asprey, Super Human.
Actions you can take:
- Eliminate all regular consumption of sugar – including any corn syrup in sodas.
- Reduce consumption of foods that are naturally high in sugar, such as the sweeter fruits. Bananas, grapes and raisins are loaded with sugar; blueberries, strawberries, and kiwis are much lower.
- Avoid juice – orange juice, apple juice, and even carrot juice, separated from the fiber normally occurring in fruits and vegetables, have a very high sugar impact on the body.
- If you want to keep a little decadence in your life, start investigating natural alternative sweeteners, like erythritol, xylitol, monk fruit, and stevia. Xylitol and certain blends (like Lakanto Monkfruit) are 1:1 replacements for sugar; they look the same, bake the same, and taste the same, except for a slight “cold” sensation (which is strongest with erythritol). Start slow with these guys – depending on the bacteria in your gut, you may have a bit of gas and bloating when you first start using erythritol or xylitol. (I personally love desserts; I make my own sugar-free chocolate often, and recently I made a cheesecake with Lakanto, which was indistinguishable from a normal cheesecake.)
- I do not recommend synthetic sweeteners such as nutrisweet or splenda; some of them have side effects which may actually contribute to neurological disease.
The Right Kinds of Fat
Next, let’s look at fats and oils. Fat gets a bad rap, but it’s a critical nutrient in anyone’s diet. The trick is, there are many different kinds of fats. Even the old divisions of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated group many different fats, with different effects, into overly broad categories.
Saturated Fats: There’s a conventional belief embedded in American nutritional and medical guidelines that Saturated Fat is bad for you. However, there are many problems with this conclusion. Most of the studies that link saturated fat with conditions such as heart disease were done in the mid to late 20th century, when much of the saturated fat we consumed was actually “trans fat”, fat that had been industrially modified to go from unsaturated to saturated. (Crisco is a classic example.) These synthetic fats are definitely bad for us and should be avoided; the rest of the saturated fat family has wide range of different effects.
- Coconut Oil and Cocoa Butter seem to be broadly beneficial. In particular, there are refined versions of coconut oil that isolate the “medium-chain triglycerides” found within it (“MCT Oil”); these molecules are particularly useful for human metabolism.
- Fish and animal fats can be healthy, but it depends on the source – animals, like humans, tend to store toxins in their fatty tissues, so it’s very worthwhile to spring for the healthier forms.
- The saturated fats and cholesterol in eggs tend to be very healthy. (It’s important to know that dietary cholesterol, such as that found in eggs, is not associated with higher blood levels of cholesterol.) For extra benefits, try mixing up what kind of eggs you eat: Duck eggs and Quail eggs each have their own beneficial nutrient profiles.
- Dairy fat is a mixed bag – first, because dairy sources can contain both milk sugar (lactose) and milk protein (casein) that provoke inflammation in many people; and secondarily, because the particular compounds in dairy fat can lead to higher LDL cholesterol in some people.
Industrial “vegetable oils”: There are some foods, like avocado and olive, where oil is highly available. Humans have been pressing olives for oil for millenia, and olive oil is an excellent source of certain monounsaturated fats. Nuts are also great sources. But there are other oils commonly used today that can only be produced by modern industrial presses; these include Canola, corn oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil. These oils are “unnatural” for us, in the sense that we haven’t evolved to consume them, and are particularly associated with inflammation.
Canola is a particularly interesting case; it’s actually a trademarked term for rapeseed oil. Rapeseed is not human food; it’s not something we would ever naturally eat. It naturally contains a mildly toxic compound called “erucic acid”; the Canola standard is that it should have “less than 2%” of this stuff in the finished product. In brief: avoid.
Omega-6 versus Omega-3: These are both essential polyunsaturated fats, but they need to be consumed in the right ratio. Estimates of the ratio consumed in the Paleolithic (hunter-gatherer) diet are around 2:1. (Twice as much omega-6 as omega-3.) For a diet typically consumed around 1900 in America, the estimate is something like 5:1. Today, the ratio consumed in the typical American diet is about 12:1. Why does this matter? Excess Omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory, while Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation. To prevent chronic inflammation, you want to bring this ratio back into proper alignment – ideally getting no higher than a 4:1 ratio.
Actions you can take:
- Eliminate all trans fats from your diet. (Fortunately, these have mostly been phased out of the supermarket, so this one shouldn’t be hard.) Watch for anything that says “hydrogenated” on the label.
- Throw out any stashes of “vegetable oil”, including Canola, Soy, or Corn oil. Replace them with Olive oil, Avocado oil, or Almond oil. Coconut oil or Ghee are particularly good for higher heat applications (where butter or olive oil would be unsuitable).
- Eat cold-water fish. Salmon, Sardines, and Mackerel are particularly rich in Omega-3s. I recommend “Wild Planet” Sardines in particular; Sardines are small, therefore low on the food chain, therefore extremely low in mercury and other toxins; and Wild Planet is very meticulous about making sure their fisheries are sustainable. (Sardines are also pretty inexpensive, unlike most other fish.)
- Switch to Grass-Fed dairy and beef. Cows, bison, and other herbivores evolved to eat grass, not grain. Most beef and dairy produced in the United States is fed grain, because it’s easier to scale up the farming operation and fatten the animals up quickly; but this leads to a much more inflammatory fatty acid profile – more omega-6, less omega 3. (The cattle are more inflamed, and they pass that gift along to you!) Where possible, you’ll do better with “grass-fed”, such as Kerrygold butter and cheese. Also look for “grass-finished” with beef – sometimes you’ll find the “grass-fed” label on cattle that have been raised mostly on grass, but fattened up with grain in the last 3 months. This still drives up the unfavorable fatty acids; “grass-finished” tells you that the cattle ate nothing but grass, the way they were meant to.
How you Cook Matters
You can bring home the most wonderful ingredients – grass-fed, grass-finished beef, fresh organic cauliflower – and still turn them into something full of toxins and inflammation if you cook them the wrong way.
Charred meat is particularly problematic. Personally, I love a New York Strip, fresh from the grill – medium rare, but nicely seared on the outside. This isn’t terrible, but it’s not great, either – any searing of meat creates some amount of “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” (PAHs) on the surface of the meat, and these are both inflammatory and carcinogenic. A recent study [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26776018] has shown that the biggest source of these PAHs are from burning fat that’s dripped off of the meat – so a grill that’s routinely used for higher-fat steaks like Ribeye or New York Strip is going to be laden with these things, even if what you’re cooking today is a lean chicken breast.
I won’t say “never have a grilled steak again” – but whenever possible, it’s far healthier (and less likely to advance neurological diseases) to use slower-cooking techniques. If you want beef, you can get amazing flavor from a slow-cooker pot roast; you can also fry burgers on your stove at lower temperatures to protect them from this sort of damage.
And having taken out “flame-broiled” burgers, it’s time to go after the french fries. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cooking vegetables in oil – as long as you have the right oil for your cooking temperature, it can make for a very healthy meal. But the problem with most commercially available french fries (as well as chicken nuggets, onion rings, calamari, etc) are that they’re submerged in oil that’s kept at 400° for hours without being changed, and with crumbs of food continually falling off. This process damages the fats and mixes in toxins from the burnt food.
And this damage stays with us. Our cell membranes, including those in our brain, are made up entirely of fatty acids; when we consume heat-damaged fats, those damaged fats become part of our cell membranes, making our cells less flexible and more error prone for weeks to come. If you’re engaged in a struggle with neurodegenerative disease, these damaged fats will advance the disease.
The Low-Carb Advantage
A low-carb, ketogenic diet can be especially helpful for brain health. Here’s how it works: Our cells can make energy from two different food sources – carbohydrates, or ketones, which come from fat. As long as we have plenty of carbohydrates, our body uses those for the primary energy source. If we take away most of the carbohydrates, our body can switch to using ketones.
Ketones are a better energy source in many respects. For one thing, we avoid the whole blood sugar / insulin cycle that contributes to diabetes and inflammation. For another, ketones are a very powerful energy source for the brain, easily crossing the blood/brain barrier and providing more consistent and sustained mental energy.
And one of the best things about the ketogenic diet is that, unlike many supposedly healthy diets you might have seen or tried in your lifetime, it’s decadent. A healthy ketogenic diet needs to include vegetables, and should avoid grains generally, but includes butter, cream, salmon, steak, nut butters, and even some decadent desserts if they’re made with the right sugar substitutes. I’ve been on a keto diet for years, and I’ve certainly never gone hungry, or had any lack of rich, decadent food in my meals.
There are many resources out there on how to get going with a keto diet; I’ll just put a few basic tips here.
- It’s especially important to focus on high-fat, low-carb for breakfast. Drop the fruit, toast and cereal, and enjoy eggs, cheese, bacon and ham. Have cream (not half-and-half, but full-on whipping cream) in your coffee.
- To really stimulate ketosis in the morning, put “MCT Oil” or “Brain Octane” into your coffee. These fats are especially good at stimulating ketosis, and can get your brain going quickly without carbs. (You’ll need to use a blender or a hand-mixer to get the oil distributed throughout the coffee, or it’ll just float on top.
- As much as possible, as much as you can stand: stop eating grains completely. There is nothing you get from grains that isn’t better provided by other foods.
- Eat plenty of vegetables, but eat fruits sparingly. Particularly avoid higher sugar fruits like bananas and grapes; instead, try lower-sugar, high-antioxidant fruits like blueberries and strawberries.
You can find a number of excellent resources relating to Keto and Parkinsons on this page:
And here’s a brief page from Dr. Steven Masley on the benefits of good dietary fats for your heart and brain:
Late Breakfast, Early Dinner
“Intermittent fasting” sounds a little scary if you’re averse to fasting, but it’s actually really easy. Every one of us has a daily “fast” when we sleep, ending with our “break fast”. “Intermittent Fasting” is just about making this time period longer. If you currently get up and have breakfast at 7am, and then have a snack before bed at 10pm, that’s a 15-hour window when you’re eating every day, and you’re only taking 9 hours off. But if you switch that – don’t eat breakfast till 10am, and then make sure you’re done by 7pm, you’ve just got a 9-hour eating window, and a 15-hour daily fast. This is pretty easy for most people to adjust to.
And there are huge benefits for all of us. Intermittent fasting is a “fasting mimicking diet” – it provides some of the same benefits and metabolic changes that are observed in fasting, but in a much more comfortable way. You get a little bit of metabolic flexibility, where your body learns to use ketosis (as described above) part of the time each day. This has been observed in animal studies to have direct benefits in reducing brain inflammation and neurodegenerative disease.
Studies with animals indicate that intermittent fasting can slow the progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s because the plaques that clog neurons feed on glucose, not ketones.Mark Mattson, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/articles/intermittent-fasting-is-it-for-you
Another way to think about this is that digesting food is a lot of work – and a messy process. By taking a longer break from digestion each day, we give our system time to relax, and give any gut inflammation a chance to simmer down. Intermittent fasting has also been very effective at helping people lose weight – even while eating about the same amount of calories.
Get started by finding what your limits are right now. How does it feel to stop eating about 3 hours before bedtime? How long can you skip eating any food in the morning before you get annoyingly hungry? When I started trying intermittent fasting, I found that I could keep my eating to about 8 hours – 8am to 4pm – without difficulty. Eventually I worked it down to 6 hours. (Some people go even further, eating one large meal per day, but studies haven’t found any additional benefit to going below 6 hours.)
Revenge of the Lectins
One other potential source of inflammation that we should be aware of is lectins, which present in some foods we normally see as super-healthy – whole grains, legumes, and the “nightshade” family of vegetables. Lectins can interfere with nutrient absorption and cause inflammation in the gut2. Gut inflammation is very strongly linked to neural inflammation1, so this is a very important issue in neurodegenerative disease.
Plants have limited options for self-defense. They can’t run away, and they can’t attack; the best they can do is evolve to contain compounds that animals don’t want to eat. This is why some plants are poisonous, and why others (like grass) are impossible for us to digest; but this also leads to the creation of lectins and other anti-nutrients.
Foods especially high in Lectins:
- The lining of whole grains, such as whole wheat and brown rice
- All legumes, such as kidney beans, pinto beans, or lentils. Peanuts are also legumes.
- All nightshades, including:
- Any kind of peppers, including bell peppers as well as spicy peppers such as jalapeños.
- Goji berries
What can we do about them?
Avoid. One simple approach would be to not eat the foods on this list. This would have a huge impact on your diet, and make it hard to eat out, but can be worthwhile. Mild nightshade allergies are fairly common, and getting them completely out of your diet for a while might have surprising health benefits. Wheat gluten contains a lectin called gliadin, which is commonly inflammatory and a contributing factor in autoimmune disorders; I typically recommend that everyone avoid wheat.
Reduce and Substitute. Where can you reduce the impact of these foods by eating less of them, or substituting similar foods? Sweet potatoes, in particular, are not nightshades, and they very rarely produce any allergic or inflammatory response even in the most sensitive individuals, so they’re a great alternative to potatoes. And we’ve been told that whole grains are better than refined grains because of the extra fiber content – but there are so many varieties of available fiber that don’t contain lectins. And most of us don’t really like the whole-grain taste. So feel free to go back to white rice instead of brown rice, or white bread instead of whole wheat. Try Almond Butter or Cashew Butter as an alternative to Peanut Butter.
And simply reducing the frequency can be very beneficial. Maybe just have them on weekends. Perhaps if you like tomatoes in your sandwiches or salads, you switch to having them just 1/2 or 1/3 the time, instead of every time. Same for wheat itself – in the typical American diet, we eat wheat every day, several times a day; if you’re not interested in eliminating it completely, can you at least give your body a break by having wheat-free days?
Cook the heck out of them. This is particularly important for beans – the lectins in undercooked kidney beans, for instance, can actually kill us, by binding our red blood cells together in clumps and causing dangerous clotting. Tomatoes as well – a long-simmered tomato sauce has far less lectin impact than raw tomatoes.
Pay attention to how you feel. Try eliminating all of these foods for a week, and then having a bunch of them on one day. How do you feel afterwards? Do you notice bloating, or any intestinal discomfort? Is your weight up on the scale the next morning, more than you’d expect from the amount you ate? These are all signs that these foods are particularly inflammatory for you, and it’s probably even more important for you to avoid them. (This is how I learned to avoid wheat completely – every time I ate wheat, I noticed a mild gnawing sensation in my gut, and I was up 2 lbs on the scale the next day.)
Remember, gut inflammation contributes to brain inflammation, and if you’re eating something inflammatory every day, your gut and brain never get a break. Find recipes and ways to eat that allow your system to rest in good health.