You Are What You Eat: The Role of Nutrition in Neurodegenerative Disorders


In my elementary school cafeteria, there was a poster right at the front of the lunch line. It was a “Got Milk” poster. When I went to middle school and high school, I found the same poster in the same spot. I grew up learning how important it was to eat my vegetables, and spent days watching Rachel Ray teach parents how to “trick” their kids into eating brussels sprouts and broccoli.

Our mindsets have changed since the fast food craze of the 1950’s. More notably in the recent years, our culture is starting to shift away from McDonald’s and Burger King towards healthy grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. If you walk into a grocery store in 2018, words like “vegan”, “non-GMO”, “organic”, “gluten-free”,”soy-free” and “dairy-free”are not uncommon, which wasn’t the case a mere 15 years ago. Today, the government has even launched a campaign promoting water over juices and soft drink. Why is all of this important? We are told eating healthy and exercising is good for us. But, is it so good that it can prevent and/or delay neurodegenerative disorders?

The brain is an organ, and as any other organ it needs nutrients to build and maintain its structure. It needs to function harmoniously and protect itself from premature aging and diseases. Neurological development can be compromised in the presence of dietary deficiencies. For example, iron misregulation and accumulation in the brain is a possible cause for neurodegenerative disorders (Ke, et al, 2003). The brain needs nearly all nutrients; but, too many of the wrong vitamins and minerals can be harmful as well. Diet and exercise together can reduce age-related cognitive decline and the risk of neurodegeneration (Ke, et al, 2003).

A study conducted in Spain formulated a link between diet, inflammation, and neurodegeneration. Inflammation is a the body’s natural response an injury, to defend against foreign invaders, and to repair damaged tissue. Essentially, the body uses inflammation to heal itself, and it is beneficial to us. Inflammation is supposed to last a few days: the process is not instant. But when it lasts longer than the required time to heal, it causes a state of chronic low-grade inflammation, which may trigger the development of several diseases and disorders  by activating the body’s immune response (Wärnberg et al, 2009).

For many years, the brain was regarded as an organ that was not susceptible to inflammation and immune responses. Now we know this is not true (Wärnberg et al, 2009).

Neuroimmunomodulation, the study of inflammation and the nervous system, is a rapidly expanding field of research (Wärnberg et al, 2009). Multiple Sclerosis, or M.S., is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by inflammation that damages the myelin sheath, the protective coating on nerve fibers (National Multiple Sclerosis Society, n.d.). Recently it has been suggested that inflammation also plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease, HIV-related dementia, and memory loss after traumatic brain injury because it involves a substantial loss of nerve cells (Wärnberg et al, 2009).

Wärnberg and his fellow researchers suggest that following a healthy diet has a “dual effect on both reducing inflammation and meliorating neurodegenerative disorders,” (Wärnberg et al, 2009). Foods like grapes, apples, berries, pomegranates, and green tea are rich in antioxidant compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties and other related health benefits. Green tea aids in boosting metabolism, and apples contain fiber which is good for digestive health. Although the number of studies describing a link between foods and inflammation is low, the available evidence indicates that consuming vegetables and fruits, an antioxidant rich diet or vitamins, fiber, and magnesium aid in reducing inflammation. Wärnberg mentions that dietary and lifestyle pattern as a whole is more important than focusing on consuming a single nutrient (2009).

Chronic low grade inflammation can also be related to obesity, even at early ages. Other unhealthy habits, such as the “Western Dietary Pattern”, smoking and drinking, can also be linked  to chronic low-grade inflammation (Wärnberg et al, 2009). The “Western Dietary Pattern” is characterized as being high in refined sugars, starches, saturated fats, trans-fat, and poor in natural antioxidants and fibers from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Processed food increases inflammation level in the body, leading to chronic low-grade inflammation. The ideal lifestyle that would satisfy all strategies to reduce inflammation in the body would be characterized by no tobacco use, moderate physical activity, and a high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, olive oil, and fish.

The Mediterranean diet is mentioned by name and is associated with a lower risk of several forms of cancer, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, overall mortality, and reduced levels of inflammatory markers (Wärnberg et al, 2009). The U.S. News lists the Mediterranean Diet as number one in the “Best Diets Overall” category and scores it 4.1 out of 5 stars. There is no calorie counting involved in this diet. Simply put, it involves eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices, red wine, and eating fish or seafood at least twice a week (Mediterranean Diet, n.d.). It advises to consume poultry (chicken), eggs, cheese, and yogurt in moderation, while sweets and red meat should be saved for special occasions. Moderate exercise is also advised (Mediterranean Diet, n.d.). This diet is not necessary to reduce inflammation, but a lot of the “do eats” overlap with the list of foods that fit in the ideal diet to reduce inflammation.

Fast food made it convenient and inexpensive to eat, but it wreaks havoc on our bodies. It may be costly and more inconvenient to eat healthy, but it truly has its benefits. What you put in your mouth matters. Eating nutritious foods will keep your body in balance and reduce the risk for many diseases and disorders, premature aging, and add to your quality of life. Incorporating healthier foods into your existing lifestyle is an excellent way to start implementing change. Overall, eating a well-balanced diet and avoiding processed foods reduces the amount of chronic low-grade inflammation in the body, which can prevent or delay the onset of neurodegenerative disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

References

Ke, Y., & Qian, Z. M. (2003). Iron misregulation in the brain: A primary cause of neurodegenerative disorders. The Lancet Neurology, 2(4), 246-253. doi:10.1016/s1474-4422(03)00353-3

Mediterranean Diet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/mediterranean-diet

National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (n.d.). Definition of MS. Retrieved from https://www.nationalmssociety.org/What-is-MS/Definition-of-MS 

Wärnberg, J., Gomez-Martinez, S., Romeo, J., Díaz, L., & Marcos, A. (2009). Nutrition, Inflammation, and Cognitive Function. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1153(1), 164-175. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2008.03985.x

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