Three Key’s to a Better Brain: Balanced Diet, Breaking a Sweat, and…Bacteria??!

avocado and salmonAlmost everyone experiences some degree of changes in memory and brain function as they age.  This can range from simply misplacing keys or taking longer to recall the name of the neighbor you run into at the grocery store, to more serious types of cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.  Women may especially notice cognitive changes around the time of menopause, when hormone-related “brain fog” can become a bothersome and annoying complaint.  The upside to all this is that the brain responds well to the healthy choices we make in our lives.  Three new studies point to the various ways we can positively influence our brain, memory, and thinking as we age.

1. Healthy Fats, Healthy Brain

Mediterranean diet for the win, again!  It is well known that the Mediterranean diet is excellent for improving heart health, longevity, and cancer outcomes.  A new study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry now shows that the diet also improves brain function.  In this study, Spanish researchers looked at people between ages 55 and 80 years old who were at high risk for heart disease.  They found that participants who were placed on a Mediterranean diet with added healthy fats (either olive oil or mixed nuts) for 6.5 years did significantly better on cognitive function tests than their low-fat diet counterparts.

So banish the low fat foods from your fridge and go ahead and stock it with extra virgin olive oil, raw unsalted nuts and seeds, fish and other healthy fats like avocados. While you’re at it, don’t forget the  fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and even splurge on the red wine!  Your heart, and your brain, will thank you.

2. Move it for Memory

According to researchers at the University of Maryland, exercise may be more powerful than any drug at improving memory and brain function in those at risk for Alzheimer’s.  During the study, patients (average age 78) with mild cognitive impairment were put on a 12-week moderate intensity exercise program.  After 12 weeks, all participants (including the healthy controls) were found to have improved memory recall.  Brain scans done during these memory tests also showed that the participants’ brains did not have to work as hard as before the exercise intervention to perform similar tasks.  So not only did exercise improve patients’ memory, it also made their brain more efficient at performing its work.

What constitutes a “moderate intensity exercise program”?  In this study, participants walked daily on a treadmill for a total of 150 minutes per week, at a speed where they were breaking a sweat but could still carry on a conversation.  If walking for about 20 minutes per day for only 3 months was enough to improve these patients’ brain function, imagine what a lifetime of regular exercise can do!

3. A Billion Bugs a Day Keeps the Neurologist Away?

Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that make up part of the healthy intestinal environment that is necessary for proper digestive function. Scientists have known for many years that the brain can speak to the digestive system (evidenced by things like “stress stomach” and “nervous diarrhea”).  New research is now showing that this communication goes both ways.  Just as the brain can affect digestive function, the intestinal bacterial environment may affect brain function.

Researchers at UCLA recently studied the brains of healthy women who were fed probiotic-rich yogurt twice daily for four weeks.  Brain scans done before and after the intervention showed that these women had visible changes in midbrain connectivity following probiotic ingestion. Women who were not fed the probiotics did not show these brain activity changes.

What do these brain changes actually mean?  Previous animal studies have shown that altering gut bacteria can influence anxiety levels, stress hormones, and behaviors, but these findings have not yet been demonstrated in humans.  More research is needed to determine the exact effect that probiotics have on the human brain, and how this can be used to positively influence cognitive function.  In the meantime, it is clear that a healthy brain is not all in your head; your gut may be an essential component too!


  1. Blake K.  Exercise May be the Best Medicine for Alzheimer’s.  University of Maryland.  Published July 30, 2013.  Accessed August 27, 2013.
  2. Chan AL.  Dietary Changes to Gut Bacteria Can Affect Brain Functioning, Study Suggests.  Huffington Post.  Published June 17, 2013.  Accessed August 27, 2013.
  3. Emling S.  Mediterranean Diet Appears to Boost Aging Brain Power, Study Says.  Huffington Post.  Published May 21, 2013.  Accessed August 27,  2013.
  4. Martinez-Lapiscina EH, Clavero P, Toledo E, et al.  Mediterranean diet improves cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomised trial.  J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry.  2013: doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2012-304792.
  5. Smith JC, Nielson KA, Antuono P, et al.  Semantic memory functional MRI and cognitive function after exercise intervention in mild cognitive impairment.  J Alzheimers Dis.  2013; 37(1): 197-215.  doi: 10.3233/JAD-130467.
  6. Tillisch K, Labus J, Kilpatrick L, et al.  Consumption of Fermented Milk Product With Probiotic Modulates Brain Activity.  Gastroenterology.  2013; 144(7): 1394-1401.

by Niki Rarig, NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program and Classical Chinese Medicine Program