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January 24, 2017

Food As Medicine

Preventing Neurodegenerative Diseases

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m having a senior moment,” as they try to recall something? Perhaps you’ve even had one of these “senior moments” yourself.

By calling these moments of forgetfulness “senior moments”, we are acknowledging that as we get older our brain function tends to deteriorate. This has become accepted by most of us as the norm, but we aren’t destined to spend our golden years trying to remember where we left the car keys. 1

It is partly true that our brains shrink somewhat. Dr. Amen, an American psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist, points out that we lose about 85,000 neurons per day. However, we can lose those neurons faster or slower, and that’s the difference between a fully functioning and a declining neurological state.

The latest research on neurodegenerative disease shows that not only can you prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons, but you can also slow their progression and even reverse them.

Here’s the catch: You have to start early! But – and here’s the good news – you can also see improvements at any age.

What Are Neurodegenerative Diseases?

Simply put, neurodegenerative diseases happen when nerve cells in the brain deteriorate and die. Some of the most common neurodegenerative diseases are Alheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, but also include other conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Huntington’s disease. These conditions are often debilitating, not just for the individual diagnosed but for his or her entire family and social network.

Let’s talk about Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in a bit more detail.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that involves progressive memory loss and the eventual impairment of cognition, language and behaviour. Patients develop neurofibrillary tangles (an accumulation of proteins in the neurons) and senile plaques (deposits of protein fragments that are normally cleared away in a healthy brain). 2 This leads to brain atrophy.

About 500,000 Canadians and 5 million Americans live with dementia.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that primarily affects movement. The nerve degeneration occurs in a part of the mid brain called the substantia nigra, and the destroyed neurons are no longer able to produce the dopamine needed to control movement. 3

Some of the resulting symptoms include tremors, slow movement, stooped posture, joint stiffness and instability.

About 7 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s.

What Causes Neurodegenerative Diseases?

By the time a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, they have already had the disease process “brewing” for about 20-30 years. This is why prevention is so important when it comes to brain health.

The two main factors that lead to neurodegenerative disease are inflammation and oxidative stress. 4 In fact, these two factors are present in almost all chronic degenerative diseases.

Inflammation occurs when bad fats and refined and processed foods are consumed on regular basis. This SAD diet (standard American diet) is loaded with pro-inflammatory fats such as trans-fats and arachidonic acid. These fats promote inflammation in the body. 5

The other factor leading to neurodegenerative disease is oxidation. 6 Oxidation is to the body what rust is to metal. When tissues get oxidized, they slowly get damaged and eventually decrease in function. Excess oxidative damage can occur in the body when there is a lack of antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, CoQ10 and others.

Other factors that can influence neurdegeneration are genetics 7 and increasingly, the environment. Environmental neurotoxins such as heavy metals (aluminum, mercury, cadmium, arsenic) as well as pesticides can boost our risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders. 8

Pollution also plays a factor. In one recent study, researchers found that people living close to main roads had higher incidences of dementia, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. 9

How Can We Prevent Neurodegenerative Disease?

There are several interventions that the latest research has shown protect the brain and the entire nervous system.

1. DHA: DHA is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that is found in fish and algae. Our body can synthesize DHA from alpha-linolenic-acid (found in plant foods such as flax), however is does this very slowly and inefficiently.

The brain is made up of 60% fat and of that, 8% is DHA. DHA is responsible for keeping the system from degenerating by giving it the raw materials to continue its dynamic process of cellular turnover. 10

2. Fat-Rich and Vegetable-Heavy Diets: Healthy sources of fat are critical to brain health. Studies show that the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds and nutritious fats like olive oil, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and improve overall mortality. 11 Other research shows that those who drank fruit and vegetable juices at least three times a week had a 76% lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. 12

Another dietary style that is showing promise is the ketogenic diet, which is low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein. This way of eating has been shown to reduce inflammation, prevent oxidative stress and limit cell death in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. 13

3. Caloric Restriction: We once thought that the brain didn’t change much over a lifetime. In the past decade we’ve come to realize that the brain has a tremendous ability to grow, repair and change. This is called neuroplasticity. (The book The Brain That Changes Itself outlines the latest research on neuroplasticity of the brain.)

One of the key factors of the brain’s ability to regenerate is a growth factor called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF stimulates neurogenesis and has been shown to increase when calories are restricted. As with the ketogenic diet, caloric restriction also reduces oxidative stress, reduces inflammation and inhibits cell death. 14

One study showed that memory improved by 30% after 3 months on a calorie-restricted diet (see below). 15

4. Exercise and Meditation: If pharmaceutical companies could encapsulate the effects of exercise and/or meditation, this drug would be the world’s top seller.

Exercise and meditation are lifestyle interventions that also increases BDNF. Numerous studies show that both acute and regular exercise can boost our BDNF production 16 and act as ‘neuroprotective therapy’. 17

With respect to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s specifically, exercise can both reduce our risk and slow the progression of these diseases. 18 Ang. “Neurodegenerative Diseases: Exercising towards Neurogenesis and Neuroregeneration.” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (2010): n. pag. Web. [/ref].

And on the flip side of that, those who are sedentary are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s – even if there are no genetic risk factors. 19

Mediation can help improve cognition and memory in people with neurodegenerative diseases, 20 improve sleep and reduce stress, 21 reduce oxidative stress and may even elevate BDNF. 22

The best part about exercise and meditation is that they are free for everyone, so there is no reason not to incorporate them into your life every day.

With that, here are my final recommendations: eat fish, practice Hara Hachi Bu, move and relax, and you’ll be sharp as a tack for years to come.



  1.  Wilson et al. Cognitive activity and the cognitive morbidity of Alzheimer disease. Neurology, 2010; 75 (11): 990
  2. Brion, Jean-Pierre. “Neurofibrillary Tangles and Alzheimer’s Disease.” Eur Neurol 40.3 (1998): 130-40. Web
  3. Chinta SJ, and Andersen JK. “Dopaminergic Neurons.” Int J Biochem Cell Biol 37.5 (2005): 942-46. Web
  4. Markesbery, W. Damage to Lipids, Proteins, DNA, and RNA in Mild Cognitive Impairment. Arch Neurol. 64(7):954-956; July, 2007
  5. Patterson, E., R. Wall, G. F. Fitzgerald, R. P. Ross, and C. Stanton. “Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids.” Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism 2012 (2012): 1-16. Web
  6. Emerit, J., F. Bricaire, and M. Edeas. “Neurodegenerative Diseases and Oxidative Stress.” Biomed Pharmacother 58.1 (2004): 39-46. Web.
  7. Bertram, L. “The Genetic Epidemiology of Neurodegenerative Disease.” Journal of Clinical Investigation 115.6 (2005): 1449-457. Web
  8. Chin-Chan, Miguel, Juliana Navarro-Yepes, and Betzabet Quintanilla-Vega. “Environmental Pollutants as Risk Factors for Neurodegenerative Disorders: Alzheimer and Parkinson Diseases.” Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience 9 (2015): n. pag. Web.
  9.  Chen, Hong, Jeffrey C. Kwong, Ray Copes, Karen Tu, Paul J. Villeneuve, Aaron Van Donkelaar, Perry Hystad, Randall V. Martin, Brian J. Murray, Barry Jessiman, Andrew S. Wilton, Alexander Kopp, and Richard T. Burnett. “Living near Major Roads and the Incidence of Dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis: A Population-based Cohort Study.” The Lancet (2017): n. pag. Web.
  10. Iris Shai, R.D. Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet. N Engl J Med 2008; 359:229-241 July 17, 2008
  11. Scarmeas N, Stern Y, Tang MX, et al. Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Ann Neurol 2006;59:912–921.
  12.  Dai Q, Borenstein AR, Wu Y, et al. Fruit and vegetable juices and Alzheimer’s disease: the Kame Project. Am J Med 2006;119:751–759.
  13.  Gasior, Maciej, Michael A. Rogawski, and Adam L. Hartman. “Neuroprotective and Disease-modifying Effects of the Ketogenic Diet.” Behavioural Pharmacology17.5-6 (2006): 431-39. Web.
  14.  Maalouf, Marwan, Jong M. Rho, and Mark P. Mattson. “The Neuroprotective Properties of Calorie Restriction, the Ketogenic Diet, and Ketone Bodies.” Brain Research Reviews 59.2 (2009): 293-315. Web.
  15. PNAS January 27, 2009 vol. 106 no. 4 1255–1260
  16. Szuhany, Kristin L., Matteo Bugatti, and Michael W. Otto. “A Meta-analytic Review of the Effects of Exercise on Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor.” Journal of Psychiatric Research 60 (2015): 56-64. Web.
  17. Ahlskog, J. Eric, Yonas E. Geda, Neill R. Graff-Radford, and Ronald C. Petersen. “Physical Exercise as a Preventive or Disease-Modifying Treatment of Dementia and Brain Aging.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 86.9 (2011): 876-84. Web.
  18. Paillard, Thierry, Yves Rolland, and Philipe De Souto Barreto. “Protective Effects of Physical Exercise in Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease: A Narrative Review.” Journal of Clinical Neurology 11.3 (2015): 212. Web.
  19.  Fenesi, Barbara, Hanna Fang, Ana Kovacevic, Mark Oremus, Parminder Raina, and Jennifer J. Heisz. “Physical Exercise Moderates The Relationship of Apolipoprotein E (APOE) Genotype and Dementia Risk: A Population-Based Study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 56.1 (2017): 297-303. Web.
  20. Marciniak, Rafał, Katerina Sheardova, Pavla Čermáková, Daniel Hudeček, Rastislav Å umec, and Jakub Hort. “Effect of Meditation on Cognitive Functions in Context of Aging and Neurodegenerative Diseases.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 8 (2014): n. pag. Web
  21.  Khalsa, Dharma Singh. “Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 48.1 (2015): 1-12. Web.
  22.  Xiong, Glen L., and P. Murali Doraiswamy. “Does Meditation Enhance Cognition and Brain Plasticity?” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1172.1 (2009): 63-69. Web.


  1. Marcia says:

    Calorie restriction -what exactly do,you mean? How much reduction?

    • Josh Gitalis says:

      Eating until you’re 80% full is a good place to start. The Okinawans call this Hara Hachi Bu, as discussed in The Blue Zones (by Dan Buettner), a book on the longest lived people of the world.

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