BRAINS! - A Book Review -

Whenever I hear some one shouting "Brains!", zombies are the first thing that pop into my head.  I'm not sure where the idea that zombies eat brains came from, but I'll blame it on the Simpson's Tree House of Horror episodes.

Other than zombies, what else do you associate with your noggin?  Chances are, no matter what your age, you have thought about how our cognitive function can decline over the years.  Maybe you've thought about this in regards to your own health or those loved ones around you.

I'm getting a little personal today.  This week I picked up some books in hopes of learning more about this history of memories and what we can do to prevent the on-set of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.  I'm half-way through The End of Memory by Jay Ingram and below I will be giving you a review of Power Foods For The Brain by Neal D. Barnard, MD.  The two have many points of agreement so far.

My family has a history of both and it is a heart breaking condition to watch as an individual's personality, vibrance, and identity are stripped away.  I hope to educate myself on ways to prevent my own cognitive decline and give guidance on improving the brain health of those that already show signs of impairment at any level.

Before we get started, I want to give you a brief description of the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.  They are not exactly the same and should not be used interchangeably.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms (know or unknown in cause) that include impaired memory and thinking.  Many things can cause dementia and there are treatments.  Alzheimer's is a disease that can cause dementia.  Alzheimer's is diagnosed when plaques are discovered in and around brain cells.  Cells themselves and the ability to make connections (synapses) between other brain cells are lost.  There is no known cure for Alzheimer's disease.  The End of Memory is a fascinating book about the history and current state of the disease and I highly recommend reading it to learn more.

Why should I care about all this now?

No matter what your age, you have a brain.  Please don't wait for your AARP card until you consider this important for you.

Power Foods For The Brain
by Neal D. Barnard, MD

Who should read this book?

Everyone.  Seriously.  The book is absolutely targeted to the "baby boomer" demographic and I think they do a great job using generational stories.  There are several anecdotal references to the Beatles, Dr. Spock, and the author's own experience growing up on a farm in the 50's and 60's.  Even using such targeted examples, I still find the connections valid and useful.

What is this book all about?

I wanted to give you every detail I felt was important, but then I'd just be re-writing the whole damn book.  Take these pieces I've shared and know that there is a wealth of more information waiting for you.

Where it begins:  Mild Cognitive Impairment.  This is how I've seen it begin, personally.  MCI is a label that doctors may give patients who are having some lapses in memory, but still can function some what normally.  Those folks can balance their checkbook and carry on a lucid conversation, etc.

The first few signs of Alzheimer's can include easy agitation, inability to retain new information, and become enormously stressed or aggravated when handling normal routines.

Genes can also have a role in whether or not you are more likely to develop the disease, but unlike your eye or hair color, these are more suggestions for your body, not guarantees.

Blood flow to the brain is important.  Duh, right?  Clogging your arteries affects flow to the brain.  When your blood no longer gets to the brain, this is called stroke.  However, what you should also remember is that this can happen in varying intensities and build over time.  A stroke can be so mild that you (nor your doctor) will never even know it has occurred.  Conversely, it can be so damaging that it causes death.

Dr. Barnard proposes a three-step series to prevent these build-ups from occurring and your genes from leaning in to those suggestions.  Just like you put premium gasoline in your car to keep it running smooth, you need to put good things into your body for the same reasons.


1.  Nutrition: toxic metals, harmful fats and cholesterol, vitamins and the roles they play in our food and bodies.

What are you putting inside your body?  We are overloading ourselves with toxic metals, saturated fats, cholesterol and edging all all the healthful vitamins and "good fats" we need to function.  Our bodies cannot handle all the toxic metals and fatty foods it's getting.  There are no safe ways to know the limits your body can handle, until it's all over and done.  

Dr. Barnard goes into detailed specifics on recommended daily allowances, where your body is getting the added things taxing you, and very specific ways to include foods to build your system to be stronger.  I have five pages of notes on his findings regarding this section.  Five.  I won't list all the details here, but I will let you in on this - he does give you the go ahead for 2 glasses of any alcohol per day to protect your brain and heart....  I personally don't fully agree with this and wonder if he's just trying to keep his audience...  I will let it go though since he also makes the caveat that if you consume more than 2 per day you put yourself at risk for a whole host of other risks, and if you are a woman consuming more than 1 glass per day you are at a greater risk for developing breast cancer.  There is more good news for me; 3-5 cups of coffee per day can decrease risk of developing Alzheimer's by about 60%.  Maybe he's now trying to keep my audience?  Cheers.

2.  Exercise: strengthen your brain and your body.

I know you've heard this story:  This older guy, who seems fairly healthy and "normal", comes upon retirement age, decides to retire, does, and then turns into a completely different person with limited abilities in a few short months.  I know I have heard this story - and I've seen it.  My grandfather worked for my father for a few years.  As he got older, his health did decline and his once "sharp as a tack" memory seemed to fade, but he was the happy Papa I grew up with.  After driving became a concern and my father could no longer find anything for him to do, he retired.  I don't even recall how much time actually went by between when that happened and when my Papa eventually passed away, but I can tell you it felt like the blink of an eye.

Intellectual stimulation is important, even when you don't have symptoms of cognitive impairment.  We build up cognitive reserve and count on our brains to make connections.  The book describes it in a very "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" sort of way.  Again, more specifics are given on exactly how this works and what you can do to keep up your mental muscle.  Some very cool stuff.

Just as important as working your mind, is working your body.  This section goes a bit further on the hows and whys of exercise, which I love.  It reminds you exactly what to do and ways to make it stick (even if you loathe breaking a sweat).  Don't be too timid to find a workout buddy!

An important point is brought up multiple times - exercise is part of a healthy diet, not a replacement of one.  "You can't burn off cholesterol." <----THIS

3.  Sleep and Medical Conditions: Sleep, or rather, lack thereof, current medical conditions and medications can get in the way of brain function.

Have you seen the movie 50 First Dates?  I would imagine that a lot more of us would take steps to get ourselves healthy if this condition was more of a reality.  You know the plaques that I mentioned that occur and build in the development of Alzheimer's before?  Well, those are called Amyloid Plaques.  We all have it and your body's level of this plaque waxes and wanes.  And what's really interesting is that the only time it is lowered in your body is when you sleep.

There are a ridiculous number of inhibitors to sleep.  I bet you can already name 743.  One that surprised me though, was Protein.  Huh?  Well, what I learned is that protein can block your brains ability to produce serotonin.  Which is why you eat when you work out or wake up - it gets you going right?  Well, let's keep this in mind the next time you sit down to dinner.

Aside from sleep, any current medical conditions or medications you take can be affecting you and building up in your body.  The hardest part of this section for me was knowing that many folks that read it may be telling themselves that they just have to be on medication forever because their doctor (or commercials) say so. (note: I am no doctor, so I realize there may some meds that you will be on forever, but this is not the norm and you know it.)  There are some really good points in here that you should highlight and re-read.  My personal opinion is, that it is foolish to think that taking one medication for one reason will not affect any other part of you.  Medications are foreign to your body and you have no control of what they may bump into or where they may absorb.  Drug makers want you for life (and your doctor may too).  If your doctor is not making any attempt to get you off your current medications - ask why.  You must be an advocate for your own self.

Ps.  The good doctor suggests you may have a gluten intolerance.  1% of the population has this. ONE.  If you really aren't sure, just go get tested.  The end.


After all this information, there is a wonderful ACTION PLAN.  We're talking menus, restaurant plans, recipes, and cravings.  Real ideas.  Yay.

Enter the "Power Plate":

There are wonderful shopping tips, supplement recommendations, and lists of foods that are at the top of the list (hang this list on your fridge!).

There is an entire section on cravings.  This can be the biggest hurdle for some.  Food can be an addiction and some folks just need more of a hit than others.  Don't let your dopamine control you and allow your justifications run the show.  It wants to re-arrange your priority list.  Take a look at the bigger picture of your life and have a clear vision of what you want your health to look like and how you will take it there.

At The End:

There is a lot of information covered in this book.  Don't be overwhelmed.  Start one step at a time.  Understand that as far as the field of medicine is concerned, you are the science experiment.  Take your health seriously; we all want to believe it will never happen to us.  It's hard to grasp the idea of prevention when you don't think anything is wrong or are just concerned with enjoying today.  There is absolutely nothing bad about living in the moment, but as the Doc says, our future hasn't been written yet and we are responsible.  It is possible to be happy and healthy!

I think this is the only cheesy thing you need in your life:
 Apparently this book was a PBS program in it's first life.

-Lisa's Appendix-

Get a Notebook and Highlighter:  Read the book from cover to cover.  Make notes.  Take them to your doctor.  Do some homework.

Organic?  There is a very brief mention of "organic".  It is vague on whether or not to only choose organic and/or why.  I just have to say - eat organic when you can afford it and when it is necessary and/or in season (this may mean you choose something different that day!).  Print this list from the Environmental Working Group's "Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen".  The clean 15 are ones you can definitely skip on organic, but the dirty dozen are the most laden with pesticides - buy them ONLY organic!  Tape it to your re-usable grocery bag, or on the front of your coupon folder.

Snacks:  The menu plans leave out snacks.  Mmmmm.  We don't really need snacks, but I'm going to guess that some one else will wonder what's up with that.  Just pull some ingredients from the menus and use that.  You can't go wrong with fruits and veg.

Added Oils:  I think that for most folks the idea of cutting out oils is difficult, especially when you are being told to really limit the "good" fats.  His idea of adding those as toppings is a great one.  Really believe me when I say that cooking with less is oil really is easy.  Just don't use it.  You'll live (probably longer).  Promise.

Labels:  I really am shocked that no where in the book it tells you to check the labels.  Please, for the love of God, read the labels.  Added oil and sugar is every where.  Also note - fat free marinara with no sugar and all fruit jam are not easy to come by.  Just deal with it and find one or make your own.  Ps.  The nutritional information is all calculated within each recipe in the book.  Very cool.

Bulk Bin:  If you can find a store that has bulk bins - do it.  It is much easier and cheaper to get only the amounts you need!  You can find anything from spices and nuts, to flours, grains, and dried legumes.  You can buy one sprig of dried rosemary if you like.  This comes in handy when a recipe calls for an ingredient you just want to test or don't have on hand.

Weird Ingredients:  There may be some "new to you" items in the menu plans.  I looked through every recipe and the ingredient lists were surprisingly short and not too uncommon.  Only one recipe called for some really unique stuff (saffron and dried lavender).  The book does have a short ingredient appendix, but it's not all inclusive.  So, use the google and ask your grocer.

One More Resource:  If you are really ready to dig into some new menu plans, I highly recommend the cookbook, Plant Pure Nation.  It has surprisingly been one of my favorites.  Whole food ingredients and easy to make.  I've taken several recipes, dumped all the ingredients in a crockpot, and had excellent results!

One last note.  If you need help or really feel lost, please reach out.  Ask.  Ask a friend, as your doctor, ask me.  It's never too late.  It's never not worth it.

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