I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on brain health and which nutrients and lifestyle behaviors play a role in keeping cognitive discombobulation at bay. I’m guessing most of us who are midlife or older occasionally worry about losing more than just our car keys.
Like maybe our marbles.
The thought of memory loss is a scary one, but there are things we can do now to protect ourselves later. If you think you or a loved one may have a problem more serious than simply forgetting the name of the actor who starred in Scent of a Woman (I can never remember Al Pacino’s name) or who sang Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay (even though you can sing the whole song, word for word), it’s best to contact your physician for further evaluation.
If your problem is an occasional synapse misfire (hold that thought), you’re not alone. We all have moments when we struggle to find a word or forget why we walked into a room. There are lots of reasons our neurons may not be firing on all cylinders. Poor nutrition, stress, medications, inactivity, alcohol use, and lack of sleep all play a part in murky thinking. Give me a glass of red wine and within minutes, I’m rifling through my brain’s Dewey Decimal System just to come up with my own name, let alone someone else’s. We all have our weak links. Some may be genetically predisposed, but in most cases, our genes don’t have to be our destiny. There’s a lot we can do to stay mentally sharp well into old age.
I’ll get to the pesto recipe in a minute, but first, back to synapse connections. Neurons are brain cells that are “wired” to each other at synaptic junctions. The site of communication between neurons is called a synapse. Our entire nervous system is uniquely connected via a complex wiring system. In a healthy person, electrical and chemical signals allow the neurons to “talk” to each other via synaptic stimulation. It’s a cocktail party of mingling neurons. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And suddenly, a light bulb goes on and you remember that guy’s name.
It’s Robert De Niro!
No, wait, wrong filing cabinet. Sputter, sputter.
Now I remember.
In a nutshell, that’s synaptic function. After a couple of false starts, the right message got through my vast and distinctly tangled web of neurons. According to Sebastian Seung, professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT, this intricate mix of brain wiring (genes and experience) is my unique connectome.
“The connectome theory of mental differences is compatible with the genetic theory, but it is far richer and more complex because it includes the effects of living in the world. The connectome theory is also less deterministic. There is reason to believe that we shape our own connectomes by the actions we take, even by the things we think. Brain wiring may make us who we are, but we play an important role in wiring up our brains. To restate the theory more simply: You are more than your genes. You are your connectome.” (Sebastian Seung. Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. Mariner Books, 2012, xv.)
Sounds rather yoga-ish to me. And I like that thought. We have a lot of control over how we age.
According to Sebastian (we’re on a first name basis), our connectome changes throughout life. Unlike our fixed genome, we have the ability to alter neural connections in several ways. We shape our “connectomes by the actions we take.”
What we choose to eat is an action we take over and over on a daily basis. Just like every other cell in the body, brain cells need good nutrition. We can reduce the risk of memory loss and enhance cognitive function by choosing the right foods. Kale is a good example. High in antioxidants, low in calories, and rich in several specific nutrients found to protect brain health, this leafy green should be on everyone’s shopping list, especially those of us in the “artful-aging” category.
Food is medicine. Go eat some leafy greens. Your brain will thank you.
Baby Kale Pesto
What you need
For the kale (to break it down without cooking it)
2 cups baby kale, packed
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
pinch of sea salt
What you do
1. Place kale, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and sea salt in a large bowl. With your hands, mix all ingredients together and massage kale well. This softens the kale without cooking it. Set aside.
What you need
For the pesto
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 to 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup loosely packed basil (option, but a very good one)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
pinch of sea salt
What you do
1. Place pine nuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Add garlic, Parmesan cheese, basil, sea salt, and kale. While machine is running, slowly drizzle the olive oil through the feed tube. Stop to occasionally scrape down the sides. Continue pulsing until all ingredients are incorporated. Makes about 3/4 cup (4 servings).
This pesto is excellent with hot, cooked pasta, or as a sauce for pizza. I use Tinkyada, organic, gluten-free, brown rice pasta. Divide cooked pasta among bowls. Add diced tomatoes and spoon the pesto over the top. Mix and enjoy!
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