Exercise Might Reduce, Reverse Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
It does not, however, erase last night's mistakes
Well, this makes us feel a little bit better about last weekend: A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder has found that regular aerobic exercise has been associated with less brain damage in heavy alcohol users.
The study, published in Alcoholism: Clinial & Experimental Research, surveyed 60 people and found that regularly walking, running, or biking decreased damage to the brain's "white matter." White matter refers to nerve cells that transmit information between various parts of the brain.
"We found that for people who drink a lot and exercise a lot, there was not a strong relationship between alcohol and white matter," lead study author Hollis Karoly said. "But for people who drink a lot and don’t exercise, our study showed the integrity of white matter is compromised in several areas of the brain. It basically means white matter is not moving messages between areas of the brain as efficiently as normal."
So exercise could help remedy the damage done by heavy drinking, and perhaps curb alcoholism by providing an activity other than drinking. Bonus points for aerobic exercises: it not only benefits the heart and muscles, but is also associated with more white matter volume in older adults, regardless of drinking habits. We'll start penciling in some aerobics classes, stat.
Brain Atrophy: Can It Be Reversed?
The brain is very much a "use it or lose it" organ. Keep it active!
The human brain is a truly remarkable and highly complex organ. Neurons are the brain cells that carry messages throughout the brain, nervous system, and body. It’s estimated that healthy adults have around 100 billion neurons, each connecting to 10,000 other neurons—an impressive network indeed!
Brain atrophy “is a common feature of many of the diseases that affect the brain,” according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). “Atrophy describes a loss of neurons and the connections between them.”
- Generalized, affecting the whole brain and causing it to shrink, or
- Focal, affecting one area of the brain
Wherever atrophy occurs, there will be decreased function of that part of the brain and symptoms in the part of the body controlled by that area. If atrophy affects both hemispheres or lobes of the brain, then thinking, sensation, movement, and/or speech may be impaired.
Causes of Brain Atrophy
Perhaps the most common question surrounding brain atrophy would be: What causes it? A number of reasons can come into play, among them normal aging.
As we age, we lose brain cells and their connections at a rate faster than we can make new cells (neurogenesis) or new connections (neuroplasticity). In fact, from young adulthood onwards, the average brain shrinks 1.9 percent in every 10-year period. In healthy people, the effects may become noticeable in their 60s, when the rate of loss increases to around 1 percent each year. The hippocampus—the area of the brain responsible for forming new memories—shrinks significantly.
A healthy lifestyle—including a nutritious diet, regular exercise, mental stimulation, adequate sleep, and social interaction—can slow progression of symptoms due to this normal aging process.
Disease Processes That Cause Brain Atrophy
Other causes of brain atrophy are pathological, and some are relentlessly progressive and may prove fatal. Experts at NINDS explain that the causes of pathological brain atrophy include:
Symptoms of Brain Atrophy
Symptoms reflect the area of the brain which has lost tissue. Common presenting symptoms include:
- Dementia, which can significantly impact activities of daily living and the ability to work and to interact with others. Symptoms may include progressive memory loss, intellectual impairment, disorientation, inability to learn, and problems with planning, organizing, and sequencing.
- Seizures, which can range from mild disorientation, repetitive movements, and loss of consciousness to full-blown convulsions.
- Language problems or aphasias may occur, and include unusual speech or difficulty understanding language.
This graphic illustrates enlarged ventricles in a brain and atrophy of nerve tissue (right) .
Should I Be Worried? Assessing Brain Atrophy
Many of us experience “senior moments”: losing our keys, forgetting the name of friend, or missing an appointment. But at some point, you might become concerned that your symptoms are a sign of something more significant. If so, make an appointment to see your physician.
Your doctor will take a full medical history and examine you. He or she may then order some investigations, which could include:
- for complete blood cell count (CBC), B12, liver function, thyroid function, and antibodies. Your doctor also may request testing for HIV and syphilis.
- Neuropsychological testing to assess cognitive function and detect advancement of signs of memory or attention issues.
- A spinal tap to look for markers of Alzheimer’s (tau protein) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
- Computerized tomography (CT), a detailed cross sectional X-ray, may be advised if your body finds concerning symptoms or signs.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an advanced form of imaging that can detect brain atrophy and help identify a cause. According to MS researchers Richard A. Rudick M.D. and Elizabeth Fisher Ph.D, “Brain atrophy progression predicts future disability progression better than… MS lesions predict disability progression.”
Treating Brain Atrophy
Treatment for brain atrophy depends on the cause.
- Stroke can sometimes be treated with anti-clot medications or with surgery.
- Traumatic brain injury can also sometimes be treated with surgery.
- Multiple sclerosis can be treated with disease-modifying drugs like glatiramer acetate (Copaxone), which reduce the autoimmune response.
- Infections. HIV/AIDS and some types of encephalitis are treated with antiviral drugs. Syphilis may respond to antibiotics.
- There are currently no medications to cure dementias (including Alzheimer’s disease), cerebral palsy, Huntington’s disease, and the leukodystrophies.
In Alzheimer’s Cholinesterase inhibitors such as Donepezil (Aricept), may help with symptom relief.
Prognosis of Brain Atrophy
Your outlook or prognosis depends on which condition caused your brain atrophy. Some conditions—like stroke, encephalitis, multiple sclerosis, or AIDS—are manageable with treatment. Brain atrophy can be slowed or stopped in some situations. Others—like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease—will get progressively worse in terms of both symptoms and brain atrophy over time.
Talk to your doctor about the cause of your brain atrophy, possible treatments, and what outlook you can expect.
Reducing Your Risk of Brain Atrophy
Your lifestyle choices play a significant role in your brain health, risk of disease and of developing brain atrophy.
- Eat healthily. Eat a plant-based diet, high in vegetables, fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and omega 3s and other healthy fats. Limit red meat, processed meat, cheese, and other high fat dairy, processed meals, and snacks. See our article on anti-inflammatory foods for more information.
- Drink healthily. Drink at least eight pints of fluid per day water is best. One to two cups of coffee a day have been shown to be good for brain health. Black, green, herbal, or fruit teas are a tasty way to increase your intake and have some health benefits, too. Avoid sodas, processed sugary drinks, energy drinks, and milky, sugary beverages. Limit alcohol intake, especially if you already have a brain condition.
- Exercise regularly. 75 minutes per week of intense exercise or 120 minutes of moderate exercise per week is a good target to improve brain health. See our article on exercise to prevent memory loss. Exercising outside also gives you a vitamin D boost which is great for your brain.
- Sleep well. During sleep the brain cleans and heals itself and stores new memories. Getting 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep per night is good for your brain health. See our article “Lack of Sleep Side Effects” for information on the link between sleep deprivation, brain damage, and memory.
- Manage stress. Stress is harmful for your brain. Develop a toolkit of things that help you manage stress. It might include meditation, exercise, yoga, walking in nature, or listening to music.
- Socialize. Regular social contact, with positive people encourages the growth of new brain cells and releases healthy brain chemicals.
- Keep your brain active. Your brain loves to learn and experience new things.
If you have concerns and are worried about your brain health, don’t be a martyr make an appointment to see your doctor. You may well have a condition like depression or B12 deficiency that’s easily treated. Whatever the cause, the sooner you have a diagnosis and can start treatment, the better.
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.
As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
5 Ways Quitting Drinking Affects Your Brain
The physical consequences of heavy alcohol use, such as liver damage and high blood pressure, are well known. Alcohol use at any level, however, is also bad news for the brain.
Even moderate users or those who have been drinking in excess for a short period of time can experience mental fog, anxiety, and mood changes.
For people who have alcohol use disorder, binge drink, or have been using alcohol for many years, brain changes affecting cognitive function and mood can become severe and debilitating.
The good news is that by quitting alcohol, even those who have spent years throwing off the balance of their brains can begin to heal and restore the brain’s natural function. Here are some of the changes that will occur in your brain once you stop drinking.
Regeneration of the Frontal Lobe
The frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for many critical functions including reasoning, behavior control, memory, and motor function, takes a heavy hit when you drink in excess.
Years of alcohol abuse can damage this area of the brain extensively, leading to a wide variety of issues including memory loss and the inability to think rationally.
While people in early recovery may still suffer from these symptoms, as well as an inability to process large amounts of information, new cell growth will eventually begin to repair this damage as time passes.
Rational decision-making and impulse control are crucial in fighting addiction, and luckily these powerful functions of the brain will return as you begin to heal.
Dopamine Levels Begin to Normalize
Alcohol abuse creates a complex imbalance of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine release is triggered when you engage in activities you find pleasurable, such as eating chocolate or playing sports, and it teaches your brain what actions to repeat, and eventually, to crave.
Alcohol use overloads the brain with dopamine, while also reducing the brain’s dopamine receptors in the process. When you first quit drinking, the lack of dopamine and diminished receptors can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Both excessively high and abnormally low levels of dopamine can have adverse effects, but over time your brain will begin to normalize dopamine levels as well as your brain’s response to the chemical without the intrusion of alcohol.
As mentioned above, early recovery might mean struggling with mood and overall mental wellness, but as your body and brain begin to heal, you will experience renewed motivation towards healthy habits in your life.
This means you will be able to take up new activities that boost your mood and stimulate cell growth in the brain, such as daily exercise.
The early days of sobriety can be draining and challenging for anyone recovering from addiction, but a balanced and healthy brain will return, and with it, a sense of heightened motivation towards positive goals.
Serotonin Production Increases
While the short-term effect of alcohol may boost serotonin, a chemical that increases feelings of happiness and wellbeing, the long-term repercussions of heavy alcohol use often include a decrease in serotonin production, leading to an increased chance of depression.
Once you quit drinking, serotonin production can eventually return to normal. If you continue to struggle with depressive symptoms during recovery, you may require medication.
By eliminating alcohol from the equation, you can better understand your mental health and determine what it is you need to feel your best.
Healthy Activity Returns as You Learn New Skills
For many chronic drinkers, alcohol becomes a crutch to handle many situations and emotions in daily life. You may have used alcohol to become more outgoing, manage stress, or combat depression.
While alcohol isn’t a cure for any of these problems, it can numb your natural response to life’s circumstances and make it hard to function without it. While early sobriety can be challenging, for this reason, experiencing life without alcohol means that you must learn new coping mechanisms and social skills.
This is an opportunity for your brain power to grow and evolve as you begin to participate in the same activities as you have before, but while sober.
Depending on how long you have been a heavy drinker, entering recovery may mean you are socializing and emotion-managing sober for the first time.
With the acquisition of each new coping skill and the evolution of emotional maturity, your brain builds new connections and creates pathways for healthy interactions in the future.
While the damage you can inflict on your brain with heavy alcohol use is disturbing, it is entirely possible to experience recovery from addiction and begin to heal from the inside out.
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Does Emoxypine Repair and Reverse Brain Damage from Alcohol Abuse?
I have frequently read online that Emoxypine (also known as Mexidol) possesses the ability to repair and reverse brain damage from previous alcohol abuse.
People who affirm this effect usually refer to the following section of this study:
Anti-alcohol action. Mexidol has a pronounced anti-alcohol action exerting a therapeutic effect on the disorders caused by chronically used ethanol, on the abstinence syndrome and the acute alcohol intoxication. Within the chronic experiment young eugamic mice (females) beginning with the age of three months have been used 15% ethanol solution instead of drinking water for 5 months. The amount of ethanol used by one mouse in a day was 0.56-0.75 ml (absolute alcohol equivalent). Mexidol was used simultaneously with ethanol in the dose 20-25 mg/day. The examination of the animals' behavior 2 weeks after the 5-month ethanol introduction revealed significant and statistically reliable worsening of learning and memory abilities during the development of active avoidance reflex in the shuttle box. Animals performed a lot of wrong reactions, there were fewer number of correct answers and they were realized with longer latent periods than those in the control group and did not reach the learning criteria even on the 6th day of learning. Mexidol eliminated all the learning and memory disorders in the alcoholized animals (table 2). The mice that were given mexidol were taught reflexes effectively and with the same correct answer factor as the control group.
Table 2: Mexidol's effect on the disturbed learning process after a long period (5 long period (5 months) of ethanol usage
I could be misreading the study (in fact -- I assume I am), but how exactly does this information show that Emoxypine is able to repair and reverse pre-existing brain damage caused by past alcohol consumption?
If the mice had been receiving Emoxypine during the entire period of their alcohol use, doesn't this study only demonstrate that if you coadminister Emoxypine with alcohol, it can prevent alcohol-related brain damage from occurring (due to Emoxypine's antioxidant and neuroprotective properties), rather than it repairing and reversing past alcohol-related brain damage?
I would greatly appreciate if anyone could bring some clarity to this matter. Thank you!
Can Exercise Protect the Brain from Alcohol?
Going for a run the morning after an epic bender may be the last thing on your throbbing mind, but (once that headache dies down) it may be one of the best things you can do for your brain.
Inspired by studies that show exercise can stop or reverse age- and disease-related brain shrinkage (See our coverage earlier this week), researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder wondered if the same might apply to brain damage caused by alcohol abuse.
The scientists pulled 60 men and women from a larger pool of moderate to heavy drinkers and gathered details about the participants’ levels of regular exercise. They then correlated those results with targeted MRI scans of white matter and found an interesting link:
“These results indicate that the association between heavy alcohol consumption and [white matter] damage … and the association between alcohol consumption and loss of control over drinking are greater among individuals who do not exercise regularly.”
Translation: subjects who drank a lot and exercised a lot didn’t have much, if any, damage to their white matter those who drank a lot and didn’t exercise did have significant damage.
Since this study only examines association and not causality, the results are “preliminary but promising,” said co-author Angela Bryan in a press release. “From my perspective,” Bryan added, “the major finding is the possibility that exercise might be able to either buffer against or undo some of the damage that heavy alcohol use does to the brain.”
Exercise and Alcohol: Running on Empty Bottles
No, this isn't the beginning of a tired joke, it's an increasingly common real-life occurrence. And research shows that, once inside, those avid runners&mdashand other frequent exercisers&mdashtend to accrue bigger tabs than the average bar patron. Picture the Cheers gang clad in head-to-toe sweat-wicking spandex.
A 2009 study from the University of Miami found that the more people exercise, the more they drink&mdashwith the most active women consuming the highest amounts every month. It's a peculiar phenomenon that has had scientists scratching their heads since 1990, when research first pinpointed the alcohol-exercise connection. But they expected that, at some point, the script would be flipped&mdashthat the biggest boozers would exercise less. Never happened.
Instead, this landmark 2009 analysis of more than 230,000 men and women revealed that, on average, drinkers of both genders and all ages (not just wild twentysomethings) were 10 percent more likely to engage in vigorous exercise like running. Heavy drinkers exercised 10 minutes more each week than moderate drinkers and 20 minutes more than abstainers. An extra bender actually increased the number of minutes of total and vigorous exercise the men and women did that week.
"There's this misconception that heavy drinkers are exercise-averse couch potatoes," explains study author Michael T. French, Ph.D., a professor of health economics at the University of Miami. "That may be true in some cases, but that's certainly not what we've found."
This trend seems particularly pronounced in women&mdashespecially active, educated women, who, according to recent research from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, are drinking more than ever. In part, progress may be the root of this evil: With growing numbers of women in the workplace and other male-dominated arenas, it has become increasingly socially acceptable for women to go out and belly up to the bar alongside their male counterparts&mdashand to overdo it.
Working Out to Work It Off
One simple theory scientists have to support the drinking-exercise connection is the morning-after phenomenon. In this case, the party girl who downs a few appletinis (and maybe some mozzarella sticks) feels the need to repent for those calories by banging out five or six miles the next morning.
"Women who consume alcohol could simply be exercising more to burn it off and avoid weight gain," says French. "Likewise, they may drink more simply because they can, as they know they're burning calories, so they're less worried about the weight gain."
But exercising to atone for the sins of the night before doesn't explain why someone would chase an indoor cycling class with a round of drinks, which also happens with staggering frequency. This, researchers say, could be the product of a "work hard, play hard" personality type. "There are people who are sensation seekers," says Ana M. Abrantes, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Brown University's Alpert Medical School. "They engage in activities that produce intense sensations and can be quickly bored by things that don't produce those feelings."
For others, it might be a matter of blowing off stress. Which may be why some women offset their tension with a boot-camp class, or by getting loaded, or both. "Exercising stimulates the release of serotonin, which is your natural antidepressant, as well as dopamine, which is the primary neurotransmitter in your brain's reward center. It makes us feel good," says brain chemistry researcher J. David Glass, Ph.D., a professor at Kent State University. Alcohol has a similar effect&mdashhence, the buzz you get soothes your worries (if only temporarily).
The Pleasure Principle
The downside of constantly activating these reward pathways is this: Your brain gets used to it and wants more, says Brian R. Christie, Ph.D., neuroscience program director at the University of British Columbia Division of Medical Sciences. So it's not shocking that someone who craves a 10-K or a blistering CrossFit session will also readily down a couple of vodka sodas.
Animal studies bear out this effect. In a 2010 study, University of Houston scientists took a group of alcohol-loving rats and gave half of them running wheels while the other half stayed sedentary for three weeks. Then they took away the wheels and granted half the rodents in each group an open bar, suspecting that the fit rats would drink less than the lazy ones. Wrong. They drank more.
Associate professor of psychology and study author J. Leigh Leasure, Ph.D., was surprised&mdashuntil she saw the epidemiological research, such as the aforementioned landmark human study. She began to look at what was going on in the brain. "We found that rats that exercised before drinking alcohol needed to consume more than sedentary rats to show the same signs of intoxication," she says.
In short, the rats needed more booze to get buzzed, which could explain some things about human behavior. "Since alcohol enhances the activity of the brain's opioid system, it's possible that exercise could cause cross-tolerance to alcohol&mdashmeaning, it may make alcohol less rewarding, so people would therefore drink more of it in order to get its feel-good effects," says Leasure.
Interestingly, Glass's research found that, in moderation, exercise and alcohol may replace one another as a means to the feel-good end, allowing people to swap a natural, healthy high (exercise) for a potentially harmful one (alcohol). But that goes out the window when you start bingeing, which you might do when the usual drink or two doesn't budge your reward meter after a sweat session.
Your Health, on the Rocks
Theoretically, there's a perk to the exercise-drinking connection: Excessive swilling can lead to apoptosis, or cell death in the brain. Sweat sessions, on the other hand, dramatically increase neurotrophin production so you can make new brain cells, says Christie. One exercise by-product: super-fertilizer for the brain that doubles and triples neurons and leads to better cognitive functioning.
That said, don't be fooled into thinking your daily trip to the gym gives you a free pass at the bar. Being fit can make you feel impervious to the ill effects of drinking, such as liver disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, and even trick you into thinking that you could never turn into an alcoholic. But as it turns out, that same Columbia University survey found that more women are becoming alcoholics. And as a woman, you're particularly vulnerable to the very real (and physical) risks of overdoing it.
For one, women have proportionately more body fat and less water, so they don't absorb or dilute alcohol as well as men do. They also have a lower concentration of dehydrogenase, the primary enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the body. Women's fluctuating hormones make matters worse, since estrogen affects alcohol metabolism. That's why one drink might give you a slight buzz one night and slam you a few weeks later.
Women also fall victim to alcohol-related illnesses more easily. They're more likely to develop liver disorders and are more prone than men to alcohol-related brain and heart damage. Alcohol also increases their chance of getting breast cancer. And excessive alcohol consumption can lead to all of these no matter how much you exercise, says Tavis Piattoly, R.D., a sports dietitian for Tulane University athletics.
On a less dire note, too much booze is also just plain bad for your exercise performance. Drinking five or more drinks on any one occasion affects the brain and body for several days. Even lesser amounts, especially in women, can hurt your fitness on nearly every level. (For more, see How Alcohol Affects Your Body.)
How Much Is Too Much?
Nobody is saying to turn off the tap completely. Moderate alcohol consumption (two drinks a day for guys, one for women) is linked to longevity. Some experts tended to lean a little more liberally, though. "I tell my clients, 'Have a plan and limit yourself,'" says Piattoly. "For women, I'd say don't have more than three&mdashand in between every drink, have water, which keeps you hydrated and slows down the alcohol intake."
The warning signs that you (or a friend) are in trouble are the same whether the problem behavior is extreme exercise or consumption, says Abrantes. "If you're spending a lot of time doing either and not fulfilling work and personal responsibilities if you need to do more of the behavior to get the same effect if you feel very irritable when you can't engage in the behavior, there's a problem," she says. In a nutshell: If you have to ask, there's probably a problem.
When you do go on a bender, follow it with a few dry days to give your body a rest. "If you only occasionally go overboard, then taking a few days off is a good way to let your stomach lining heal, so you can absorb all the nutrients you need from food as well as restore a healthy sleep pattern and generally help your body recover," says Christie. You may also want to try yoga. Research shows that practicing it may help raise your brain's GABA levels, which also helps lift depression and reduce anxiety&mdashwithout the hangover. Says Christie: "It might be an effective way to reduce the cravings for less-healthy stress relievers."
Three more unhealthy habits of exercisers
They Have Risky Sex
Compared with nonathletes, athletes are more likely to drink before or during sex (a dicey sex behavior).
Source: Journal of Studies on and Drugs
They Dabble in Eating Disorders
Twenty-four percent of women competing in endurance sports display dangerous eating behaviors such as bingeing and purging, versus 9 to 10 percent of women in the general population.
Source: Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine
They Get Burned
Despite being more vulnerable to skin cancer than the average person, 85 percent of college athletes reported not using sunscreen in the past week.
Source: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology
Stress and Alcoholism Recovery
Stress can continue to have an effect even after someone stops drinking. The HPA axis, the system that deals with stress response, has been traced to symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Many newly sober people begin drinking again to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal. Therefore researchers are trying to develop medications that will return balance to the body's stress-response system to alleviate alcohol withdrawal symptoms and help prevent relapse in recovering alcoholics.
The research into the relationship between stress and alcohol can help healthcare providers by identifying patients who are most at risk of alcohol relapse in early recovery and help patients deal with how stress can motivate them to drink.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
Scans: Alcoholism Damages Brain's White Matter
TUESDAY, Nov. 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Alcoholism damages white matter throughout the brain and this damage can be detected with brain scans, researchers report.
Heavy drinking may be especially damaging to white matter in the frontal areas of the brain, which can interfere with the impulse control needed to stop drinking, according to the study.
The findings were published in the December online issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
The researchers used high-resolution structural magnetic resonance scans to compare the brains of 20 light drinkers and 31 abstinent alcoholics who drank for an average of 25 years and had been sober for about five years.
"There were two key findings to our study," Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a journal news release.
"First, recovered alcoholics showed reductions in white matter pathways across the entire brain as compared to healthy light drinkers. This means that the pathways that allow the different parts of their brains to communicate efficiently and effectively are disrupted by alcoholism," she explained.
Second, "the more you drink, the greater the damage to key structures of the brain, such as the inferior frontal gyrus, in particular," Fortier said.
"This part of the brain mediates inhibitory control and decision-making, so tragically, it appears that some of the areas of the brain that are most affected by alcohol are important for self-control and judgment, the very things needed to recover from misuse of alcohol," she added.
Terence Keane is a professor of psychiatry and psychology, as well as assistant dean for research at Boston University School of Medicine. He said, "The day-to-day implications of this study are clear: abstinence and light drinking lead to better health and better brain function than heavy drinking."
Keane explained in the news release that "alcoholism leads to many brain-related changes and dysfunction that decreases one's ability to function and to heal."
And, he added, "The longer you misuse alcohol the greater your chances are of permanent damage. So if you or someone you know needs help to reduce drinking, do it now."
SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, news release, Nov. 18, 2014
Why exercise is the best medicine for your brain
Given time, any brain can succumb to dementia — memories fade, thoughts scatter, basic abilities wither on the vine. Brains don’t come with lifetime guarantees, but there is one major step you can take to protect yourself from Alzheimer’s or other causes of mental decline: exercise your body.
Nothing protects the brain quite like regular exercise, says Jennifer Heisz, a cognitive neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Not crossword puzzles, not supplements, not prescription medications. Exercise seems to beat them all, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline by about 35% to 45%, according to the latest evidence.
“It’s a strong message,” Heisz says. “We have control over our dementia risk.”
Here’s another way to look at it: People who don’t exercise as they age are taking a gamble. In a study of more than 1,600 older adults published in January in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Heisz and colleagues found that a lack of exercise was about as risky as having certain types of genes that raise the risk of Alzheimer’s. Genes are forever, but exercise habits can change.
It’s like investing in a retirement fund for the brain.
Teresa Liu-Ambrose, director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia
Heisz’s study found that exercise didn’t seem to prevent dementia in older people who carried the types of genes that make Alzheimer’s more likely. She says that’s probably because disease-related brain damage had already progressed past the point of no return. But if they had exercised in their 30s or 40s, she adds, some of them might have been able to delay or perhaps even prevent the disease. “It seems to be easier to prevent the damage than to reverse it,” she says.
Exercise enhances the release of chemicals known as nerve growth factors that help brain cells function properly, say Teresa Liu-Ambrose, director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Nerve growth factors probably also help build new brain cells, giving the brain an extra cushion against age-related losses. Studies in rodents show that exercise encourages formation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an organ in the medial temporal lobe of the brain that plays an important role in memory.
“It’s like investing in a retirement fund for the brain,” Liu-Ambrose says.
Exercise enhances blood flow to the brain, which can help keep it heathy and nourished. Liu-Ambrose notes that exercise also helps prevent hypertension and diabetes, which are two major risk factors for dementia.
For reasons that aren’t clear, exercise seems to be especially helpful for female brains, she says. That might make a good workout even more important because women are generally more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease compared with men of the same age. According to the Alzheimer’s Assn., two-thirds of Americans with the disease are women.
There’s no particular type of exercise that seems to be best for the brain. Heisz notes that most of the subjects in her study walked three times a week. “It could be as simple as that,” she says. About 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise every week would be a reasonable goal, she says.
“Even a 15-minute walk per day would be much better than doing nothing at all,” Liu-Ambrose says. “People just need to do it.”
8. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is a superfood with incredible health promise for the brain. The ketones found in coconut oil power brain function and prevent aging and shrinkage of the brain as well. Half of the fat content in coconut oil is lauric acid, a fat rarely found in nature. Lauric acid is commonly referred to as a “miracle” ingredient because of its unique health-promoting properties. Its antiviral and antibacterial properties are so powerful that the medical industry has more recently begun to use coconut oil to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia, cancer, HIV, herpes, influenza virus and measles.
Watch the video: Alcohol and your Brain