Could diet ward off some brain diseases?

Updated: Feb. 19, 2021 at 9:20 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - When most people eat, they probably do not have their brain on their minds, but an LSU Health New Orleans brain expert says diet contributes to inflammation in the body and that has a big impact on brain health.

Dr. Nicolas Bazan, Director of LSU Health New Orleans Neuroscience Center explained the meaning of inflammation.

“Inflammation is an attempt of the body to defend, to heal itself, so there are chemicals that are produced in the body that will try to defend the body itself,” said Bazan.

The brain is the body’s control center and Bazan said having too much inflammation can have life-altering consequences.

“That is what happens at the onset of brain diseases that we call neurodegenerative diseases. The one that is most prevailing is Alzheimer’s’ disease, so the very early stages of Alzheimer’s,” said Bazan.

At Good Eden, it is all about food and in the kitchen, staffers worked to make meals come together.

Liliana Ruiz-Healy owns the establishment.

“Wanting to offer not only healthy foods but accessible ingredients that are local and seasonal to our community,” she said.

Ruiz-Healy opened Good Eden in 2015 after moving to New Orleans from Mexico City.

“It stemmed from a lot of health issues that I developed while I was a teenager and in my early twenties and it also stemmed from a love of food and culture,” said Ruiz- Healy.

But her diet was not always plant-based.

“It was a lot of sugar, sugar problems, hormonal problems, skin problems and no one ever told me that it was food-related. All the answers I would get was eat a little healthier, do exercise, and take all these pills you know, and it was just not working, I tired, I was fatigued, allergies and the more I started reading about foods, I started learning and educating myself a little about nutrients,” said Ruiz-Healy.

While many factors can contribute to health problems, the National Institutes of Health says, “Chronic disease is driven by inflammation.”

Scientific literature on brain diseases and food is abundant. A study published in 2019 that involved the NIH says, “It is plausible that diets rich in anti-inflammatory components attenuate neuroinflammation via several immune pathways within the brain and indirectly from the gut microbiome and systemic circulation.”

Bazan was asked if a person’s diet can impact the level of inflammation in his or her brain.

“Yes, definitely, 100 percent because that balance, that harmony that we have in our brain and in our organs is sustained by how we nourish our brain and our body,” said Bazan.

Some foods work against the equilibrium of which he spoke.

“Excessive fried foods, excessive processed food, excessive let’s say salt and sugar trigger changes,” Bazan stated.

And researchers say refined carbohydrates such as white bread, sugary foods and drinks, and red meat are also considered to be inflammatory.

Colorful and leafy vegetables, avocados, berries, walnuts, and fatty fish are among the foods said to be anti-inflammatory.

“The good fats are the Omega-3 fatty acids that are rich in fish, for example in salmon and that will go to the brain,” said Bazan.

Ruiz-Healy is convinced there are foods that naturally fight against inflammation.

“Definitely. I am a big advocate that there’s a lot of foods that are anti-inflammatory,” said Ruiz-Healy.

And she makes a point of using them at Good Eden.

“It’s always intentional in every dish, in every herb formula we put together,” Ruiz-Healy stated.

Bazan said foods have an impact on brain cells. He used a colorful depiction of brain cells to make his point.

“So, this is pro-inflammatory, and this is anti-inflammatory or protective. But what we found, what we discovered is that this can be transformed into this by a dietary-derived molecule,” he said.

The cells in question are named microglia.

“In our brain about 10, 15 percent of the mass for our brain, or the cells of the brain is a tiny little cell called microglia cell. And this cell is the brain immune response, so this cell surveys everything that happens in the brain, you know what we see, what we listen to, memory, learning, everything and when inflammation is set in motion this cell becomes activated and there are two forms of the cell,” Bazan stated.

The way the cell is activated and transformed can be consequential.

“The small one is actually the angry microglia that is pro-inflammatory. And if you have too much of the angry form, the pro-inflammatory the small one in the cartoon you trigger damage to the brain and the biggest form of the cell is protective, so this cell can change shape according to what happens with dietary derived molecules,” said Bazan.

He responded to whether diet can help to ward off diseases like dementia.

“Yes, the answer is definitely yes. The science nowadays supports that concept. However, I don’t want to over-simplify dementia because there are many, many factors involved, but the diet in a definitive way is a factor,” said Bazan.

And what about food affecting mood disorders?

“The answer is absolutely, yes. Anxiety, mood disorders. Psychiatric illnesses reflect brain function and inflammation to the brain perturb those functions, again I don’t want to over-simplify because there are many other factors,” Bazan stated.

And Bazan says no one should expect their brain function to improve immediately after eating more anti-inflammatory foods.

“If you change diet this week, next week you are not going to see results, okay. You need to have a diet in years to be able to accommodate the functions of the body. Diet is not like taking a pill, you know, and then everything is fine,” he said.

Ruiz-Healy says she feels better since eating more natural foods. “I do,” she said.

And she is a big believer that anti-inflammatory foods help the brain.

“I really buy into it,” said Ruiz-Healy.

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