Being Patient spoke with acupuncture expert Dr. Mao Shing Ni about implementing lifestyle interventions of Traditional Chinese Medicine to reduce the risk of dementia.
Mounting research indicates that as many as 40 percent of dementia cases may be prevented with lifestyle intervention. Accordingly, lifestyle factors like a healthy diet and exercise as a line of defense for cognitive health are becoming increasingly widespread recommendations.
Dr. Mao Shing Ni, an acclaimed acupuncture expert, says you’ll also find these same lifestyle interventions in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) — and practitioners have been applying them for centuries.
Mao, whose family line has been practicing TCM for 38 generations, believes using a holistic approach, both in philosophy and medicine, is most effective when combatting neurodegenerative diseases: “A smart approach to longevity includes balancing all aspects of one’s health: food, necessary medication(s), exercise and emotional well-being,” he explained.
He is confident that we each hold the key to our own longevity and advocates “taking care of your body now to avoid spending extra time and money at the doctor’s office later.” With that in mind, here are a few tips he recommends.
From 1985 to 2005, Mao researched the habits of over a hundred centenarians in China, focusing extensively on what foods they ate. No surprise that what you eat, put plainly, matters (so much so, that some research indicates that a healthy gut and a healthy brain are inextricably linked). Also important, however, Mao says, is how and when you eat. He recommends sitting down for five small meals throughout the day, relishing the food and enjoying the process.
Don’t think of preparing or eating food as a chore or “fast fuel,” he says, but rather as a simple, attainable way to take control over your health.
Having smaller portions throughout the day helps supply the body with constant energy and nutrients. These meals should be composed of primarily organic, plant based foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, seaweeds, nuts and seeds, with fish and poultry playing a supplementary role.
Mao recommended eliminating fast foods, refined sugar and carbohydrates, because they can “stimulate the production of toxins in the body, leading to inflammation and the build-up of plaques in the brain.” He said it’s best to avoid cookware made of aluminum and copper, because “gradually these metals will accumulate in your body, sometimes reaching the point of toxicity.” He added that toxic levels of aluminum have been linked to brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
In line with his general approach to life, moderation is key. Mao said occasional use of these products or consumption of these foods is nothing to stress over, but it should not be a part of your everyday routine.
Mao is a big proponent of blueberries and goji berries, which both contain flavonoids, which are antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties. According to a 20-year study, people with a low intake of flavonoids were two to four times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Because inflammation causes plaque buildup, Mao also recommends increasing your nut intake, which are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation. Another idea is switching coffee for tea, in order to take advantage of tea’s high antioxidants and polyphenol count.
Mao advocates getting your daily nutrients from the food you eat. That said, sometimes supplements and herbs are needed because American soil is depleted from nutrients, rendering our food less nutritious. An easy way to incorporate more herbs into your life and avoiding pesticides is by growing your own at home. Herbs like turmeric, dried mint, ground cloves and cinnamon are the best for enhancing cognitive function and eyesight.
In the U.S., brain health supplements tend to be a Wild West with little regulation and, sometimes, questionable research. But in Chinese medicine, herbs to help increase brain function or stave off cognitive decline have a much longer, more trusted history.
Mao said astragalus root, which is an adaptogenic herb, helps the body better cope with stress, which can reduce inflammation in the body. Preclinical studies suggest the root can aid in memory and learning preservation by protecting neurons against cellular stressors.
He also recommended ginkgo biloba, an herb with powerful antioxidants that “increases blood flow into the brain, which helps with brain function.”
While there have been studies showing positive impact, side effects and interactions cannot be ruled out.
Because of this, Mao recommends only taking these herbs under the guidance of a licensed TCM practitioner.
Be a Label Sleuth
Mao uses food labels to inform his purchases. His number one rule: If the food label contains words you can’t pronounce, don’t buy it.
He also recommended looking closely at expiration dates. “If the expiration date is several months or even years from the purchase date, you can be sure it’s full of preservatives and has nothing nutritious to offer,” he explained. His cookbook, “Secrets to Longevity,” contains a laundry list of ingredients to avoid, like potassium bromate, which he notes is a carcinogenic used as a chemical leavening agent in flour, bread and rolls that has been banned in Europe.
While physical exercise has significant benefits for both the body and the mind, flexing your mental muscle has also been found to fortify the brain.
Mao recommends incorporating a meditation practice to reduce stress. “Stress creates an increase in cortisol and also lowers neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine, which we actually want to increase.”
According to a recent study, 50-year-olds who meditated consistently for seven to nine years had more gray matter in parts of their brain when compared to the control group with non-meditators.
“Physical exercise is the first line of defense. Studies are very clear – those that do cardiovascular exercise four to five times a week for at least half an hour, have a greatly reduced risk of developing brain decline,” Mao explains. By plumping blood flow into your heart muscles, you are also pumping blood into your brain.
He says exercises like Tai Chi, which is a Chinese martial art, can prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. While it may look gentle, this practice is still considered cardio, both for the body and the mind, because you must work up to memorizing the form of 108 different moves.
Mao tells his patients: “It may take you a few years to do the whole forum. But hey, so what! You’re going to need to exercise your whole life, right?”
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