Acupuncture expert and best-selling author Dr. Mao Shing Ni shares 38 generations of Chinese medicinal wisdom on better brain health and lower dementia risk.
Mounting research indicates that as many as 40 percent of dementia cases may be preventable 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, a best-selling author, acupuncturist, and board-certified aging expert, says you’ll find many of 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 things he recommends — and our notes on how they line up with modern scientific research.
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. The impact of portions and pacing of eating on dementia risk is an expanding field of study, with many diverse opinions from neurobiologists and nutritionists on topics like fasting for brain health, and nothing yet proven.
According to Mao, these small, periodic 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.” While it’s very difficult to scientifically link dietary choices to Alzheimer’s and dementia risk, these recommendations about avoiding high-fat, high-sugar diets for better brain health are backed by research — and you’ll hear the same guidance on avoiding things like fast food from neurobiology experts as you will from TCM practitioners.
In line with his general approach to life, moderation is key. Mao said occasional 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.
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.
Because supplements are unregulated in the U.S., when taking a supplement off the grocery store shelf, there’s no guarantee the ingredients on the label were sourced safely—and there’s a possibility that some of the ingredients may even pose a danger to one’s health.
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.”
Mao’s number one rule: If the product
label contains words you can’t
pronounce, don’t buy it.
Of course, while there have been studies showing positive impact, side effects and interactions cannot be ruled out. Because of this and because of the unreliability of mass-produced supplements sold as part of the U.S.’s $40 billion commercial natural supplements industry, Mao recommends only taking these herbs under the guidance of a licensed TCM practitioner.
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 — not to mention the sweeping quality issues across commercially produced, store-bought supplements, discussed below.
An easy way to incorporate more herbs into your life and avoiding pesticides is by growing your own at home, he said. He likes herbs like turmeric, dried mint, ground cloves and cinnamon, which, while the science behind these links is inconclusive, he believes enhance cognitive function and eyesight. (Editor’s note: Again, consult a doctor before going all in on herbs and supplements. Store-bought, commercially produced ingredients like cinnamon contain preservatives and other elements that are toxic depending on quantity consumed.)
Be a label sleuth
Mao uses food labels to inform his purchases. His number one rule: If the product 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?”
UPDATE 26 May 2023, 11:01 A.M. – This article was updated with additional information to help our readers.