The Buddha said, “To keep the body in good health is a duty. Otherwise, we shall not be able to keep our minds strong and clear.” And the great poet Lee hunt said, “The groundwork for all happiness is good health.”
If we’re going to talk about optimizing our brain and how food impacts our overall health, these quotes perfectly sum up that journey. However, there are many roadblocks that can get in the way of good health, one of which is Alzheimer’s.
Right now, over 6 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease in North America. By 2050, that number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million people. What’s worse, Alzheimer’s disease not only causes memory loss — 1 in 3 seniors die from Alzheimer’s or dementia in the U.S. It’s a serious condition, and more and more people are at risk every year.
While those with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease are more likely to get it in the future, others with no family history of Alzheimer’s are liable as well. Now more than ever, we need to prioritize brain health — after all, our brains are like any other organ in our body! They grow older and weaker over time.
Now, here’s the good news!
There are certain habits we can form, such as the foods we eat, that can positively impact our brain health and bring down the risk of getting Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia in the future! Thankfully, we have dedicated scientists, physicians, and researchers who are constantly finding ways to optimize our brain health.
My guest today is Dr. Lisa Mosconi, a brain neuroscientist. She’s the founder and director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, where she serves as an associate professor of neuroscience in neurology and radiology. She is also the New York Times best-selling author of Brain Food and her new book, The XX Brain.
In today’s episode, we discuss the differences between men and women’s brains and how they function, what we need in order to optimize our own individual brain health, the foods we should (and shouldn’t!) be eating, the main causes of brain fog, why Alzheimer’s is affecting so many of us, especially women, and most importantly — what we can do about it.
Dr. Lisa does amazing research on brain foods, and her story to understand why there are differences between female brains and male brains is extraordinary. Let’s jump right in and hear about it.
There are varied opinions about the differences, and Dr. Lisa is often asked the “Mars and Venus,” “Barbie and LEGO” type questions. As her background is in biology, she studies the tangible differences that transcend gender constructs.
“The differences are not anatomical. It’s not like men’s brains are lacking some parts that women’s brains have or the other way around. Inefficiencies are more functional and are quite evident from the very moment of conception. This is because we have different DNA. Women have two X chromosomes, and men have an X and Y chromosome. The X chromosome has almost a thousand genes more than the Y chromosome. [This means] from the moment we’re born, women have almost a thousand genes more than men, many of which are really important, not just for reproduction, but for brain function.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
All this happens from conception! The sex of the baby means the development produces different hormones — estrogen for women and testosterone for men.
“Women’s brains produce estrogen, and boys’ brains make testosterone. These hormones are really important because they’re not just involved in reproduction and having children, but they’re incredibly important for brain function. It boosts the immune system in the body and the brain for plasticity to stimulate the formation of neurons and synapsis in the brain. It gives you resilience if you are a brain cell, and importantly it’s key for the brain’s energy production.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
While each hormone assists with the same functions, they decline at different stages for men and women.
Testosterone declines gradually over time, which is why many men are still fertile in their 70s or 80s think of Mick Jagger, who at age 72 fathered another child! This is not uncommon for men.
However, for women, estrogens start to decline very fast in mid-life during menopause, which is something that impacts the overall functionality of your body as well as your brain.
“That dictates why women’s brains need a different kind of care than men’s. It’s not super different, but there are some nuances that I think are worth focusing on because we have different needs, different strengths, and different risks, and that really is important for health.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
This is fascinating! Now I understand what she means about our brains being different based on the nuances of our bodies. Let’s explore how those differences impact us.
Most research shows that a healthy diet, solid exercise, routine (and enough) sleep, low stress, stress reduction, and avoiding toxins optimizes both men’s and women’s brains. However, there are things within these categories that are more specifically helpful to men or to women — for example, diet.
“Within a healthy eating pattern, there is some evidence that women really benefit from plant-based diets, perhaps even more so than men do, which is not to say that men should not be eating plant-based or enough veggies and fruit. It’s just that the research points to plant-based nutrients as being especially supportive of women’s brain health, especially starting in mid-life, and that’s for a variety of reasons.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
Dr. Lisa Mosconi’s research focuses on trying to find ways to better understand how brain health plays out differently in women than in men. They do this with brain scans and then measure a number of things, including behavior and cognitive performance. Her team has started including diet questionnaires alongside exercise questionnaires and assessments to expand the scope of how this all impacts the brain.
Even intellectual activity, sleep patterns, and stress play a part. Dr. Lisa measures parameters in plasma to quantify these effects. They measure as much as possible without stressing the participants too much, and this led her to discover something interesting.
“It turns out that there’s a strong correlation between antioxidant intake and brain energy levels for women especially. On average, a lot of antioxidants are good for your brain in part because the brain is the most metabolically active organ of the entire body, and it runs on glucose. The brain is wired to run on glucose, and glucose metabolism creates free radicals and oxidative stress.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
While oxidation is damaging to the brain, there is some good news about how we can reduce oxidation and ultimately the damage it causes to the brain. In short, we can increase our intake of antioxidants from our diet.
I put Dr. Lisa on the spot! I asked her, “If she could only eat five types of foods to maintain her brain health, what would they be?”
The first one blew me away!
“A double espresso is the beverage with the highest antioxidant power of all beverages. Scientists have rated all sorts of foods based on their ORAC number, which is a measure of antioxidant capacity, and a double espresso comes up on top. For optimum benefit, it’s one or two espressos a day at the most — this is [between] two or three cups of American coffee.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
An interesting fact is that the lighter the roasting of the coffee beans is, the better it is for the antioxidants!
“Berries [are also] rich in fiber and low in sugars providing an enormous amount of antioxidants with small serving size. The evidence shows that consuming two to three servings of berries per week slows down cognitive decline in both men and especially women.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
A helpful tip that Dr. Lisa gave me as a “non-berry eater” is to substitute them with lemons or oranges — particularly hot lemon water first thing in the morning. If you’re not like me, these are the top berries she recommends:
“They contain a ton of phytonutrients that are really good, and they have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties. [They have] plenty of fiber which is really important for a number of reasons — the most obvious being that it supports gut health. 70% of the immune system is in the gut.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
Anything supporting immunity right now is critical, especially during COVID-19. The vegetables she suggested are any of the different microgreens, the collard greens, but also cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.
These can be found predominantly in what she calls the SMASH fish — Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, and Herring. There’s research showing that eating one to two servings of fish a week is associated with a 70% lower risk of Alzheimer’s!
If you’re vegan, there are plant-based options available for you too! Various plants contain Omega 3s such as hemp seeds, flax seeds, and flaxseed oil, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, seaweed, and sweet peas.
These foods are especially beneficial for women. There are foods that have estrogenic properties that have mild but effective support for women’s health.
“These foods are very similar to the ones that we’re just talking about. They include flax seeds, sesame seeds, chickpeas, all sorts of beans, dried apricots, and dried figs. Berries are another source, [and they’re] in tropical fruit too. There’s evidence that women who consume one serving of tropical fruits per week have better fertility, and [importantly] a later onset of menopause.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
Dr. Lisa is clear when it comes to what foods we shouldn’t eat — it simply boils down to processed food.
“We know that a diet rich in processed foods increases your risk of heart disease by over 30%, [but most people don’t know that it] doubles your risk of dementia. It doubles your risk of cancer and increases your risk of depression. [It even] increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
Dr. Lisa makes a valuable point here — most of us focus on the body’s health while ignoring the mental effects of diets. We know that foods can dictate what kind of clothes we can wear and determine physical performance, but the food we eat impacts how our brains work too. Food impacts the way that we think, feel, and remember.
“In the same way that we save for retirement, we should eat for retirement.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
Dr. Lisa explained how prevalent brain fog is in young adults — besides being the early signs for possible Alzheimers in our later years, brain fog can actually be because of something as simple as our diet or lack of sleep.
Or dehydration —
“Dehydration is a very common factor that you can’t reverse by just drinking water. It needs to be water with electrolytes in it because water is not just fluid — your brain doesn’t just need something wet. Your brain needs the fluids and the electrolytes that real water contains. Nothing can happen inside your brain unless there’s water. It powers every single chemical reaction that takes place inside the brain, including energy production. No water, no energy.” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
This is a very important distinction that Dr. Lisa made, highlighting the importance of water quality and that water in itself isn’t the be-all and end-all. Be careful when purchasing filters and bottled water that potentially remove electrolytes. She recommends spring water if you are not comfortable drinking tap water. She lives in New York City and drinks the tap water — she even had a city official visit her home to report on the water quality! What a great tip for all you New Yorkers to use!
Dr. Lisa had some final recommendations regarding dehydration and brain fog — add some herbs to make a tea tonic.
“[You can] use medicinal herbs to make your tea, like thyme. You just boil the water and put it over a couple of sprigs of thyme, rosemary, or sage because those plants are good sources of antioxidants, but they also double up as anti-inflammatory. You’re creating cheerleader tea!” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
We have so many resources available to use to increase our health and erase brain fog — all we have to do is educate ourselves on these resources, commit them to memory, and start using them in our daily lives! It’s as simple as that.
It’s worth reminding you of those frightening statistics we started with. There are 6 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease in North America. By 2050, that number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million people. What’s worse, Alzheimer’s disease not only causes memory loss — 1 in 3 seniors die from Alzheimer’s or dementia in the U.S. It’s a serious condition, and more and more people are at risk every year.
“The United States is on top. There are other countries in Europe, some places in Asia. I think industrialized countries, in general, experience higher rates of dementia. This disease affects more women than men — almost two-thirds of all patients are women. That’s one of the reasons that I started looking into Alzheimer’s disease. I have a family history of Alzheimer’s [that demonstrates this.] My grandmother was one of four siblings — three sisters and one brother. All three sisters developed Alzheimer’s and died, but the brother was spared. That was terrifying for my mom as well, so I started asking questions. Why does it matter? Is it just my family?” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
I had no idea women were twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s than men.
For years, Alzheimer’s disease has been understood as an inevitable consequence of aging or bad genes in your DNA. Dr. Lisa’s research shows that only 2% of all cases are genetically inherited.
The other 98% of the population is multifactorial:
“For [years], people would say to me, women live longer than men, and that’s why they show signs of disease. It’s a disease of old age. However, this isn’t the reason for the difference. It starts much earlier with menopause. Women start developing red flags for Alzheimer’s disease in their 40s and 50s — much earlier than we had thought before. [We understand why now] when going through menopause, your brain is changing, and it needs support. If you’re eating poorly, you’re not exercising, you’re not sleeping, and you have a ton of stress — those factors all work together against you. It’s really important for women [more so] to start thinking about that in midlife” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
Dr. Lisa gave three areas to focus on to make ourselves stronger and more resilient: we can exercise the brain properly, feed it properly, and take care of it properly. Make sure to listen to the full interview to hear all of her tips!
Guys, this interview is packed with science, research, and information about brain health and brain optimization from Dr. Lisa Mosconi. You can listen to the full episode to get all the information, and don’t forget to share the episode with someone who needs to hear it: you could change someone’s brain health and life!
I can’t recommend Dr. Lisa Mosconi’s books enough — the first is Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power, which is helpful to learn about the foods that optimize your brain in general. Her new book is called The XX Brain, which is the ground-breaking science empowering women to maximize cognitive health and prevent Alzheimer’s disease, with a foreword by Maria Shriver. It’s packed with insights and great recipes to help you optimize your brain health too. I’m going to get The XX Brain for my mom, who is about to turn 69 this year.
You should also check out her website www.lisamosconi.com to connect with her ground-breaking work.
I want to acknowledge Lisa for her commitment to improving people’s lives. The deep research that she’s been working on for 20 plus years has literally been saving people’s lives. We need more people like Dr. Lisa Mosconi, who is constantly exploring the improvement of our health and our minds. I’m very grateful and acknowledge Dr. Lisa for her ability to help as many people as possible with this, which is summed up in her definition of greatness:
“[Greatness is] being honest and helping others. I think that real leaders are people who really help others and lead by example ” – Dr. Lisa Mosconi
Friends, join me on Episode 1091 to learn about the brain and how we can avoid Alzheimer’s with Dr. Lisa Mosconi. I know you’ll get just as much out of it as I did!