Photo by Rob Hawthorne
An avid cyclist and hiker, Mark Archuleta has always been able to keep going and going. But at 49, Archuleta is beginning to feel his energy wane. “I have days lately where I feel tired and sluggish,” he says. Also depleting his energy are the ten or so extra pounds gained over the last few years, as well as increasingly achy hip and knee joints. “I can still do long bike rides and hikes,” he says, “and I want to continue that for a long, long time.”
Archuleta is noticing mental acuity and vision changes, as well. Reading street signs from a distance, for example, is becoming more difficult. And, though his memory has always been excellent, he says it now takes a little longer to recall facts, such as the name of a book or movie. “All of this seems to be a side effect of approaching 50,” says Archuleta, “and I’m not going to accept it without some kicking and screaming and intelligent countermeasures.”
Mark Archuleta: I’m noticing changes in my body, including decreased energy and memory function and increased joint pain. What could be causing these symptoms?
David Perlmutter, MD: Your joint pain and other problems are the result of inflammation, which is the body’s immune response to irritation, injury, infection, or other challenges to its normal physiology. The inflammation in your body is increasing the production of chemicals called free radicals. These free radicals are damaging your mitochondria, which are responsible for energy production in your cells. This explains why you feel less energetic than you used to. It also explains why your cognitive performance isn’t where it needs to be. The brain is a profoundly energy-dependent organ. Although it contains only about 5 percent of your total body weight, it consumes up to 20 percent of your total daily expenditure of calories. Therefore, any issue with energy utilization is going to manifest itself very early in brain function. Your vision issues are a consequence of increased inflammation and free radical production, as well.
MA: Where should I start to decrease inflammation?
DP: I would start with your diet. Consuming the wrong types of dietary fats, including hydrogenated oils and trans fats, is the quickest way to increase inflammation. So immediately eliminate these fats, which are found in fried foods and packaged baked goods such as cookies and chips. You know a food contains trans fats if its ingredient list includes hydrogenated oils.
At the same time, you need to increase your consumption of omega-3 essential fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Boosting your consumption of DHA will help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, which are inflammatory disorders of the brain. A study published in the Archives of Neurology (2003, vol. 60, no. 7) demonstrated that the risk of Alzheimer’s was reduced by about 60 percent in people who ate fish more than once per week. To gain this brain protection you need to take about 400 mg of DHA daily, which can usually be obtained by taking two capsules of a fish oil or marine algae supplement. You can also get DHA by eating deepwater fish, such as wild salmon.
Another key to decreasing your inflammation is to lose those extra pounds you’ve gained. What often happens with people in their 40s and 50s is that they gain a little weight. This, in turn, increases the production of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which cause people to lose energy. Because these individuals are feeling less energetic, they forgo exercise, and what happens? They continue to gain weight. It is a vicious cycle.
MA: What can I do to combat the effects of inflammation and free radical production in my body?
DP: Increase your intake of antioxidants, which limit the damaging effects of free radicals. Diets low in antioxidants are associated with increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer.
Vitamins E and C are important antioxidants because they help protect brain cells from free radical damage. Other slightly more exotic but very powerful antioxidants include coenzyme Q10 (Co-Q10), which is essential for the production of energy in the cells, and alpha-lipoic acid, which boosts the production of glutathione, the brain’s most important antioxidant and one that declines with age.
MA: Do you recommend I take antioxidant supplements, or add certain foods to my diet?
DP: Food is nature’s way of giving you antioxidants, and food is where most of the antioxidants in our bodies come from. Unfortunately, many foods these days are so highly processed that their vitamin and mineral content is significantly depressed. Therefore, it is important to restrict your consumption of refined and processed foods and to eat lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables such as apples and spinach. In addition, because your body’s production of its own antioxidants declines as you age, I recommend that you take supplements to make sure you are getting all of the antioxidants you need. Your health care practitioner can help you determine the right antioxidant supplementation level for you.
To find out where you are in terms of your current antioxidant coverage, you can take a urine lipid peroxide, or ULP, test. By measuring the degree of free radical activity in your brain, this test will tell you the strength of your antioxidant defense system and let you know if you need to change your diet and boost your intake of antioxidant supplements.
In addition, I recommend you ask your doctor to check your homocysteine levels as part of your annual physical. Homocysteine is an important amino acid that can accumulate in your body. When it is elevated, it causes the mitochondria to stop working, and this is directly related to the slowing of the brain. You should also ask your doctor to do a C-reactive protein, or CRP test to check your inflammation levels. C-reactive protein is released by the body in response to acute inflammation. The higher the CRP level, the greater the likelihood that your body is being harmed by inflammation.
MA: What else can I do to improve my memory?
DP: Exercise your brain by being very mentally active. If the synapses, which connect the nerves in your brain, don’t get used, they will begin to degenerate. Exercising your brain reinforces those connections. One way to do this is through simple memory-boosting exercises. For instance, each morning randomly select a card from a regular deck of playing cards. Write down the number of the card. Immediately after lunch, try to recall that number. Repeat this exercise daily. When you can remember the number of the card six out of seven days, begin drawing two cards from the deck to remember. Continue until you’re able to remember seven numbers each day.
Carlotta Mast is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.