An old woman is speeding down the highway when she is pulled over. Highway Patrol: “Do you realize you are doing ninety miles an hour?” Old lady: “Officer, I need to get there before I forget where I’m going.” He lets her off.
For many readers, as for this old lady, memory may be a concern. Perhaps you are over forty-five, and have begun to notice that you walk into a room and forget why you went there. Perhaps you are going through menopause and wonder where your brain went. Perhaps you have cared for a parent or grandparent with dementia and fear that their fate will be yours. Perhaps you have suffered a car accident or skiing accident and have experienced cognitive impairment since then. Perhaps you have noticed that throughout your life, you never had as good a memory as your peers. Although we may, reluctantly, take these changes for granted, both current neuroscience and ancient Ayurveda offer ways to support and improve memory and brain power.
Back in the seventies, when I was a medical student, the brain was seen as a fixed and static organ. Your brain could grow until about age twenty-five, after which neural pathways became fixed and neurons (brain cells) began dying off in enormous numbers. As we students engaged in our rituals of heavy drinking, we grimly reminded each other that we were speeding the death of brain cells. We figured we were intelligent enough to spare a few; but we saw no hope of brain improvement or regeneration after graduation. Past twenty-five, we knew it was all downhill. People over forty were ‘over the hill,’ those over sixty were seen as elderly, with little to no chance of anything except slow decline.
Today, a generation of over-sixty baby boomers see themselves as anything but elderly or over the hill. In Western astrology, the boomers have Pluto in Leo, accounting for the childlike nature of this peer group. Boomers, whatever their age, tend as a generation to perceive themselves as young, special and full of promise. And right in time for the graying of the boomer generation has come the discovery of neuroplasticity. As experienced by stroke survivor Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and described in her book My Stroke of Insight, new neural connections can be made and new neurons generated in certain areas of the brain at any point during our lives. Our brain is not a machine that slowly wears out but rather a work of art completed only when we take our final breath.
Ayurveda can help the brain
If my brain is a work of art, why can’t I find my car keys? Perhaps it’s time for some master classes. According to Ayurveda, a problem is only addressed when we treat the cause. So let us have a look at the root cause of memory problems. To begin with the viewpoint of Western medicine, we need to look at the biochemistry of brain damage. Just as your car burns gasoline and produces exhaust fumes, your brain burns energy and produces waste products of combustion, including the pesky molecules called free radicals. Free radicals can damage your brain and other tissues by oxidation. As a piece of metal will rust when exposed to the oxygen in the air without protection such as auto body paint, your brain will ‘rust’ (not literally) if not protected from free radicals. One form of ‘brain rust’ due to oxidation is amyloid plaque, associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
From the standpoint of Ayurveda, we look at the body in terms of the three doshas, Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Memory problems are related to the Vata dosha, a combination of air and space. If you have had memory issues throughout your life, perhaps your Ayurvedic constitution has a high proportion of Vata. The elder years of life are a Vata time of life and see an increased incidence of memory problems. And accidents and injuries are experiences that disturb Vata and may be associated with memory problems. So from a Western point of view, we need to deal with oxidation and free radicals and from the Ayurvedic standpoint, we need to manage Vata and nourish brain tissue to support memory and cognition.
Antioxidants are the brain’s protection from oxidative damage by free radicals. Anything that lowers the amount of antioxidants available for your brain to use could lead to feeling spacey, brain fog and memory issues. And we seem to have created a way of life designed to lower our antioxidants. Let us begin with the standard American diet. High in refined carbohydrates, processed meats, sugar and trans fats, this diet not only has little to offer in the way of antioxidant support, it also directly adds to our oxidative stress. Add junk food and diet sodas (containing aspartame) and the American diet seems almost calculated to court dementia. Looking beyond diet, we live in a toxic world. Chlorinated tap water, pesticides, solvents and heavy metals are just a few of the brain toxins, too numerous to name, that find their way into our food, water, air, workplaces and homes. Many of the medications we routinely use, including birth control pills, painkillers, blood pressure medications and statin drugs for cholesterol lower our body’s antioxidant defense system. So of course do recreational drugs, cigarettes and excess alcohol consumption. And as we age, our bodies manufacture fewer antioxidants, so we need to get more from food. Stress, sleep deprivation, electromagnetic fields and sedentary lifestyles also add to our ‘rusty brain’ problem. No wonder fourteen percent of the US population over seventy suffers from dementia!
Food and diet
Both cutting-edge Western medicine and Ayurveda would agree that you could boost your brain power and extend the ‘use-by’ date of your higher brain functions with a program of diet, exercise and appropriate supplementation with specific substances to support your brain. To look at diet first, many Western experts now recommend diets such as the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet and the mitochondria rejuvenation diet. All these plans emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, with limited quantities of meats and minimal sugar and fried foods. Dr. Terry Wahls developed the mitochondria rejuvenation diet after she was struck down with a severe form of multiple sclerosis. Wahls claims to have healed herself with a diet that includes an entire dinner plate of colorful fruits or vegetables at each meal as well as fish and grass-fed meat.
The color in fruits and vegetables tells us a great deal about their antioxidant content. The rich golden and orange colors of carrots, winter squash and mango speak of beta-carotene. Green foods offer beta-carotene and lycopene, as do red foods like tomatoes. The deep red of beets and prickly pear fruits offer unique betaine antioxidants, while crimson in pomegranates and concord grapes hold the promise of polyphenols. Deep purple foods like purple cabbage are rich sources of anthocyanin. Brown foods such as whole grains contain B vitamins. And while refined white foods, like white bread, white sugar and white rice, are major culprits in ‘brain rust,’ some naturally white foods such as onion, garlic and cauliflower are excellent sources of glutathione. Eating a rainbow every day is a great way to support your brain.
Ayurveda suggests a Vata-soothing diet to improve brainpower. Emphasize warm, well-cooked foods, sweet and sour fruits and soaked nuts and seeds. Soups, stews, casseroles, dals and khichri (rice, lentil and spice mix) are all recipes that enhance availability of absorption of nutrients. Put simply, it does not matter how nutritious your diet is, if you cannot absorb the nutrients. Use of digestive spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, clove and mustard seeds help our digestive fire, agni, the root of health according to Ayurveda. Among these, pride of place goes to turmeric, which not only enhances digestion and absorption but also boasts a deep yellow color that speaks of its amazing, brain supportive antioxidant content. Looking deeper, Vata is dry and needs a good supply of healthy oils. And the myelin in your brain needs to be supported by fat-soluble nutrients and fatty acids. So healthy oils such as ghee (Clarified butter), sesame oil, coconut, sunflower, mustard and olive oil, as well as oily foods such as nuts, coconuts and avocados are helpful both for your Vata and your brain. Raw, unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows is regarded as a supreme brain food. Almonds are another famous brain food in Ayurveda and are now known to be an important source of the neurotransmitter precursors phenylalanine and L-carnitine. A drink made from almonds blended into warm milk and spiced with saffron, cardamom and black pepper is a superb Ayurvedic brain food.
Nutrient depletion due to over-the counter and prescription medications is an important area not to be overlooked. If you regularly take painkillers, birth control pills, antacids, antidepressants, statins or medications for high blood pressure, asthma or diabetes, you are at risk of nutrient depletion that could impair your brain function. In The Better Brain Book, Dr. David Perlmutter offers specific supplement regimens for each of these medications. I highly recommend getting this book and following the regimen suggested for you.
Yoga and meditation
Another important way to improve your brain power is exercise. So can you actually exercise your brain? There is a plethora of computer programs available for brain training – and a dearth of evidence to show that such programs really work, or accomplish anything truly useful for everyday life. An article published in Nature in 2010 suggests that brain-training games do not significantly improve brain function—and there is no evidence to show that such cognitive games will realistically help prevent dementia. On the other hand, activities such as reading, listening to music, playing chess and searching the Internet can indeed enhance brain function by engaging more parts of the brain. But the most proven way to maintain and strengthen brain power is exercise. Physical exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, improves blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain, enhances hormone release, and stimulates brain plasticity.
While many benefits for brain function can be found with any type of aerobic exercise, there is one specific physical activity that offers immense potential benefits for the brain. Yoga has been shown to improve remote memory, mental balance, attention, concentration, delayed recall and immediate recall, verbal retention and recognition in menopausal women and to improve cognitive functioning in type 2 diabetics. In a recent study published in the Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, a long-term regular yoga practice improved concentration, memory and mental health in healthy individuals, suggesting yoga has a preventive as well as therapeutic benefit in cognitive functioning.
Paradoxically, sitting still, doing nothing may offer immense benefits for the brain – if sitting still means sitting for meditation. Author and researcher Richard Davidson has done significant research in the area of neuroplasticity and cognitive functioning. Meditation leads to increased connectivity in the areas of the brain related to memory, learning and emotion. The brain becomes richer and more complex, with increased folding of the cortex. In the brains of long-term meditators, there is increased high amplitude gamma activity, as the brain becomes more synchronized and large assemblies of neurons (brain cells) work together with greater synergy. A dedication to meditation may improve brain power to the point of ultimate human potential.
Ayurveda emphasizes lifestyle changes and enhancements as part of a balanced program of wellbeing. Important lifestyle changes that can improve brain power and reduce Vata deficiencies related to sleep, habit-forming substances and social interactions. Sleep is important for brain repair and regeneration, neurotransmitter production and information processing. Ayurveda recommends “early to bed and early to rise.” According to the teachings of yoga and Ayurveda, the early morning hours are extremely important for brain synchronization and mental clarity and should be dedicated to meditation, yoga and chanting. Traditionally, practitioners of the Vedic sciences chant Gayatri mantra at sunrise and perform agnihotra, a Vedic fire ceremony. Gayatri mantra is dedicated to the radiance of the rising sun and invites this radiance to illumine our minds as the world awakens from the darkness of night. Chanting Gayatri mantra improves cognitive functioning and brings enhanced mental clarity. Performing the agnihotra fire ceremony at sunrise and sunset is also said to improve mental clarity and bestow brilliance to the mind.
If we want to improve our brain power, it is important to let go of habit-forming substances such as tobacco, recreational drugs, excess alcohol consumption and white sugar. It is also vital to tend to our social environment. The human brain is designed to operate within a rich social milieu, with supportive long-term relationships, meaningful interactions with an array of people and energizing community activities such as dance and singing. Modern lifestyles with alienated suburban environments and long commutes may leave us lonely and isolated unless we make efforts to make rich social engagement a regular part of our lives.
As our bodies age, our ability to manufacture many of the antioxidants that support our brain declines. Hence supplementation is helpful in maintaining memory and brain power. Dr. Perlmutter suggests supplementation with B vitamins, vitamins C, D and E, coenzyme Q10, and other antioxidants that may be insufficient in our diet. Ayurveda also recommends special types of supplementation for the aging brain, although these take the form of herbs rather than typical supplements. The Ayurvedic discipline of Jara Chikitsa, or care of elders, is the ancestor of the Geriatrics of today. But Jara Chikitsa is not about caring for debilitated seniors in special ‘memory care’ facilities. Rather, the aim of Jara Chikitsa is to ensure a vigorous, healthy old age. The emphasis is on quality of life and preventive care. Accordingly, from age fifty on, it is important to use specialized herbs and herbal remedies known as rasayana or rejuvenatives.
An extremely well known general rejuvenative is the herbal jam chyavanprash. Brahmi is an herb famed for its capacity to sustain and improve memory and cognition and may be taken as a tea. Tulsi, now widely available in natural groceries as a tea, is not only a delicious beverage, but also an important brain rejuvenative. Specialized herbs such as Ashwagandha, Shatavari, Bhringraj and Guggul are also used to delay aging and improve brain power. Because Ayurveda always considers the individual constitution, it is better not to decide on your own when choosing rejuvenative herbs. An Ayurvedic practitioner can select the appropriate rejuvenative regimen for your individual needs. Your body will benefit from rejuvenatives when it is ready to absorb and utilize them. So a practitioner may recommend herbs and regimes to cleanse toxins and improve digestion before you begin a program to improve brain power through rejuvenative herbs.
Everyone, from schoolchildren to college students to elders can benefit from a diet, exercise plan and lifestyle that enhances brain power. The cutting edge science of neuroplasticity, together with the ancient teachings of Ayurveda and yoga, offer the prospect that old age may not be a time of fuzzy brain and mental decline, but rather the crowning years of sharing our accumulated wisdom as we paint the final strokes of that great work of art, our brain.
Alakananda Ma graduated as a physician from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College. In 1980, she embarked on a five-year spiritual pilgrimage in India, meeting her Ayurveda teacher, Dr. Vasant Lad. One of the first Western physicians to dedicate her life to Ayurveda, Ma has been practicing Ayurveda since 1989 and is the principal teacher of Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula. alandiashram.org.