The Alzheimer’s Antidote by Amy Berger is being touted as a “game-changer” in the way Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline is perceived.
To coincide the book release, Berger has embarked on an extensive podcast tour, making appearances on the Wise Traditions podcast, Dr. Ronald Hoffman’s Intelligent Medicine podcast, High Intensity Health (embedded above), Superhuman Radio, and the Athletic Fitness and Nutrition Podcast.
In case you’re still on the fence about this book after listening to all those interviews, today we’re serving up an exclusive excerpt for your reading pleasure. Keep reading to learn how stress and lack of sleep will kill your brain.
Chapter 18: Too Much Stress and Too Little Sleep Can Break the Brain
A low-carbohydrate diet and appropriate levels of physical activity are the cornerstones of a strategy to combat Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive decline. But beyond those two pillars of this approach, there are other lifestyle factors that can a affect cognitive function—for better or for worse. Two of the most powerful at work in Alzheimer’s patients are stress and sleep.
Emotional and psychological stresses are lifestyle factors that can be managed to help reduce the damage in an Alzheimer’s brain. Stress physiology is known to a affect the entire body in myriad ways. Long-term high levels of psychological stress are associated with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression, and more. One of the reasons psychological stress is associated with obesity and diabetes is that stress elevates levels of cortisol—one of the hormones responsible for the body’s “fight-or-flight” response.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone. If you think that word sounds like glucose, you are correct! Cortisol’s job is to provide our bodies with glucose in order to help us survive in a life-or-death situation. This glucose is supposed to give us a quick burst of energy—to allow us to literally stay and fight, or run (flee) for our lives, hence the aforementioned famous fight-or-flight phrase. In the ancient past, this was a great survival mechanism. If you were being chased by a wild animal, you would have needed lots of quick energy. But in modern times, we almost never face acutely life-threatening situations. More likely, we deal with common, everyday stressors that our minds and bodies are hard-wired to interpret as immediately dangerous, even though they are far from it.
It’s important to note that when we say “stress,” we are referring to anything that we perceive as stressful to us—so it doesn’t have to be an actual life-or-death emergency. It could be something as simple as being stuck in an aggravating traffic jam, facing a tight deadline at work, or dealing with worrisome financial troubles or a difficult personal relationship. If these types of issues are a constant presence in your life or that of the person you care for, blood glucose will be somewhat difficult to manage unless and until you or your loved one learn some relaxation techniques to help you stay calm and cool.
Because of the role of cortisol in raising blood glucose, chronically high levels of stress can be the undoing of the best actions and intentions regarding a low-carb diet. Even if you are eating all the right foods and managing your carbohydrate intake, your progress might be stymied by high blood sugar due to stress. Stress will not a affect blood glucose and insulin to the same degree that eating, say, a bagel would, but it will affect it somewhat. Your blood sugar might not be sky-high because of stress, but it might be slightly higher than it would otherwise be, even on a low-carb diet.
There are many ways to reduce and relieve stress. Common practices for this purpose include yoga, meditation, and deep breathing. If you are not interested in these pursuits, that’s fine. (As they say, one person’s pleasure is another’s poison.) Just make an effort to regularly participate in activities that you do find relaxing. Perhaps it’s reading, gardening, golf, taking walks in nature, watching comedy movies, knitting, cooking, or something of the like. Whatever it is that you enjoy doing that provides you with relaxation and joy, make it a frequent part of your life. Stress reduction is a key lifestyle factor in reversing the disturbed insulin signaling and other metabolic dysfunctions that underlie Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies in animals indicate that stress has the opposite effect of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor: While exercise increases BDNF, stress decreases it. And we’ve just covered how important BDNF is for maintaining synaptic plasticity and supporting healthy cognition. The last thing we want is to be our own roadblock to healthy BDNF levels, so it’s nice to know the way we respond to stressful situations is entirely under our control. It might not feel that way when we’re right in the middle of something angering, but with deliberate intent, we can alter our emotional reactions and mitigate the effects of stress.
It’s not surprising that a number of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease were focused, driven, “type A” personalities in their younger, healthier years. The stereotype of the overworked, overstressed executive who falls ill “all of a sudden” is no coincidence. It’s based in a significant body of truth. Individuals who pride themselves on always being “on,” always being reachable, never taking a vacation, eating lunch (and breakfast and dinner!) at their desk, and getting a million and one things done at once do so at great risk to their long-term physical, emotional, and cognitive health. Family members of individuals with Alzheimer’s, MCI, and other problems with cognition often confirm that their loved one was very productive at work or dedicated to raising the family at home, was always working for and taking care of others, but never took time for themselves. Their loved one was selfless, always putting themselves last. By not making rest, relaxation, and pursuit of some of their own interests a priority, these individuals might have unknowingly sacrificed their own long-term health. Contrary to what we tend to believe in modern American society, disconnecting from work, turning on the phone, hiring a babysitter, taking a vacation, having a “date night,” and other ways to stop and catch your breath are not signs of weakness. They are, in fact, fundamental for good health, and we dismiss them at our peril.