Your Top 10 Tips for Optimal Brain Health

Dr Ingrid Pincott, ND



  1. Exercise is the very best way to develop new neurons by increasing BDNF (i.e., brain derived neurotrophic factor). The best type of exercise for brain health is an activity that gets you to 70% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3 times per week or high intensity interval training using weights and cardio.  In other words, vigorous exercise is not just great for weight management!
  2. Diet also contributes to brain health and memory. A diet low in alcohol consumption, smoking, trans fats, deep fried foods and sugar is the best recipe. Anything that gets your hemoglobin A1c (i.e., average of blood sugars) over 5.4 is an increase in risk.
  3. Just as some things negatively impact brain function, other things benefit brain function. A diet high in phytochemicals such as garlic, green tea, broccoli, pomegranate, beets, turmeric, cruciferous vegetables, rosemary, dark chocolate, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries may all help to lower inflammation in the brain and protect the microvasculature (i.e., the network of blood vessels that make up the circulatory system).
  4. Gut health: There are myriad ways to ensure a healthy gut, but in broad strokes reducing consumption of gluten as well as periodically detoxifying the liver may help. Two of the herbs I’ve had particular success with in treating patients are schisandra and milk thistle, both of which have a profound detoxification effect.
  5. Limit the potential for head trauma: It’s very hard to explain the long term effects of head trauma, but I do recommend watching the 2015 Will Smith movie Concussion to understand how harmful contact sports can be to the head. Once you’ve seen the movie, you won’t think twice about wearing a helmet on a bike or taking extra steps to protect yourself from preventable head injury.
  6. Phytochemicals can also protect the body against the stresses of day to day living and combat neuroinflammation. In my practice, depending on the patient and their specific needs, I may recommend any number of the following: curcumin, Boswellia, ginkgo, NAC, echinacea, ashwagandha, Siberian or Korean ginseng, melatonin, fish oils high in DHA EFAs, magnesium, B vitamins, including extra B12, vitamin D, saffron and grapeseed extract.
  7. Sleep is critical for optimal draining of the brain lymphatic (i.e., glymphatic) system at night. For my patients who have difficulty getting a sound night’s sleep, there are a variety of herbs I recommend that may be helpful (e.g., valerian, kava kava, passion flower, jujube, Californian poppy, chamomile and rehmannia). A combination of many of these botanicals can be found in an over-the-counter product in Canada called U-Dream; ask your primary health care provider if it’s right for you.
  8. In recommendation one I mentioned BDNF. The brain has a tremendous ability to regenerate neurons which is governed by BDNF. While exercise is the most effective, you can also achieve positive results with various nutrients such as  ashwagandha, St. John’s wort, milk thistle, vitamin D, and resveratrol.  There is new research to indicate that intermittent fasting also has a positive impact on brain health.
  9. Blood tests: if you have experienced a brain injury or are worried about memory loss, you should speak to your primary health provider about diagnostic testing. For example, measuring antibodies to the blood brain barrier (BBB) can be useful as well as measuring chronic inflammation with CRP (i.e., C reactive protein), TNF alpha, IL-1B, IL-6 and HbA1C, serum B12 and homocysteine.
  10. Your local naturopathic physician can help you sift through the best strategy for optimal brain health including depression and anxiety. A great resource to find out more information about licensed NDs in your area is



Five ways to avoid a vitamin D deficiency in the dark of winter

The Top Five Medications You Shouldn’t Take Without Trying a Natural Alternative First

Reuben Dinsmore BScH, ND

Natural supplements, or nutraceuticals, have been given a bad rap lately—which, in some cases, has been absolutely warranted. But natural formulas that actually contain what they claim on the label, and that are formulated to have maximal efficacy, can be equal to their pharmaceutical counterparts. Better yet, they can be just as effective without the laundry list of side effects.


Statins (the class of drugs prescribed to lower cholesterol) accounted for 3.8 per cent of all money spent on prescription drugs in Canada in 2013. High cholesterol is blamed for heart attacks and strokes via formation of arterial plaques. But the real culprit is inflammation, without which the plaques wouldn’t form in the first place. Bottom line: You can lower cholesterol all you want, but as long as there is inflammation present, plaques can still form.

Some common side effects of statins include muscle pain, cognitive impairment, sexual dysfunction, and increased risk of cancer and diabetes.

Nutraceuticals are an alternative to statins. These include: Omega-3 fatty acids (best sourced from wild-caught fish oils) and curcumin (the active component in turmeric). Both are excellent supplements to lower inflammation. Garlic extracts have been proven to improve cholesterol levels as well. Another option I discuss with patients is red rice yeast extract, which is the natural compound statins were derived from in the first place, and works in a similar manner. This product may have side effects; I find that it can be beneficial for some patients, but not all, something I deal with on a patient by patient basis.


It’s said that five million Canadians suffer from heartburn symptoms weekly. Prescriptions for the acid-blocking drugs PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) accounted for $24 million in BC alone in 2013. Risks of taking these mostly involve nutrient deficiencies from poor absorption DUE TO LOW STOMACH ACID (see the problem here?). Examples include bone fractures from poor calcium absorption or anemia from decreased levels of vitamin B12 or iron. B12 deficiency can also cause dementia and neurological damage. There has also been a correlation shown between PPI use and C. difficile infection, which causes life-threatening diarrhea.

Nutraceuticals: Long story short, most people don’t have too much stomach acid. The problem is the acid they have is getting into the wrong place (the lower esophagus) where it burns. This can be from the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach not closing properly, either from poor tone or insufficient stomach acid, which is the signal for the sphincter to close. Limonene (an extract from citrus peel) helps strengthen this muscle and promotes movement of food downward to the stomach. DGL (an extract from licorice root) stimulates mucus production in the stomach, which acts to coat and protect the sensitive lining of the esophagus.


SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the most common class of anti-depressant drugs. One in twelve Canadians will experience major depression in their lifetime, but it’s still one of the most misunderstood conditions. Standard treatment protocols typically target neurotransmitter activity (most commonly serotonin). However, new research indicates the underlying cause may actually be inflammation. Either way, natural medicine has you covered.

Some nutraceuticals to consider are 5-HTP, which is used to make serotonin, with the help of vitamin B6. The herb St. John’s Wort has been studied extensively and appears to work in the same way as SSRIs. Both 5-HTP and St. John’s wort have shown similar efficacy to SSRIs when given for mild to moderate depression. And as I mentioned earlier, omega-3 fatty acids and curcumin decrease inflammation throughout the body, including the brain.

Side effects of SSRIs include sexual dysfunction, weight gain, and worsened/chronic depression. St. John’s wort also has a side effect which should be considered if taking other medications—it impacts liver function, which can result in either higher or lower blood medication levels.


Hypertension (i.e., high blood pressure) affects 6 million Canadians, and is responsible for approximately 13 per cent of all deaths. Various classes of anti-hypertensives include diuretics, ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs). Diuretics increase urine output, which can negatively affect sodium and potassium levels, which can cause muscle cramps. ACEIs and ARBs may both cause a chronic dry cough. All anti-hypertensives can cause dizziness, headache and low blood pressure.

Again, there are many nutraceutical options for patients to consider, such as CoQ10, magnesium, garlic extracts, omega-3 fatty acids, L-arginine and vitamin C. All of these have all been shown to lower high blood pressure by various means. Dandelion leaf is an effective diuretic that doesn’t lower potassium levels.


Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs most often prescribed for anxiety disorders and insomnia. They work by binding to receptors for GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that calms activity of the nervous system. Interestingly, this is the same mechanism by which alcohol acts in the brain. One obvious effect of benzodiazepines is sedation—great when the treatment target is insomnia. Not so great when you just want to decrease your anxiety but still function. Other side effects include dizziness, loss of balance, and even cognitive impairment at higher doses. They also have a significant risk of developing physical or psychological dependence and rebound anxiety when discontinued.

This is an area where you should have a thorough workup with your naturopathic doctor and consider the options that are right for you. You can take GABA as an alternative (but there’s mixed evidence on whether or not it actually gets into the brain), or herbs such as passionflower (which has the same mechanism of action as benzodiazepines). Other herbs include valerian, chamomile, kava, and many others.

So now you think you’re ready to ditch all your pharmaceuticals and go natural? Not so fast—the examples used above are by no means the only supplements that have been used effectively for these conditions. And equally as important are diet, exercise, sleep habits, relaxation techniques and other lifestyle factors. The next step is to sit down with a naturopathic doctor and work together to develop a personalized approach that takes all your health concerns into consideration.

Dr. Reuben Dinsmore practices at Yaletown Naturopathic Clinic. Call 604-235-8068 or email

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