Beefing Up Your Brain

Couple Solving Different Pieces of Epilepsy Puzzle

Timothy Simeone, Ph.D., and Kristina Simeone, Ph.D., School of Medicine faculty-researchers, are internationally known for groundbreaking research that could improve treatment of epilepsy and other neurological disorders. Read more about their research here.

Nourishing Your Brain

The Simeones offer tips on how to improve brain function.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Sanjay Singh, M.D., chairman of the Department of Neurology in the School of Medicine, discusses the connection between the gastrointestinal tract and brain function here.

Beefing Up Your Brain

By Cindy Murphy McMahon, BA’74

Creighton researchers Timothy Simeone, Ph.D., and Kristina Simeone, Ph.D., husband and wife faculty members in the School of Medicine, think it’s time we paid a little more attention to our brains.

Internationally known for groundbreaking research that could improve treatment of epilepsy and other neurological disorders, the Simeones’ studies are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), epilepsy organizations and others. Their years of research have made them experts on how diet and sleep influence brain health.

They both are strong advocates for taking care of your brain early in life — and throughout life — to improve brain function both now and later. While plenty of resources have been directed toward studying the aging of the human body, they say brain research has not kept up.

“It’s about peak performance,” says Kristina, assistant professor of pharmacology. “What you eat today will help you today, and what you eat today will help you later. It’s never too late — there are always beneficial effects.”

“We can ‘beef up’ our brains to help withstand insults (disease and injuries) and aging,” says Tim, associate professor of pharmacology. “In neurological disorders that have cognitive dysfunction, certain things people eat can help. In healthy individuals, if you eat particular things, you can help prevent cognitive decline and help reduce injury that the brain suffers.”

Since you can’t predict when your brain may become diminished in some way, he says, why not help it out now by making it stronger?

“We don’t know when something bad is going to happen, so it’s better to eat foods that will beef up the brain and its ability to fight damage before the damage occurs.”

Some of the scientific terms that come into play in brain health are oxidation, oxidative stress, free radicals and antioxidants.

Oxidation is a normal process involved in the production of energy that is constantly happening in all cells, including those in the brain. If normal oxidative processes are not properly regulated, however, damaging free radicals can be produced. “Free radicals are the damaging guys,” Kristina explains. “They bang things up and damage DNA, proteins and cell membranes, potentially leading to cell death.”

Free radicals can change a cell’s DNA and cause chain reactions that can overwhelm the body’s ability to defend itself, leading to many diseases. In addition, toxins such as cigarette smoke, air pollution and pesticides cause production of more free radicals.

Antioxidants are substances that stop free radicals in their tracks. Insufficient levels of antioxidants cause oxidative stress, which plays a role not only in disease but also in aging. “Our bodies make antioxidants,” Kristina says, “and we can help increase our body’s ability to make more. We can also get antioxidants directly from food.”

One of the best ways to get more antioxidants is to increase them in your diet — in other words, eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Dietary antioxidants include beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamins A, C and E. Carrots, other deep orange vegetables and green vegetables contain beta-carotene; tomatoes are a major source of lycopene; and vitamins A, C and E are found, respectively, in a variety of foods. Those include carrots, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, cantaloupe and red and green peppers; citrus and other fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, kiwi and pineapple; and sunflower seeds, nuts, cottonseed and sunflower oils, tomatoes, pine nuts and peanut butter. Blueberries contain a number of antioxidant properties.

In addition to good nutrition, exercise increases the body’s ability to make more antioxidants, Tim says. “Exercise is good not only for the muscles, but the brain.” Chronic inflammation puts the brain at risk for disease, but regular exercise decreases inflammation and increases antioxidants, resulting in a healthier brain.

Omega-3 fatty acids also are helpful for several reasons. “They reduce inflammation, are an alternative to glucose as a fuel source for body organs such as the brain and heart, and they can affect gene expression,” Tim says. “By that I mean they can minimize some of the bad effects of some diseases.” Omega-3 fatty acids are found in such foods as soybean, canola and flaxseed oil, walnuts, green vegetables and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and halibut, among others.

Sleep was long thought to simply be “downtime” for the body and the brain, but numerous research studies have concluded that important brain processes take place during sleep.

Sleep has been found to have anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, similar to the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids. Research that Kristina has led concluded that sleep is essential, and lack of appropriate duration and quality of sleep is detrimental to vital brain function.

“Of course,” Tim says, “doing all of these things in conjunction is the best. It's not that you won’t ever get any disease, but you will give yourself the best chance possible for a healthy brain.”

The Simeones practice what they preach, for themselves and for their sons, who are 3 and 7.

“We try to eat blueberries, cranberries and/or strawberries every morning,” Kristina says. “We try to eat fish much more often than we used to. We do not recommend a nonfat diet — we think it is very unhealthy. Instead of eating potato chips, we try to snack on walnuts.”

They said they are adamant about making sure their boys get enough sleep, which is about 11 to 13 hours a night for preschool children, 10 hours for school-age children and teens, and seven to eight hours for adults.

“We recently wrote a textbook chapter on the importance of sleep,” Kristina says, “and it was ironic because we lost sleep while writing and editing that chapter!”