Your Cognitive Health- Environmental and Lifestyle Factors

The American lifestyle we lead is, well quite frankly, extremely toxic to our bodies. God didn’t mean for us to eat “foods” that aren’t really foods at all, to sit all day at a desk, to be exposed to all kinds of toxins, or to deal with the levels of stress we have on a daily basis. 

The “SAD” diet most of us consume includes large amounts of processed food, preservatives, sugars, and unhealthy saturated fats from adulterated animal products.  Food manufacturers use all kinds of sugars and artificial ingredients that make foods “taste” good but don’t contain any nutritional value at all. Consuming this kind of diet over a long period of time dramatically increases your risk for all kinds of diseases, including dementia. In the short term, it is well known that the foods we eat can affect our cognition. More about foods and brain health in a future blog!

And what about our propensity to spend most of our day sitting or engaging in minimal activity. Scientists are actually calling sitting “the new smoking” due to the significant health risks associated with lack of movement and exercise. Physical movement increases circulation, uses energy, oxygenates the body, and activates our immune system. In fact, multiple studies show us that physical activity can boost brain health. CDC recommendations are for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity weekly.

Exercise doesn’t always mean a trip to the gym, running a marathon, or other high intensity activities. In fact, moderate exercise is recommended over high intensity exercise, which can create undue stress on the body. Walking, gardening, dancing, yoga are all great physical activities to engage in- the goal is to get the body moving!

And while we are on the subject of exercise and movement, consider how beneficial moderate, enjoyable exercise can be on stress reduction.

While some level of stress is part of our lives, chronic high levels of stress can impair brain function and lead to cognitive decline in a number of ways. When our body is stressed, it responds by producing cortisol, increasing glucose release, increased heart rate, and “shunting” blood flow from the body’s center to muscles in the arms and legs. The body responds this way by activating this “fight or flight” response to help avoid danger, and will normalize once the threat is over. The problem is that our body responds to stress in the same way it responds to danger, and chronic stress results in the inability to “turn off” that stress response. Cortisol levels are constantly elevated, resulting in a host of problems over time. When that one part of the brain that responds to stress is constantly “turned on”, the rest of our brain function can suffer. Research has shown that exposure to chronic stress (that constant “running from a bear” feeling) impairs memory, kills brain cells, and shrinks the brain, resulting in changes in brain structure and making us more susceptible to mental illness and cognitive decline. Scary stuff that stress!  

So how to reduce stress? That’s always and easy to say but hard to do answer, but take heart because even small changes can have large impacts on brain function. While it’s not realistic for many of us to remove all stress, we can make choices to reduce levels of stress in our lives. Scheduling “down time” for ourselves is not only healthy but boosts productivity overall. Taking time for yourself is not selfish, it’s critical to our health! Stress reduction techniques can be very helpful as well. As an example, even 10 minutes of meditation/deep breathing daily can have profound effects on stress levels, reducing cortisol production and all the nasty things that happen with high levels of this stress hormone. Prayer has been shown to be a very effective stress reducer. And back to exercise- moderate, enjoyable exercise reduces stress and improves brain function. Exercises such as yoga and TaiChi have been shown repeatedly to induce relaxation and improve brain function.

Most of us don’t pay attention to our personal exposure to toxins, but the truth is they are all around us. Damage related to toxin exposure can occur immediately after exposure, or not for decades after. Many environmental toxins are potent neurotoxins, and as such can cause or contribute to cognitive decline and the development of dementia. Heavy metals (think amalgam fillings, lead paint, and even consumption of foods such as tuna, chicken, and rice)  It’s important to “take stock” of those potential exposures, evaluate levels through diagnostics when indicated, and then if needed address removal from the body.  And don’t forget about biotoxins such as Lyme Disease and mold/mycotoxin illness, as these commonly occurring biotoxin related illnesses can have a profound effect on brain function. It is not at all uncommon for my chronic Lyme or mycotoxin patients to suffer from issues related to mood and cognitive function. I would be remiss if I failed to mention long COVID, given the ability of this virus to impact brain function in both the short and long term. 

Many cognitive issues related to environmental and biotoxin exposure don’t appear for years, and that’s why this particular area can be such a danger and problem. The importance of being thoroughly evaluated for environmental and biotoxins, especially if suffering from cognitive concerns, cannot be overstated. Many environmental and biotoxin related illnesses can be successfully addressed and treated, but bear in mind that early intervention leads to better outcomes. If you or your loved one has been exposed or has had suspected exposure, get evaluated and treated, even if you don’t currently have symptoms.   

Next we will take a look at dietary intake and micronutrient levels as they related to brain health. I welcome your comments and suggestions for future blog posts.

For additional information on our practice and how Functional Medicine can help you maintain or restore brain health, visit the Health Partners LLC webpage at

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Lynn-Kettell Slifer