A naturopathic oncologist's guide to brain health

Written by Dr. Sonia Malani, ND, FABNO


About the Author: Dr. Sonia Malani graduated from Bastyr University with her doctorate in naturopathic medicine. Prior to Bastyr, she graduated with a B.A in psychology from New York University. Fueled by a personal experience, Dr. Malani knew her calling was to be a naturopathic physician at the age of 19. She is a Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology (FABNO). She currently sees patients, teaches, writes, and acts as a research consultant for integrative and functional medicine organizations nationwide.


Most of us take our bodies for granted until it starts to break down. How often do we pause with gratitude and awe that our lungs oxygenate our body around the clock, our immune system is in constant surveillance, and our hearts pump oxygen-rich blood to all of our organs? Amazingly, all of this is happening without us having to add it to our to-do lists. This is thanks to our brain. 

The brain is in charge of all of the vital functions of our body. It’s constantly receiving inputs from the outside world and communicating to our organs how to respond appropriately. The brain is ultimately responsible for our survival. So how can we take care of this crucial organ? Let’s dive in. 

  1. Movement: Exercise or movement is known to increase a molecule known as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Decreased levels of BDNF have been associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. BDNF also plays a role in metabolic processes including body weight control and food intake. Movement doesn’t always have to mean a 60 minute HIIT workout or a 10 mile run. As little as 6 minutes of high intensity exercise can increase circulating BDNF levels by 4 to 5 times more than a prolonged low intensity exercise.


  2. Sleep: If we had one single pill that is as therapeutic and effective as sleep is for the human body, it would be flying off the shelves. A minimum of 7 hours of daily sleep is necessary for proper cognitive and behavioral function, however some individuals may need more. A few years ago I ditched my alarm clock to see when I would wake naturally and I found myself needing closer to 8-9 hours of sleep. A game changer for sleep is proper sleep hygiene: keeping electronics outside of the room (e.g. charging your phone outside of the bedroom, finishing dinner 2-3 hours before bedtime, keeping the bedroom at a comfortable temperature, and consistency with bedtime and waketime). For those that may be curious about the power of sleep, check out Matthew Walker’s book: Why We Sleep.  


  3. Plant-based diet, rich in fat, fiber and protein: Research shows that nutrition not only affects our cognitive function, but also our emotions. Diets high in refined sugars are known to have a significant impact on mental health and can increase our risk for depression. Food is fuel, but it can also be medicine and help protect our bodies against illness. The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) and Mediterranean Diet are both well studied in the context of preserving cognitive function in an aging brain. These diets are rich in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and contain only modest amounts of lean meats, dairy, and added sugars.


  4. Limit alcohol: The conversation around alcohol consumption is one that I often have to discuss with patients who have a history of cancer. The CDC firmly states, “the less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk for cancer.” The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that if you currently don’t drink, don’t start drinking. Aside from increasing cancer risk, alcohol use over time can cause a reduction in the size of our neurons (aka brain cells). Alcohol is also known to cause inflammation in both the brain and the gut. Fortunately, the tide is turning with Gen-Z in regards to alcohol consumption. Gen-Z are generally drinking less alcohol than previous generations; some estimate that Gen-Z drinks on average 20% less than millennials. As a result of this shift in demand, bars nationwide are adding mocktails to their menus and sober bars are on the rise. 


  5. Manage stress: About a year and a half ago, I changed my entire work schedule. The goal? Create more white space in my schedule. I used to pride myself on a busy, color coded calendar full of meetings, patients, research blocks, and networking events. I wrongly believed busy meant successful. Busy meant busy. Busy meant tired. Busy meant stressed and running on zero energy. I cut out the noise from my schedule and made room for silence. I asked myself “What can I subtract from my life?” Stress not only affects memory and mood, but it also is inflammatory which can increase your risk for a number of chronic illnesses. Inventory your life to see how stress is impacting your day to day function. Assess what you can eliminate from your schedule to make more room for living (and not surviving).


  6. Support system: Loneliness is strongly associated with cognitive decline, especially in regards to memory and executive function. Social isolation is also associated with worse health outcomes and increased mortality. Many of us during COVID-19 experienced true social isolation during lockdown and saw this isolation take a toll on our mental health. It’s important to recognize that socialization is also a nutrient. Healthy relationships are medicinal. Instead of texting or sending a reel on instagram to a friend, call them up! Invite them over for coffee, lunch, or a walk. Connect in person and connect often.  

As our technology advances, it’s important not to forget how potent the basics are to our brain health. Consistency in sleep, relationships, stress management, and nutrition can prevent cognitive decline and be disease preventing. 



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