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Review of "Your Miracle Brain"

By Jean Carper
Quill Books, 1999
Review by Pawel Kawalec, Ph.D. on Nov 2nd 2001
Your Miracle Brain This book challenges both our conception of the brain and our ways of life. Jean Carper who is the author of the best selling Miracle Cures brings to the fore a vast amount of scientific evidence to support the claim that brain is -- unlike computer hardware -- an ever-changing organ and it is never too early nor too late to help it function at its best. This is largely a self-help book that will enable you to experience yourself how minor changes in your nutrition habits can affect major changes in your memory and learning capacities, mood elevation, lowering the risk of diseases, e.g. Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or stroke, and even… rejuvenating your brain!

Carper's book acknowledges the results of the most recent scientific research on brain nutrition and translates them into the language of our everyday nutrition. More importantly, however, the practical consequences are also derived from a general picture of the brain as a "growing, changing organ". In part I Welcome to the Age of the Miracle Brain she contrasts this new understanding of the brain which is supported by scientific evidence with the older one. From the 70-ties onwards the brain was perceived in terms of information processing computer hardware -- a vision of the brain that Carper succinctly describes as "a relic of yesterday's science".

There are, however, other myths Carper challenges in her book: the brain is genetically determined and the way you live and eat cannot have a dramatic impact on it; the brain must decrease its mental capacities with age; the brain stops growing after childhood; and the brain must steadily lose cells after 20 years of age. It is possible to recant these myths, because today's science has at its disposal such techniques as computerized tomography, positron-emission tomography, magnetic resonance, or single photon emission-computed tomography which enable the scientists to control the workings of brain when it is still alive.

These techniques also made it possible to keep separate the record of the natural aging of the brain and the damage of the brain resulting from inappropriate lifestyle, nutrition or diseases. If the naturally aging brain loses cells at all, it does so only in selective areas which are not crucial for its mental capacities. The conclusion is then that "brain cells are even more sensitive than other body cells to nutrients and dietary chemicals", and therefore your diet (including supplements) and lifestyle (mental stimulation and physical exercises) can have a dramatic impact on the present and future functioning of your brain. This organ, acknowledges Carper, "is our most precious physical possession, the seat of our entire being - our intelligence, personality, or humanity, our mind, and soul". The price to pay for remaining ignorant of the most recent scientific discoveries is too high.

In one respect Carper's book is like the Gospel -- it tells you that it is never too early nor too late to start. She not only emphasizes this message throughout the book, but also gives practical advice to healthy individuals who want to optimize their own mental capacities, or of their (unborn) children, to those who want to prevent or avert the results of aging of the brain, or the results of damage caused to the brain by unhealthy habits (e.g. alcoholism) and disease, and even to those you suffer from low mood, memory problems, (maniac) depression, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and high blood pressure.

The remaining three parts of Your Miracle Brain are concerned with which kinds of food and supplements are necessary for the brain. Part II What to Eat for a Miracle Brain Carper starts with an argument that the brain's optimal functioning fit the nutritional ingredients available at the time of its evolution, i.e. at the time preceding cultivation of soil and taming of animals, not to mention the 19th century manufacturing of food, and most recent of all - highly processed foods. The general rule is the closer our diet reminds the one of our most ancient ancestors the most optimal conditions for the brain's functioning, and the lower the risk of one of disorders so characteristic to our civilization, e.g. Alzheimer's or stroke. You should not, however, expect to find in Your Miracle Brain a prescription for a complete receipt of a healthy diet. It only examines several ingredients and supplements that you can -- and probably should -- include in your everyday diet.

The brain has the highest proportion of fat of any organ in the body (60%). Therefore, Carper's primary concern is the right kind of fat for the brain, and even more the right proportion of "healthy" fat to "unhealthy" one. It is seafood and fat fish, like mackerel, sardines, tune or herring, that are the best source of the proper building material for the neuron's membranes in the brain. Carper cites the results of numerous experiments and historical observations to support the claim that it is not only our mental capacities to depend on the right proportion of fats, but also longevity and vulnerability to depression.

The brain's main source of energy is sugar. On the one hand, to maintain the proper functioning of the brain it is important to sustain a steady level of glucose in blood; on the other hand, however, too high level of glucose will eventually lead to diabetes. Therefore, argues Carper, we need to be aware of which foods raise the level of glucose rapidly, and eat instead the kinds of food which raise the glucose level slowly as prunes and raisins, but are more appropriate to keep the level steady.

For the most part, the brain's main enemy is oxygen free radicals, the side product of the chemical reactions taking place in the brain itself. The natural antidote are antioxidants which are the next focus in Carper's book. She not only discusses numerous foods that contain daily doses of antioxidants, but also which supplements it may be necessary to include in diet. Among the latter the most important to mention is lipoic acid, sometimes described by scientists as the most perfect antioxidant, but which is only slightly present in food.

This part of the book is completed by a discussion of such popular drinks as tea, chocolate and coffee, and the influence of caffeine on the brain. The conclusions Carper draws from the scientific evidence will probably be unexpected for the reader.

In part III Brain Supplements: What to Take for a Miracle Brain a whole range of supplements is evaluated: vitamins (especially B, E and C), folic acid, lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, gingko, phosphatidylserine, choline, and selenium.

The last part of the book How to Keep Vascular Villains from Destroying Your Brain is an explanation why homocysteine, triglycerides, cholesterol and high blood pressure prove harmful to the brain. Carper, as always, has numerous remedies - starting from physical exercises, and ending up with potassium intake.

Apart from the importance of the topic, Carper's style would be sufficient to make the book a pleasure to read. Every statement she puts forward is supported by - often numerous - results of most recent scientific research and opinions of the leading experts on nutritional neuroscience and brain researchers. Moreover, it is astonishing to learn how much you can gain for your brain just by very simple alterations to nutritional habits, e.g. eating more sea fish or drinking red wine. Carper managed to pinpoint the most simple and powerful ways to change our nutritional habits, and thus improve our mental performance and way of life when we grow old. It is good to remember, however, that Your Miracle Brain is in a sense a negative book -- it does not pretend to depict a healthy conduct of life. Instead, it explains which nutritional ingredients and supplements are necessary for help your brain enable you to realize the goals you set up for yourself.

© 2001 Pawel Kawalec

Pawel Kawalec Ph.D., Faculty of Philosophy, Catholic University of Lublin, POLAND

Available from BN.com:
Your Miracle Brain: Maximize Your Brainpower, Boost Your Memory, Lift Your Mood, Improve Your IQ and Creativity, Prevent and Reverse Menta
Your Miracle Brain: Maximize Your Brainpower, Boost Your Memory, Lift Your Mood, Improve Your IQ and Creativity, Prevent and Reverse Menta

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