Diet and Lifestyle Strategies to Improve Women's Brain Health
World-renowned neuroscientist and neuro-nutritionist Dr. Lisa Mosconi joins JJ today as they discuss a vitally important topic: women’s brain health. Women's brains age distinctly from men's, due in large part to the decline of a key brain-protective hormone: estrogen.
Dr. Lisa and JJ discuss the roles of estrogen in the body and the brain, as well as the connection between menopause and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Many factors contribute to the risk for Alzheimer’s, but a lot of them boil down to inflammation, and adjusting lifestyle can help reduce the risk.
JJ and Dr. Lisa also discuss foods that are harmful and foods that are helpful in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
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ATHE_Transcript_Ep 423_Dr. Lisa Mosconi
JJ Virgin: [00:00:00] All right. I just wrapped this interview and. I think I might've fallen in love with my guest, have a good big girl crush on her because she is just so fabulous, so brilliant and has such great information. So I'm super excited to share this interview with you today. And it is about. The woman's brain.
And what we're going to dive into today is really talking about women's brain, how it's different than a man's brain, duh. But why this is so important, how menopause can impact it, what you can be doing right now to make some differences, no matter what age you are and what's going on, what what the risks are with Alzheimer's, et cetera.
I mean, just amazing, amazing information. And I'm interviewing Dr. Lisa Mosconi and she is phenomenal. She is the director of the women's [00:01:00] brain initiative at Weill Cornell medical center. And let me tell you a little bit more about our associate professor of neuroscience, neurology and radiology as well.
And she is also the associate director of the Alzheimer's prevention clinic. She's the author brain food, and she has her new book coming out called the X, X brain, and honestly, As soon as we we're done with this, this recording, I was like, all right.
And you're coming back. So she's so good. I'm really excited to share you, her with you. She came through my buddy, Dr. Anna Cabeca and Just phenomenal too. She wrote hormone fix the keto Greenway, so, you know, great people hang together. Alrighty. I am excited to share this, this interview with you.
And first I want to share this other cool thing with you. Here we go.
Alright [00:02:00] Dr. Lisa Mosconi welcome to the show. Super excited to have you here.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.
JJ Virgin: I'm sorry. First you've got explained to everybody listening where your fabulous accent is from.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Thank you. I was born and raised in Florence in Italy, and I went to school in France.
So my accent is, I think is somewhere in between Italian and French.
JJ Virgin: And you're just like probably cited everybody's dream. like, imagine growing up in Florence and then going to school in France in Paris, I should have said icing on the cake there now. Yeah, you definitely were. You're a neuroscientist. How did you get into this?
And you've been focusing on the women's brain and they're like, what, what got you to here?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: I always wanted to, to study brains ever since I was a little girl. And I [00:03:00] think is because my parents are both nuclear physicists. They both of them.
JJ Virgin: Right. So you grew up in Florence, Paris, your parents are nuclear physicists and you are a unicorn and you're absolutely gorgeous too.
So you kinda have it all. Okay. So you always, since you were a little girl, cause most little girls, that's their dream to study brains.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Yeah. I know that there was a little I was very quiet about it. I wouldn't broadcast it, but yes, it was always really fascinated. In biology. Ever since I was little, my parents would talk to me about my mom's studies, like protons and, and nutrients and things.
And back then she was teaching nuclear physics To students would then transition to medicine and they went to work in nuclear medicine, which is that branch of radiology that uses radioactive isotopes to look at brain function and brain bio chemistry and all these super fascinating things to me.[00:04:00]
As a child. And then they would babysit me when my parents were busy. And so I really grew up thinking and talking about brains the entire time. And so as soon as I was 18, we, and we finish high school and graduate from high school at 18. And so I call them up and they say, I want to train with you.
I'm going to start college in like two weeks. And I was doing nueroscience right away. This I really want to volunteer. Can I do that? And they said, sure. And they never stopped. And it was at that time, then my grandmother started showing signs of cognitive deterioration and it was quite subtle at first.
And then it got progressively worse. And because I'm Italian, so your grandparents lived pretty much next door from you. And it was so evident that she just could not function. A few years later, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. And that's exactly when I was going to college. [00:05:00] And I was like, okay, this is scary.
And then her two sisters also developed dementia a few years later, whereas their brother did not. So there was quite a red flag and I remember my mom being really worried and My grandmother's sister's children were also like, okay, what do we do? How do we deal with that? But also are we at risk?
And that's the question that really nobody was addressing back then, like 20 years ago, what do you do if you have risk or do you do, if you have a family history of Alzheimer's or dementia, is there anything that you can do to avoid it, to prevent it? Is it entirely genetic and you're doomed or is there something you can do about that?
And so immediately I started studying Alzheimer's disease and it's been 20 years.
JJ Virgin: Wow. And, and you've really focused on women's brains. Yes.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Ever since, ever since I was 19, when I [00:06:00] said I want to look at women's brains and there was so much
JJ Virgin: to Lisa, when you think about it, like it's obvious that we're different from men.
How different are like, I mean, you know, I've, I've looked at this a lot from kind of relationship perspective of how differently women think than men and, and a lot of that just being kind of so tribal, but like in terms of just our brains, Function structure. How different are they?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: It's a very good question.
And there are, there are different ways to answer the question. I would say the most accurate way is to say that there are differences there very clearly biologically and chemical, you know, from a chemical perspective, but there are no clear differences from an anatomical point of view. Like it's not like women have different.
The men don't have structurally, we kind of have the same brains, but then it looks like women's brains are better interconnected. The men's brains. We have more function of connectivity. We [00:07:00] have more the, the brain parts like the hippocampus, which is the memory center, the amygdala, which is the emotional side.
They're better connected to the rest of the brain is compared to the same structures in a man's brain. And what we have shown just recently is that men's brains and women's brains age differently. And I think that's perhaps the biggest difference that I have come across that women's brains just do not age the same way the mens
brain's age, and this is not in terms of being 70 or 80. I mean, throughout the entire lifespan for us, there's a very strong hormonal component. The really, you know, you hit puberty and there's an explosion of Merona power and strength, but then women go through menopause. Whereas men do not. And menopause is a, it's a real big deal for a woman's.
JJ Virgin: So let's then you just, you just I'm like scribbling over [00:08:00] questions and notes over here. Cause you're just dropping all this stuff on like, oh my gosh. Okay. Where do we start? Let's start first with you said that women's brains are more interconnected. What would be good about that? What does that, what does that mean?
That makes us different than men having those interconnections?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: I think there are different explanations and interpretations, I think what seems clear, is that from an evolutionary perspective, women always had to take care of the children and the family that even when our ancestors were or were just born.
So to speak, the men would go off hunting and the women would stay behind and tend to the children and the elderly and each other, so it looks like those parts of the brain that are very closely involved with having a family and having an instinct towards taking care of others, developed very very strongly in women.
And so those parts of our brains are better related. They're better connected to the [00:09:00] other parts of the brain which is possibly why women have such strong. Caregiving things. Right? So that's one explanation that I personally think makes
JJ Virgin: sense. Yeah. It makes a ton of sense. I was writing down, I mean, women, what I see as we build communities more, we are more caretaking we're more nurturing.
So then you talked about us aging differently. And I would love to like talk a little bit about menopause because I think any woman who started to have, you know, go into menopause and feels her estrogen drops knows instinctively. That's something like as they walk, as they walk back into a room and go, why did I go to this room?
Like, oh my goodness. You know talk about what happens during that time. What the impact of say having estrogen dropping. And then the other side of that is don't men go through something similar with testosterone that would have a similar type of effect or no?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: It doesn't. And so men do [00:10:00] go through andropause. So it's the male equivalent of menopause, but it's a very slow and gradual change that takes many, many years.
Usually men go through full andropause when they're like 70 or older than that. Just think about Mick Jagger. I think he just turned, he he's, he just had another child, like he's eighth kid and he's 80 years old. It's very common for men to not experience these reproductive infertility until very late in life.
And also if you think about it, testosterone can be converted into estrogens. So they never suffer the declines in estrogen levels, the women's suffer during menopause. So basically men's brains are fine. And this is really where the research showed. I've been looking into that for a long time and I, I do brain scans all the time.
I do brain imaging really is my specialty. And we have looked my colleagues and I have been looking [00:11:00] at thousands and thousands of brain scans of men and women of all ages from 21 all the way to 90 and older. And we've been trying to see if men and women progress the same way they changed differently,
there was anything that would really stand out. And what we learned is that there is a huge difference between men and women and between men's brains and women's brains in midlife. When women go through menopause and I'm a brain scientist, I never thought that they'd be talking about menopause for four months.
We just don't think about the connections between our ovaries and their brains, but there's such a strong connection for women. So when you're thinking a hot flashes night sweats, depression, insomnia, brain fog. Namely to changes cognitive slippage, these symptoms don't start in your ovaries. They start in your brain.
These are neurological symptoms. We're just not used to thinking of them as such [00:12:00]
JJ Virgin: well, are they neurological symptoms because of a lowering of estrogen that's creating the problem. Cause I think back to, you know, okay. You didn't, you don't think about, you never thought you talk about menopause as a brain scientist, but just think about.
PMs. So, I mean, you know, it's clear that our hormones are impacting our brain function. Absolutely. Right. So does this mean then, like because we seem to be, we seem to have more fluctuation hormones. I always say that men are like a VW bug car and, you know, Ferrari, we've got a lot more, we've got a lot more wiring, a lot more things that go on and a lot more hormonal cycling.
Does that put us at more risk for things like depression or mood disorders or any of those types of things?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Yeah. Yes, that's exactly what's happening. I think what something that usually. It's not [00:13:00] discussed is how our sex hormones in quotes are not necessarily only related to reproduction. They're also really strongly involved with brain function.
So for example, there's estrogen estrogen is a master regulator in the female brain. It serves a number of functions. They have nothing to do with having kids and have everything to do with having energy estrogen, literally activates your neurons. And is involved in growth in plasticity and also in immunity in the immune system.
So the more estrogens you have, the more sex hormones you have, the stronger your brain. And there's a reason why when your sex hormones began begin to fluctuate and eventually you lose your estrodiol and you have all these other changes, your brain needs time to readjust. And this readjustment sometimes doesn't go too well.
Like when you get the hot flashes and night sweats and insomnia. And sometimes we found that actually leads [00:14:00] to more serious problems. And we have found that for women, menopause could be really a trigger for Alzheimer's
JJ Virgin: disease. Wow. So if that's the case, as I'm listening to this, I'm thinking if lowering estrogen from menopause is a trigger for, you know, alzheimers being the extreme, but even, you know, Hey, serious depression.
And then we're looking at treating with say an Alzheimer's medication or an antidepressant. Wouldn't really the treatment. Be. Bioidentical hormone replacement.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: It's a very good question.
JJ Virgin: Did I just, did I just like step on a landmine here with you?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: No, I know that with me, it's more with the scientific community.
There's a lot of debate over this right now. And there are different schools. There are different schools of thought, you know, as with everything else. I think it depends. So [00:15:00] if you have an Alzheimer's predisposition and the predisposition is activated by menopause for me, I would want to really treat.
JJ Virgin: So how would we know, so some, someone would have an Alzheimer's predisposition because they're doing genetic testing, like the eight Bowie testing or what?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: There are many different risk factors for Alzheimer's and some are genetically based, but many are not. So there are some genetic mutations that cause Alzheimer's disease in those or a whole different story.
And then we have some genetic risk factors by the April EEG. And they, you mentioned that increased risk, but do not cause Alzheimer's disease. And then we have another number of genetic risk factors like nobody talks about for reasons unclear to me, there are another 2030 that also increase risk of Alzheimer's disease, mostly by increasing inflammation.
Which I think of something probably interesting to you because [00:16:00] lifestyle can really help reduce the risk.
JJ Virgin: Yeah. You know what I love Lisa's every time you go start to look at genetic predispositions or anything and you come back and go, oh, what things help there? And it's like, oh, diet managing stress, sleeping.
Well, lifestyle exercise. You're like, oh, go figure. You know, it just gives you more and more rationale for the things that. We should all be doing, which is super cool. So, so we got some genetic predispositions, but again, there it's like loading the gun, not pulling the trigger. And then what are some of the, like, things that could set you up environmental, I would assume
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: type, right.
So we have medical risk factors. We have a number of medical conditions. They really seem to impact the brain. And accelerate alzheimers disease, onset and progression. And these are heart diseases, a really big one, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity depression, you know, midlife, depression has been shown to increase risk of Alzheimer's for both men and women, but much more so [00:17:00] for women than men and the same for thyroid disease.
And diabetes. So anything that is kind of metabolically related seems to activate Alzheimer's more than women than. And this is something that is just coming up. Right now, literally I think it's just been a year. Then the more, the more people are aware that men and women have been, probably have different routes towards Alzheimer's for men is more vascular related.
And for women is more about metabolism, which brings us to lifestyle and environment. There are so many risk factors you mentioned. Stress diet exercise, lack of sleep, lack of intellectual stimulation, lack of social engagement, all of these affect women brains, more than men also smoking and environmental toxins.
They all seem to affect women more than men and specifically women's cognitive health. Yeah. Smoking is [00:18:00] really the number one cause of early menopause.
JJ Virgin: I just, I just, I'm always shocked to hear that anyone still smokes.
So I am hoping that everybody listening has that. That's just not something they do because I mean, it's not, you know, it's not 50 years ago and we have the research on that one, but some of these other things, why don't we dig into some food stuffs since I always like to go there. What are some of the foods that would be big no-nos for your brain health?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Oh processed food. So in terms of nutrients, trans saturated fats transunsaturated fats or transfats for short are probably the worst type of fat. Then one can eat and they're particularly bad news for women. They've been associated with over 30% higher risk of heart disease and twice the risk of dementia in women, especially those younger than 65 in process with everywhere.
[00:19:00] Everywhere. Like I mentioned, I'm Italian. I know. I love French food as well. I'm having a hard time. I used to have a hard time when I moved to the states because so much of the food is processed and there's this huge study. That's been following over a hundred thousand women and men for like 18 years.
And they found that those who consumed processed foods consistently had a 12% increase in all kinds of cancer. And over higher than that, like the remember like 15% increase in breast cancer in post-menopausal women. So I think processed foods should be the biggest. No.
JJ Virgin: Yes. And because of the damaged fats, the chemicals, the artificial sweeteners and fructose and all of these nasty things that we need to avoid.
So. And what about some of your favorite foods that help with brain health?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: For women specifically. Right. [00:20:00] So I would say
JJ Virgin: you did write brain food.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Yes. I wrote brain food. Brain food is mainly for men and women. And I have this new book coming out in March that is called the XX brain. Specifically about women's brains and they also talk about a diet that is specifically good for women's brains.
And I think the three key nutrients for women's brains are antioxidants, polyunsaturated, fatty acids, and phyto estrogens. I think everyone is familiar with antioxidants. So
JJ Virgin: about some of the top foods that you like to get antioxidants from
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: berries. For sure. So it's been shown a few times that eating at least three servings of berries a week.
Keep women's brains younger by two to three years.
JJ Virgin: Excellent. Well, we have a bunch of smoothie restaurants, the recipes with berries in them. So we're good there. We've got that one. And your favorite polyunsaturated fats, which has, [00:21:00]
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Fish. What's yours.
JJ Virgin: I take, I mean, I had a son who had a traumatic brain injury, nearly died when he was 16, was hit by a car and in coma and literally left for dead diffuse, axonal injury.
And we had to start after four and a half months when he came out of a coma after a couple of weeks, but he came out of a coma after months really. And we had to start all over again, teaching him. But one of the things that I did and unfortunately had to do it behind the first hospitals backs because they would not approve, it was a high dose fish oil.
Especially after I ran into Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a green room, and he told me that he was like, you know, bringing blue babies up from the bottom of pool floors, you know, getting them back to normal. So I was like, so we did a lot of we did 20 grams of fish oil with him for months and then take it down to 10.
And now he stays at five and he was on five grams before. So I'm a big advocate of fish oil because. Protecting your brain too. And then. I am. I have [00:22:00] I have wild salmon, nice. At least three times a week. So I rotate in, I actually don't, I'm careful with tuna because of the heavy metals, but I get this one kind of tuna from vital choice called , which.
Have you tried this?
I remember that. I said, okay, so it's, it's these little tiny cans. It is loaded with DHEA it's incredible. So I do that. I'll do that tuna, and then I just told my husband, we need to go get some wild halibut. So we get all our stuff shipped in from vital choice. So we're big, we're big fish people over here.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Have you tried.
JJ Virgin: I, you know, fish, eggs and sardines are kind of in the same scary category for me that I like, I'd like to say yes. And I just talked to a guy who is supposed to send me one now that you say this he's, he's starting this kind of like dry farm wine does for wines. He's doing. That for caviar.
And they actually had their own fish, [00:23:00] egg farms and the whole bit I'm like, wow, but he's sending it to me. That's it's I still find it a little scary. It's so not a.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Yes. Oh, no. Yeah. He's fantastic. And they have fantastic caviar.
JJ Virgin: Awesome. Yeah. I didn't realize he's supposed to have sent it to me and he didn't, so I'm going to follow up with him.
So anyway, that's my intent is to try that and then for phytoestrogens I'd like to dive into that a little bit, cause are you putting soy in that? Are you getting that more from plaques where you're getting your phyto estrogens from
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: personally? Yes. From lignans, I try to go more flaxseeds, sesame seeds, chickpeas, for some reason my daughter loves chickpeas.
JJ Virgin: we always say hormones. I did not know chickpeas had phytoestrogen.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Wow. All legumes. Beans. The fabulous lentils. A really good
JJ Virgin: souce. Yeah those are amazing food. That's good because I'm, you know, what I've seen on the soy research is not positive for. Especially for [00:24:00] men. So I don't know if that's unrelated on it.
You know, basically shrinking, shrinking their brain and having early dementia and I'm totally paraphrasing it, but so I like that it's more flax and I also see people a lot of times food and tolerance and soy is so processed and needs. GMO bland, but flax, I'm a big fan of it. So you can throw into your smoothies.
So that's a good one.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: dried apricots. Really? Yes. One of the best, very high content advisor flavor and peaches, nectarines white peach strawberries. Yeah. And I don't know how you feel about grains, but grains are also good sources. Whole grains.
JJ Virgin: It just depends how they're prepared and if someone has an issue with gluten and should their GMO-free and all that kind of stuff, and they don't have glyphosates, which then, you know, let's say rice, [00:25:00] I'm a big fan of wild rice, right?
Awesome. Awesome. We will see, I'm going to see if we can grab some of this and put together a little list, but I love, I love the fact, you know, it makes it very simple just to think in terms of antioxidants and good, healthy omega-3 fats and phytoestrogen is just making sure that you're including those in your diet, you know?
At least multiple times a week, if not some new things it's easy enough to do every day. But if we said, Hey fish three to four times a week and berries three to four times a week. And You know, getting in some kind of little phytoestrogen every day, which is pretty simple. That's like, I mean, probably most people are already doing that, but it's easy enough to incorporate, which I always loved, loved
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: doing.
And you know how so eating fish regularly, like once or twice, once or twice a week has been associated with a later onset of menopause. So it's smoking. Puts you in early menopause, [00:26:00] whereas fish delays
JJ Virgin: it well, one thing that can prevent early menopause is having your son nearly die when you're 40 and you know, everything kind of hit the skids.
So that was not that, but he made it through and he's better than ever. You know, and, and my caretaking instincts were, were right on. So there you go. So now we're going to include in the show notes and what I will do is I'm going to put these all at jjvirgin.com/XXbrain. So I'll put everything there and we're going to include links to your brain food book.
We'll make a little fun handout of some of the different things that you talked about here so that people can incorporate this into their daily diet and into, you know, your next book that's coming out in March. Not sure when this is coming out, but this is a great information. And again, I had a great mentor early on in nutrition who was talking about Alzheimer's and he goes, it's [00:27:00] really, I know it's hard to sell prevention, but he always said, Hey, it's hard.
You can't unscramble an egg. So very important.
Wow. Right, right. That is the time to worry about your brain is not when all of a sudden. You can't think about it anymore. One of the biggest challenges with Alzheimer's treatment is, you know, people start way too late and then they can't even remember to do the treatments or anything else. Time is now.
And as you can see, a lot of this stuff is stuff we've been talking about already. It's just, now we know that it also has a big impact here because we didn't even talk about stress, sleep and exercise. We can share a whole another show on that. Anyway, thank you so much for everything. I super appreciate your time today.
Hope to meet you one day in New York.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi: Oh yes. That would be wonderful.
JJ Virgin: Yes. All right. Now, after the break, I'm going to be sharing my top takeaways and what you can do to put this into immediate [00:28:00] action. So stay with me.
Alrighty. Welcome back. So this is when I share. Action steps, top takeaways. What you can do from today's information to put it into immediate action. So that will start to improve. And up-level your health. And I just loved how Lisa said those three things about diets what all there they are right there is that your diet should have phytonutrients, which should have antioxidants and it should have phytoestrogen.
And so again, we're going to give you a handout in this podcast and you can go to JJvirgin.com/XXbrain. And we'll put my favorites in of each of those. And the commitment is to get in. I'd love to see some antioxidant rich foods, every single day. She said berries three to four times a week, but we have an opportunity every day in [00:29:00] our smoothie to throw something rich in there.
And of course, You're getting in antioxidants throughout the day in your deep green leafy's and your other plant-based foods. So, and also by the way, you get a two for one, if you do antioxidants and you do wild salmon, because it's got astixanthan in it and it's a great antioxidant. So we'll put in my favorite antioxidant, rich foods.
We'll do my favorite Polyunsaturated fats. And we'll put in my favorite of the phytoestrogens and the goal is three to four times a week, which with each of them. But I think really when you start to look at these foods, like getting phytoestrogens from different legumes and from freshly ground flax seed meal, well, that's easy enough to have something there every day.
And then of course the berries and then getting in some healthy fats. Every day especially things like wild salmon, wild halibut is easy ones. And then we'll look at some of the other things you can do as well. Okay. So that's my [00:30:00] challenge to you. I'm issuing it. I'm doing a throw down to start to make sure that you have these in your diet.
And my guess is that if you've been around the community, you probably already incorporating them in, especially if you're doing a smoothie you can get a lot of this stuff in your smoothie every day, right? Not the salmon that would be icky and weird, but the rest of it we can do, if you haven't done it yet, I would love to shout you out at the beginning of the show.
So leave a review and while you're there, be sure that you subscribe. So you never miss any of this. Goodness, you do that by going to subscribetojj.com. So subscribe so we can let you know when a new episode drops. All right. See ya.