We are what we eat, or so the saying goes, and the emerging science of nutrigenomics (nutrition + genome), puts this adage to the test. Nutrigenomics is the study of how the foods we and our pets eat “speak” to our cells to regulate gene expression, which in turn plays a role in determining if we’re healthy or plagued by illness. In this article, adapted from Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health, by W. Jean Dodds, DVM, and Diana Laverdure, MS, the authors consider the ways that applying related discoveries in nutrigenomics can help our dogs gain or retain quality of life as they move into their senior years.
Which ingredients are proven to ramp up cognitive activity in aging dogs? Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, fed their dogs vitamins E and C (antioxidants) along with a mixture of fruits and vegetables to reduce free radical damage. They also included alpha-lipoic acid and L-carnitine (mitochondrial cofactors), which improve the function of aged mitochondria—specialized parts of cells that produce most of a cell’s energy—in their diets. The result? According to the study report, the diet resulted in a significant improvement in the ability of aged (but not young) animals to acquire progressively more difficult learning tasks (Cotman et al. 2002).
Other important nutrients also show the ability to improve cognitive function in senior dogs. Among the most studied: milk thistle, phosphatidylserine (a phospholipid), SAMe (s-adenosylmethionine), medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) found in coconut oil, and DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids (Milgram et al. 2002, Landsberg et al. 2011, Bensimoun 2013).
Many functional nutritional ingredients don’t just benefit one part of the body; they promote health across a wide range of systems. This, of course, makes sense because the body is not made up of isolated parts (as many Western medical specialists would like us to believe); it contains an intricately related set of systems that all perform a complex, wonderfully intertwined dance. Coconut oil, omega-3 fatty acids and many of the other functional ingredients target the body holistically, producing a wide range of benefits from head to toe—or, in the case of dogs, from nose to tail.
Coconut oil possesses many therapeutic qualities, but perhaps the most amazing is its scientifically proven ability to improve brain function in older dogs and people. As the body’s supercomputer, the brain requires a lot of energy, most of which is satisfied when the body breaks down glucose from food. However, as we age, we metabolize glucose less efficiently, leaving a gap in the brain’s energy requirement.
When this occurs, alternative sources of fuel become important to fill this gap and provide much-needed energy to the brain. This is where medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), such as those contained in coconut oil, can help save the day. Unlike regular fats (which the body metabolizes slowly), MCTs break down and absorb rapidly into the bloodstream, providing a quick source of non-carbohydrate energy.
Further, they readily cross the blood-brain barrier, supplying up to 20 percent of a normal brain’s energy requirement; are important for ketone production, which serves as an additional source of “brain food”; and help the body use omega-3 fatty acids more efficiently and increase omega-3 concentrations in the brain—a good reason to give your dog both omega-3s and coconut oil (Aldrich 2009, Laflamme 2012, Wolf 2009).
One study showed that when 24 Beagles who were between the ages of 7.5 and 11.6 years old at the start of the trial were fed a diet supplemented with 5.5 percent MCT, their cognitive ability improved significantly. The dogs showed improvement in learning-related tasks after only about two weeks of consuming the supplemented diet, and within one month, their learning ability improved significantly. The study’s authors concluded that supplementation with MCTs can improve age-related cognitive decline by providing an alternative source of brain energy (Pan et al. 2010).