Eating For Brain Health

We commonly associate the foods we eat with our digestion. It is an easy connection to make when we eat something and soon after experience bloating, discomfort, pain, etc. We may even have learned through trial and error to be able to make the connection between the foods we eat and our energy levels throughout the day. For example, perhaps after lunch we get a serious mid-afternoon energy dip, and this leaves us reaching for coffee and/or a sugary snack. Sound familiar?

There is an important piece missing from the picture that most of us do not understand, and that is how to make the connection between brain function (and therefore, optimal brain health) and the foods we eat.

Anger, increased irritability The following symptoms are quite common in people of all ages, and are often chalked up to “just getting old,” “being forgetful,” etc….

  • Poor memory, for example walking into a room and forgetting what you came for.
  • “Brain fog,” feeling like sentences and thoughts just aren’t coming together smoothly, feeling in a sort of daze. This feeling often makes us want to reach for something with sugar or caffeine for an extra boost.
  • Depression, anxiety and mood disorders.
  • Anger, increased irritability and focus on negative thoughts and behaviors.
  • Inability to concentrate and/or a very shortened attention span
  • Low libido

The good news is that many of these symptoms can be greatly improved by a diet high in nutrient dense, brain healthy foods. First of all, lets take a closer look at how certain foods can negatively affect our cognitive function and which are the primary culprits.

Brain Anatomy 101

 This is going to be a very short summary of basic brain function, but a great resource to learn more is Dr. Daniel Amen’s book, Making a Good Brain Great. The brain is a soft organ weighing about 3 lbs, protected by the skull and tissue membranes called meninges. Our brain is involved in everything we do each day, and functions by providing communication between neurons in the brain with cells in other parts of the body via neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that relay various commands and messages to different parts of the body.

The protective myelin sheath of our cells is responsible for making sure these messages are efficiently related, and bodily function can occur. Aside from diet (which we’ll get to in a moment), this process can be disturbed by trauma (major or minor, bumping your head, following off your bike, concussions from sports, etc), and also exposure to chemicals such as household cleaning products, aspartame and MSG (excitotoxins that overstimulate parts of our brain).

 How Foods Can Decrease Cognitive Function

Our cells cannot function with poor nutrient and anti-oxidant levels through lack of good food When we have weak cell membranes and mitochondria (the make-up of our cells which converts food to energy, without them our cells cannot function), poor nutrient and anti-oxidant levels through lack of good food, thick blood, poor vascular integrity, unregulated blood sugar, hormone imbalances, high stress and poor adrenal function, our brain pathways and functions are compromised.

 Foods That Compromise Brain Health

  • Trans-fats (anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated like fake butter products)
  • Vegetable oils like canola, safflower, corn, sunflower, soy
  • Refined sugar and flour (commercial baked goods, breads, pasta)
  • Soda and diet soda
  • Aspartame and MSG
  • Commercially raised meats (vs. organic, grass-fed meats)
  • Vegetables and fruits with high pesticide/herbicide content (see this great resource from the EWG as to which produce items should always be purchased organic)
  • Toxic household and personal hygiene products

Foods That Support Brain Health

Healthy Fats

Our brain is largely comprised of fat (upwards of 60%), and absolutely needs good sources of dietary fat to function properlyStress and poor adrenal function, our brain pathways and functions are compromised. Our brain is largely comprised of fat (upwards of 60%), and absolutely needs good sources of dietary fat to function properly. Especially important for brain development is DHA, the essential omega 3 fatty acid abundant in the brain.[1]

The best sources are wild caught fish such as salmon, halibut and sardines. Other important fats to include are those found in coconut oil, olive oil, grass fed butter, ghee, avocados, and raw nuts and seeds.

This becomes even more important for pregnant women, as insufficient omega 3 fatty acids can negatively impact growing babies.[2]

B Vitamins

 The brain needs B vitamins to survive and thrive, and cognitive function can greatly improve when levels are brought up to par. Excellent food sources include nutritional (brewers) yeast, grass fed meats, organ meats, raw nuts and seeds, avocados, and pasture raised eggs.

Magnesium Rich Foods

MagnesiumMagnesium rich foods include dark leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach is a key nutrient that plays over 300 crucial roles in the body, and one is allowing our cells (including brain cells) to relax. Magnesium rich foods include dark leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, chard and arugula and pumpkin seeds. Another excellent way to up magnesium stores is via Epsom salt baths (which can also support healthy sleep).

High Quality Fruits and Vegetables

This becomes even more important for pregnant women, as insufficient omega 3 fatty acids can negatively impact growing babies. Be sure to include a wide variety of organic fruits (especially berries) and vegetables. Ideally, strive for 5-9 servings of vegetables per day (1 cup cooked or 2 cups raw), and try to get as much variety as possible (think all colors of the rainbow), as dark colors signify high antioxidant content.

Plenty Of Protein

Key nutrients such as vitamin B12 and creatine are found in meats (grass-fed and organic whenever possible), and the brain needs them to thrive. In fact, vitamin B12 deficiency has been proven to cause impaired brain function and smaller brains.[3] The best choices are grass fed beef and lamb, pasture raised pork, chicken and eggs. If you are a vegetarian, consider supplementation.

Sunlight

 On and smaller brains.[4] The best choices are grass fed beef and lamb, pasture raised pork, chicken and eggs. If you are a vegetarian, consider supplementation. Vitamin D3 is also a critical nutrient for brain health. Try to get 20 minutes of direct sunlight on as much exposed skin as possible (sans sunscreen) per day. If you (like many of us) live in a climate where this is impossible most of the year, consider testing vitamin D levels and working with a qualified practitioner to determine if supplementation is appropriate.

Between eating a diet rich in these foods and staying as active as possible, we can help to make sure our brain is functioning at its’ best, and therefore live our lives to the fullest. Don’t let bad food slow you down.

References:
  1. [1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20478353. Retrieved April 1st, 2016.
  2. [2] https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/111/1/e39.short. Retrieved April 1st, 2016.
  3. [3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21947532. Retrieved April 1st, 2016.
  4. [4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21947532. Retrieved April 1st, 2016.

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