It is important to understand the important role of foods and brain health. Our brains are always switched on. They take care of our thoughts, movements, our senses and all the hidden actions inside our body; like our heart beating or breathing. They even work when we are asleep. A constant supply of fuel is needed for the brain to function optimally and this comes from the food we eat.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance to eat good quality food full of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants that help the brain function optimally and free of damage in the form of ‘waste’ (free radicals). Free radicals are formed after exposure to toxic chemicals, smoke, alcohol or non- nutritious foods. They lead to brain cell damage and are linked to a range of diseases from dementia, ADHA and autoimmune diseases.
Inflammation is a major culprit in brain disease. A study published Nov. 1, 2017, in Neurology found that having certain inflammatory markers in midlife were associated with brain shrinkage and poor memory in older age. Inflammation can occur anywhere in the body (manifested as allergies, dermatitis, autoimmune diseases etc.) or in the brain (manifested as brain fog, slow thinking, depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, memory loss, and fatigue). Inflammation in the brain damages and destroys brain cells, accelerating aging and atrophy of the brain. This raises the risk of depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other degenerative brain diseases.
What is inflammation? It is the body’s first line of defense against infection and injury. This process normally shuts down after healing occurs. Trouble arises when the inflammation process remains active and does not stop. The prolonged inflammation eventually turns on the body, attacking healthy cells, blood vessels, and tissues instead of protecting them; and this is deemed chronic or systemic inflammation.
The GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet (1) was derived to naturally treat chronic inflammatory conditions in the digestive tract as a result of a damaged gut lining. The gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells (neurons). Good bacteria that make up the intestinal microbiome in the gut are responsible for the proper functioning of these neurons and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin. These bacteria protect the lining of the intestines and provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria. Furthermore, they limit inflammation, they improve how well nutrients are absorbed from your food and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.
This diet focuses on removing foods that are difficult to digest and damaging to gut flora (grains, starchy vegetables and refined carbohydrates) and replacing them with nutrient-dense foods to give the intestinal lining a chance to heal and seal. It is a therapeutic diet commonly used in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut syndrome, autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety and autoimmune disease.
As one can see, poor nutrition is a major contributor to inflammation and below is a summary of how to treat inflammation nutritionally:
- Increasing flavonoid intake (berries, red wine in moderation)
- Increasing quercetin intake (onions) known to inhibit histamines which cause inflammation
- Decreasing sugar intake
- Checking for food intolerance such as gluten dairy, soy or eggs
- Healing the gut and promoting good gut bacteria
- Taking anti-inflammatory nutrients such as glutathione
- Eating omega-3 rich foods (avocados, olive oil, walnuts, sardines) or taking essential fatty acid supplements
- Including anti-inflammatory spices such as ginger, rosemary, turmeric, oregano, cayenne, cloves and nutmeg
Brain health foods
A study published in the journal Neurology suggests that people who eat diets full of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish may have bigger brains than those who consume a nutritionally-unbalanced diet. Here is a list of foods known to heal and protect the brain (2):
- Eggs contains choline which is a key component of cell membranes and accounts for a high percentage of brain mass. It also forms acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter that carries messages to and from nerves
- Berries such as blueberries are high in antioxidants and anthocyanins, which help to reduce free-radical damage and amp up brain function.
- Fermented foods such as yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha are rich in probiotics. There is a direct connection between the digestive tract and the brain called the gut-brain axis. Studies have shown that when people take probiotics, their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve, compared with people who did not take probiotics
- Sweet potatoes, spinach, turkey, sunflower seeds are high in vitamin B6 which helps to produce the brains main neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine, and GABA
- Celery and celery seed extract contain a compound, 3-n-butylphthalide (3nB), that has brain-health benefits including improved memory and learning deficits (3)
- Pomegranate juice offers potent antioxidant benefits which protect the brain from the damage of free radicals (4)
- Coconut oil (virgin, cold pressed) is rich in medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT’s, which the body breaks down into ketones that can be used by brain cells for fuel. Ketones, as brain fuel, has been shown to help with several brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. Basically, the brain primarily uses carbohydrates as fuel. However, in people with Alzheimer’s, there appears to be a reduced ability to use carbohydrates in certain parts of the brain, making ketones a necessary backup (5)
- Huperzine A is an extract from the Chinese club moss plant. It is known to enhance memory and learning. It may improve cognitive function and reduce brain inflammation after traumatic brain injury
- Arctic root or Rhodiola rosea been shown to prevent fatigue, reduce stress, combat mental fog, relieve depression and enhance mental performance
- Bacopa monnieri is an extract from the Brahmi plant, which can significantly improve cognitive function, decrease depression & anxiety as well as protect against age-related neurodegeneration and cognitive decline
- Citicoline is a chemical that occurs naturally in the brain and enhances circulation to the brain. It also improves neuroplasticity, the brains’ ability to recover and restructure
- Acetyl-l-carnitine is found in high protein foods and is the key in producing acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for memory, learning, and cognition
- Choline is the precursor of acetylcholine
- Vinpocetine is a chemical that resembles a substance found the periwinkle creeping plant. It is known to improve circulation, decrease inflammation, and balance neurotransmitter levels
- Lions mane works by increasing nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein necessary for the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons
- Cera-Q is a protein found in silkworm cocoons. It is able to help reduce clusters of amyloid plaque (a leading contributor to memory loss and Alzheimer’s) on neuron cells. and boosts glucose uptake to the brain
- Ginseng enhances memory
- Ginkgo biloba protects the brain cells and improves blood flow to the brain (it is a blood thinner and should be taken with caution in combination with other medication)
- Gotu kolu improves memory and cognition in the elderly
- Green tea contains EGCG (epigallocatechin) which protects brain cells from damage by neutralizing reactive oxygen species and removing harmful free radicals
- Omega-3 fatty acids can protect the brain from damage caused by inflammation and can possibly lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- A brain boosting multivitamin should contain vitamins A, C, E & D, selenium, magnesium, iron and calcium omega–3 fatty acids, and vitamin B (especially folate) (7)
Superfoods are a great way of boosting your vitamin and mineral intake, and we found a selection of the best Superfoods that are available, which offer a solution for keeping your brain healthy.
An interesting study in Britain discovered that the scent of the rosemary herb (one can use rosemary essential oil) can help improve long-term memory. This is possibly due to it enhancing the activity of chemical messengers in the brain linked to recollection (8).
As a final note, I have summarized areas of concern throughout various stages of life. Obviously good nutrition should be followed at all ages; this is merely to highlight specific areas that need more attention at a specific time:
Pregnancy: Intake of folic acid and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA (an omega 3 fatty acid) is a component of brain tissue and is important for helping the brain and central nervous system mature. The role of DHA in certain diseases such as dyslexia and autism has been suggested (7). Folic acid protects the baby’s brain tissue from damage.
Infants: Breastfeeding is of course the first choice for an infant, but understandable not always possible for everyone.
Toddlers: Include sufficient protein, healthy fats (specifically DHA), iron, zinc, copper, iodine, choline (found in eggs), vitamin B’s (specifically folic acid and B12) and vitamins A, B12 and D. Low iron levels can lead to cognitive and behavioral problems later in life (9).
Young children: Studies revealed that children unable to obtain good, nutritional food at home show insecurity in infancy and toddler hood leading to lower cognitive and social-emotional skills in kindergarten (10). Nutrient deficiency in children can lead to ADHD/ADD, decreases memory function and promote hyperactivity or lethargy (11, 12).
Sugar (and this includes white flour) causes a sudden release of insulin and drop in blood glucose(hypoglycemia). Lack of glucose fuel to the brain stresses the body, causing a fight or flight response, and encourages aggressive behavior, hyperactivity, mental dysfunction, and attention problems. Preservatives also play a major part in such behavioral problems.
Teenagers: Hormones are being produced and artificially altering the patterns can delay the natural settling of these hormones, causing ADHD and depression later in life. Poor eating as well as the use of chemicals and recreational drugs can severely impact the state of brain and hormones (12).
Adults: Neurons develop throughout our lives and our brains reach their maximum size during our early twenties and then begin to slowly decline in volume. Blood flow to the brain also begins to decline with time. Fortunately the brain is capable of regrowth and learning and retaining new facts and skills throughout life if one gets regular exercise, healthy nutrition (as outlined in this article) and intellectual stimulation (13).
Older generation: forms of dementia may be caused (or worsened) by nutrient deficiencies, so it’s important to optimize key areas of one’s diet. Emphasis must be made on increasing B vitamin uptake, especially folate and vitamin B12. Curcumin (or turmeric) shows promise in many neurodegenerative conditions, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer´s disease.
Changing one’s lifestyle is not as daunting as it sounds. The world has become highly focused on healthy nutrition making it an easy and feasible transition to implement. Taking care of our brains requires healthy eating, regular exercise of the body & brain, stress relief in the form of meditation, plenty of sleep, limited screen time (especially before bedtime) and sufficient social interaction (known to slow down memory decline). All of which has shown to enhance mood and memory, as well as promote new brain cell growth.
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