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Foods and Habits to Boost Brain Health

Whether it’s anxiety, depression, the opioid epidemic, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or cognitive disorders such as ADHD, autism, these are all diseases of inflammation of the brain. Sadly, they’re increasing at an alarming rate in the U.S. today.


Current statistics indicate that one in ten children have ADD, and around forty to fifty million adults have Alzheimer’s or pre-Alzheimer’s. Depression affects more than 60 million people throughout their lifetime. As a society, we have to grapple with this problem of brain health in a more focused way because it is the thing that we need to operate in our lives, to be happy, and to have healthy relationships. Let’s rethink our approach to brain health and take a look at lifestyle and dietary modifications that can improve brain health and function.


Before we dive in, let’s take a look at brain function.


Our brain is one of the biggest consumers of energy. It’s five percent of your body weight - three pounds, but it consumes twenty five percent of the energy in the body. In each brain cell, there are tens of thousands of mitochondria which are energy factories in your cells that you need to run your brain. Think of your energy cells as having a production line where they take food and oxygen and convert it to energy that your body uses. That production line has a lot of steps, and each step requires nutrients.


If you’re deficient in any of those nutrients, you become dysfunctional in terms of making energy which has all these downstream consequences in terms of not just brain health, but every aspect of your health and aging. If you have low energy in your brain, there are certain nutrients that revive and help the mitochondria function better.


Functional Medicine uses compounds found in whole foods and supplements to help the body and brain do what it’s supposed to do naturally. When you enhance brain function, there’s really no side effects. You are simply using the natural pathways of the body to optimize your health.


Additionally, functional medicine strives to identify and address the root cause(s) of your symptoms. Just because you know the name of the disease, it doesn’t mean you know what’s wrong with you. Just because you have a label, it doesn’t mean you know the cause. Here's a great example.



As you can see. here, depression can be caused by many different factors, including inflammation.


Likewise, a cause such as inflammation may lead to a number of different diagnoses, including depression.


The precise manifestation of each cause depends on the individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle, and only treatments that address the right cause will have lasting benefit beyond symptom suppression. Functional nutritional therapy aims to identify and address the root cause of your symptoms.



What promotes brain inflammation?


1. SUGAR AND STARCH

In 1800, Europeans consumed approximately ten pounds of sugar per person.


Today, we consume about 150 pounds of sugar per person per year.


When you consume sugar at that pharmacologic dose, it is a poison and it does a number of things. One, it wreaks havoc on your gut microbiome. It fertilizes the bad bacteria that create inflammation which then creates a leaky gut which then creates neuro inflammation (inflammation of the brain).


It also drives a process in the body called insulin resistance which means your body’s resistance to the effects of insulin. When you eat a lot of sugar and starch and your insulin increases, the cells become resistant to the insulin so you need more and more insulin.


The biggest consequence of that increased insulin is that you get more fat storage in your abdomen, and those fat cells are not just there holding up your pants, they’re a very special kind of fat cells that produce hormones called cytokines. You’ve probably heard of the cytokines as it pertains to the “cytokine storm” from COVID. Fat cells also produce all kinds of inflammatory molecules which drive systemic inflammation throughout the body and ultimately neuro inflammation.


We now know that there’s a huge problem with glucose metabolism and insulin resistance of the brain in Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to note that not all Alzheimer’s is insulin resistance of the brain, but they’re calling Alzheimer’s “Type 3 diabetes” now because of the impact of insulin resistance in the brain.


Do I eat sugar? Yes, of course, but it’s most important to consider the overall balance of sugar in your diet. Is sugar a staple?


Is this a daily commodity that you’re having for breakfast, lunch and dinner?


If you are curious about your sugar intake, I would encourage you to keep a food/beverage journal for one week, read labels, and calculate how much added sugar you consume. Nutrition labels use the metric system, so for those of use who use teaspoons in our kitchen, 1 teaspoon = 4 grams of sugar. For example, this blueberry Yoplait yogurt contains 26 grams of sugar. This calculates to nearly 7 teaspoons.


Imagine yourself measuring out seven teaspoons of white granulated sugar and eating it straight. Could you do it?



2. STRESS

Stress comes from the world we live in including our diet. When we eat a high starch/sugar diet, this causes us to build more adrenaline and cortisol in our body which is inflammation. Chronic stress has a profound impact on the human body - specifically the gut microbiome and digestive function, but as it pertains to the effect it has on the brain, it literally shrinks the hippocampus, which is the memory center, and can cause dementia.



3. UNHEALTHY FATS - AVOID THESE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

  • “Vegetable” oil

  • Soybean oil

  • Peanut oil

  • Corn oil

  • Safflower oil

  • Wheat-germ oil

  • Canola oil

  • Sunflower oil

  • Cottonseed oil

  • Grapeseed oil

  • Rice bran oil

These industrial seed oils are completely devoid of nutrients and full of potentially oxidized polyunsaturated fats and go rancid quickly. They’re made with extraction processes that use a chemical called hexane which has been identified as causing significant inflammation and damage in the body.


Read your food labels carefully, and don’t eat fried food from restaurants. If you like fried foods, buy an air fryer and use that instead of oil. The easiest trick is to just not eat anything processed unless you know what’s in it. Some packaged foods are obviously fine, but if there are ingredients you don’t recognize as food, or you can’t pronounce it, or if the product contains 14,000 ingredients, it’s best to avoid these and choose processed foods with natural ingredients you recognize and can pronounce.



EAT THESE INSTEAD


Sixty percent of our brain is made of fat, and most of that is DHA or Docosahexaenoic Acid. Sounds like a big chemical name, but essentially it’s fish oil. It comes from algae too. Ideally, it’s best to eat wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring that are low in mercury, (check your label and source).



Healthy fats

  • Tallow (beef and lamb) Duck fat Dairy fat Eggs

  • Meat Seafood Sesame oil Walnut oil

  • Almond oil Avocado & avocado oil Nuts/nut butters

  • Flax seeds Coconut oil Chia Seeds Hemp hearts

  • MCT oil - Medium chain triglycerides - great for the brain’s energy system and can help improve cognitive function. Also improves athletic performance.


Eggs are really amazing - specifically pasture-raised eggs because the yolks have far more nutrients and polyphenols. Eggs also contain choline which is the precursor to acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter that you need to help your brain work properly.



Berries. They’re great because they have this class of compounds called proanthocyanidins which are powerful antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories. Consider blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries a staple in your diet.



Dark green, leafy vegetables are really important because they contain vitamin K, folate, lutein, and phytochemicals - 25,000 compounds in plants that contain medicinal properties that are great for the brain. Greens, blues, purples, reds, yellow foods contain pigments that are full of these phytochemicals that help regulate brain function.



Turmeric is a spice that is used a lot in Indian cooking. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory that has really been effective in reducing brain inflammation.



HYDRATION - half your body weight in ounces of filtered water per day.

Intracellular hydration is so critical because it’s what makes you feel good and gives you energy and performance. I recommend LyteShow or LMNT electrolyte replacement because they don't have any added sugar. You don't need gatorade.


“Either you get a filter or you become the filter.”


In an average glass of tap water, there are 38 wastewater contaminants including pesticides, glyphosate, medications, etc. How do these get in our tap water, you ask? From our own bodies. We excrete these in our urine - think about birth control pills, antidepressants, statins, etc. those get metabolized and excreted in the urine into our water supply. Forget about the chlorine and the fluoride and all the other stuff that’s added to the water. Filtering your water is key, and be sure to avoid drinking bottled water from a plastic water bottle. Glass or metal are fine.




EXERCISE

Only eight percent of Americans get “adequate” exercise. That leaves 92% who need some help. Exercise is really extraordinary because when you do cardiovascular exercise, strength training, or HIIT training for example, you increase these incredible molecules in your brain called BDNF which stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Think of it like Miracle Gro for your brain. When you exercise, you’re literally not only increasing the number of brain cells, you’re also increasing the connections between the brain cells, therefore increasing your cognitive power.




SLEEP

If we don’t sleep, our brains don’t work. We really don’t understand how important sleep is to cleaning and repairing our brain. The glymphatic system of the brain works in a similar fashion as the body’s lymphatic system. It only works at night when we’re sleeping to clean out all the metabolic waste that our brain makes during the day. Shoot for 7 - 8 uninterrupted hours per night.




RESET YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM

Activate the part of your nervous system called the “parasympathetic system” This is the relaxation side of your nervous system. There are many ways to strengthen and activate this system and they all involve rest and relaxation to some degree. For example, meditation, yoga, massage, deep breathing, etc all work to put yourself in “parasympathetic mode.” These strategies are useful to manage the other side of our nervous system - the “sympathetic” or “flight or flight” side. We all experience stressors in our lives, and these suggestions are but a few to help you manage stress.


Have you ever heard of Hormetic therapy? This strategy gives your body a stress, but your body responds by creating a healing response. Hot and cold plunges are one such example.


There are a lot of ways to access the nervous system to help reset it to create a deep sense of profound relaxation that’s physiologic which also helps repair your brain.




HELPFUL SUPPLEMENTS

1. Fish Oil. Nordic Naturals brand has two supplements specifically designed for brain health -

  1. ProDHA Memory

  2. Omega Focus - contains 1280 mg Omega 3, Baco Monnieri Extract, and Citicolin - both of which support mental focus, working memory, and decrease oxidative stress in the brain.

It's best to consult your physician before using fish oil if you are allergic to iodine, use blood thinners, are pregnant or lactating, have a known medical condition, or are currently taking medications.




2. B complex vitamins - may help prevent dementia and boost the production of neurotransmitters – chemicals that deliver messages between neurons in the brain and body. Without a steady supply of this nutrient, which the body doesn’t store, we are at higher risk for cognitive decline, including memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Many foods are fortified with B vitamins, so deficiencies are rare. For most people, simply eating a well-rounded diet will provide sufficient B vitamins. The best sources are:

  • Whole grains

  • Fruits

  • Vegetables – especially leafy greens

  • Beans (legumes)

Vitamin B12, however, is found only in animal products. Therefore, vegans should take a supplement. Also, as you get older your intestines can lose their ability to absorb B12. Keep in mind that some medications, such as those for diabetes or reflux, can interfere with the absorption of B12.


3. Magnesium glycinate - helps to stimulate a receptor called NMDA of the brain which calms down the over-excitation that happens in the brain that leads to inflammation and oxidative stress.



4. Vitamin D3 - 2,000 iu during the spring and fall, 5,000 iu during the winter for those of us who live in the northern latitudes and aren’t exposed to as much sunlight. Always take your D3 with a meal as it’s a fat soluble vitamin which means it will only be properly absorbed and utilized by your body if there’s healthy fat with it.




 


There’s SO MUCH that you can do NOW before your brain health declines.


Don’t wait until symptoms begin.


Be pro-active!


Implement these tips and make these lifestyle modifications so that you can keep your big, beautiful brain running optimally for the rest of your life. It's totally worth it!



Need help implementing these strategies? I'm available after January 1.




Happy Holidays to you and your family

and here's to a healthy 2022!




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