Nutrition Strategies to Have a Healthier, Better Functioning Brain
As we head toward the holidays and our need to multi task torpedoes into high gear, I thought I’d write a bit about nutritional strategies to keep our brains healthy and performing optimally. Most of us need to be sharp and productive as we chronically multi-task and lead busy lives. Yet so many of us have moments where it’s hard to focus, we lose mental energy or we’ve got a bit of brain fog.
Our brains work 24/7 and require a constant supply of fuel to function well. While the brain takes up only 2% of our body weight, it requires a minimum of 20% of our daily calories. We want to make those calories premium fuel to help ensure peak mental function and optimal mood. What we eat really does influence our brain power.
Change Your Fat, Change Your Brain
Believe it or not, one of the most important nutrients for our brain is fat. Our brains are actually comprised of 60-70% fat, and the fats we eat literally take up residency in our brain cells. This is the perfect example of the adage “you are what you eat.”
The best fats for our brains are omega 3’s, found in clean cold water fish like wild salmon, as well as mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring, arctic char, lake trout and black cod. If you’re a vegetarian or don’t like fish, plant based sources of omega 3’s like flax, chia, hemp, walnuts and algae, while not quite as efficient, are good too. Study after study show that people who eat the most omega 3’s are some of the smartest and happiest people on the planet; with larger brain volume and better memory and mood. Some people prefer to take omega 3 supplements, shown in studies to be therapeutic for mood and cognition.
Other brain supportive fats include olives, avocado and coconut products.
What about meat and animal products? It’s the quality that matters. Pasture raised, naturally grass fed animals actually have significantly more omega 3’s than industrially raised or factory farmed animals fed corn, soy and grains. Natural meats also contain fewer toxins from growth hormones, antibiotics and fertilizers – which, by the way, tend to accumulate in fat cells – which can end up in your brain. I love ghee (clarified butter), which has fats that are easily digested and absorbed in our bodies to use for immediate energy as well as a compound that helps to heal and restore intestinal cells
As an aside, many healthy people also feel an increase in mental performance when eating a ketogenic diet which, in simple terms, means eating a diet very high in healthy fats and low in carbs. Instead of your body and brain using sugar (glucose) as fuel, on the ketogenic diet your body relies on ketones, a type of fuel produced by the liver from stored fat when carbs are not available. We can also jump start into ketosis with a brief fast, burning through the carbs in our system and then utilizing fat for fuel. This is a bigger topic that I’ll talk about in a subsequent newsletter.
Fats to Limit
It’s just as important to know which fats to limit. Unhealthy fats compete with omega 3’s for the same parking space in our brains. My recommendation is to limit using veggie oils like canola, corn, soy, and safflower, etc. The fats in veggie oils (called omega 6’s), while necessary for us in moderate quantities, become inflammatory in high quantities. Because these oils are found in packaged foods, commercial baked goods, salad dressings, etc., it’s far too easy to have too much.
Simply avoid foods that contain trans fats – anything that says partially hydrogenated on the label. These fats are chemically altered to make products more shelf stable, and make for rigid, slow brain cells, while at the same time doubling the risk of heart disease and depression. Trans fats should be phased out completely by the early part of 2019, but are still currently in products.
Now that we know we need to have the right kind of fat in our brain cells, we need to protect that fat as it’s highly vulnerable to attack by molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are like pac men who love to go after fat, causing oxidation (visualize rust in your brain), inflammation and the destruction of neurons and network connections among brain cells – all causing our memory and ability to think straight to take a hit. To keep our brains safe, we need antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals.
Where do we find antioxidants? In plants. Veggies and fruits have tons of protective antioxidants, as well as loads of vitamins and nutrients that feed our brain cells and optimize our mind and mood. I always tell my clients – whether paleo or vegetarian — try to make veggies at least 50% of your diet. You will see a difference in how you think and feel. Go for variety – as the colors are indicative of the different antioxidants and plant chemicals that ensure your brain cells are protected and able to perform tasks well. For example, red foods like tomatoes have a chemical that suppresses an inflammatory compound associated with depression and citrus has a chemical that repairs damaged neurons. The deeper and brighter the color of the plant, the more it is loaded with antioxidant.
As you incorporate more veggies into your diet, be aware that pesticides can be very harmful for our brains. Just a couple of months ago a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to ban chloropyrifos – a pesticide linked to harming the brains of children. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/us/politics/chlorpyrifos-pesticide-ban-epa-court.html If doable, go organic. If it’s difficult to go organic, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen for the most pesticide laden fruits and vegetables and either avoid these or make them organic. Knowledge is power. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php
Up Next: Superfoods, Brain Zappers and The Gut/Brain Connection
The nutritional approach to brain health is multi-factorial. I’ve talked about the importance of good fats and protective antioxidants. In the next post, I’ll talk about brain superfoods (foods high in nutrients that are particularly brain supportive) and may improve memory, mental response time and mood; brain zappers and the critical gut/brain connection.