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Most of us do not fully appreciate how the brain’s physical state affects mood, thinking, and ultimately our ability to rewire the painful neural pathways imprinted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The state of our physical brain is strongly influenced by our food choices. Simple dietary modifications can improve brain health and functioning fairly quickly. This post explores five nutritional guidelines for building stronger brains.
1. Follow the Mediterranean diet.
Numerous studies attest to the brain benefits of this eating pattern. The Mediterranean diet is rich in:
- Plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), herbs and spices. Plant foods of all colors (including white) are rich sources of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, which protect neurons in the brain. Note that ACE can increase destructive inflammation of the brain in adults. New US Dietary Guidelines recommend that most adults consume about 4 cups of fruit and vegetables per day — more vegetables than fruit.
- Healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil.
- Fish. The fatty acids in fish have anti-inflammatory properties and improve mood and sleep. Aim to eat at least two meals a week. Sometimes chicken or eggs may be a substitute for fish in the Mediterranean diet.
- Yogurt, cheese in moderation, and other fermented foods.
Limitations of the Mediterranean Diet:
- Processed foods, including processed meats (such as sausage), refined grains, commercial baked goods, and other processed foods with added sugar and salt.
- Red meat, butter and cream.
Studies have found that even small increases in the number of plant foods consumed significantly improve cognitive abilities while protecting against dementia and weight gain. A large Swedish study found that a Mediterranean-style diet was linked to a longer life, even if people did not lose weight when following it. Go here to see how well your eating patterns match your Mediterranean style goals.
2. Mind your intuition.
The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of microbes. Harmful shifts in the balance of good and bad microbes increase the risk of depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The gut microbiome affects the brain in different ways. Good Microbes:
- Production of molecules such as tryptophan that reach the brain through the circulatory system and promote sleep. The vagus nerve also connects the gut to the brain. There are more messages from the gut to the brain than vice versa.
- Production of other substances that positively affect neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and the ability of the blood-brain barrier to prevent inflammatory factors and proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease from reaching the brain.
Microbial imbalance in the gut can be triggered quickly by antibiotics and by eating processed, fatty, or sugary foods, making it difficult for the good microbes to survive. Microbial balance can be restored by consuming high-fiber foods (which feed the good microbes), limiting high-fat and overly processed foods, and limiting animal protein. In other words, follow a Mediterranean-style diet, which also reduces inflammation.
Probiotics also restore balance to the microbiome. Probiotics are friendly microbes found in fermented foods, such as yogurt, some cheeses, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, pickles, and chocolate. Probiotic supplementation may also improve the balance of the microbiome, but it remains uncertain which microbes are best to eat or in what quantities.
Even mild dehydration impairs memory and other brain functions. Most experts still recommend at least eight glasses of fluids a day, depending on factors such as size, activity levels, and gender. German researchers found that increasing the intake of cold water by two cups per day will lead to a loss of five pounds of weight in one year.
4. Limit caffeine.
Coffee is a mixed bag. Coffee appears to prevent the buildup of harmful proteins in the brain, while its antioxidants protect against cellular damage. However, European researchers found that drinking more than six cups of coffee per day reduced brain volume while increasing the risk of stroke and dementia. They suggest that coffee drinkers reduce their intake to two or two cups of coffee in the morning, and then switch to water. Army research has found that caffeinated energy drinks lead to adverse effects from those desired (such as more fatigue, depression, and trouble sleeping).
5. Are Supplements Helpful? Could.
As a general rule, look for the necessary nutrients from healthy food. However, supplementation may sometimes be necessary. Vitamin D is key to multiple brain functions – promoting neuroplasticity, protecting neurons from inflammation, facilitating memory consolidation, protecting against cognitive decline, and improving mood and sleep. Deficiencies are associated with autoimmunity and less healthy microbes.
More than 40 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. While the recommended daily allowance is 600 international units (800 international units for those over 70), some researchers feel that 2,000 international units per day is safe and beneficial for most people. There are a few good food sources of vitamin D (such as salmon and sardines). Most vitamin D is produced when sunlight reaches the skin. Check your blood levels to see if you need a supplement. Often, about 20 minutes of sunlight a few times a week is enough for the skin to produce enough or close to vitamin D.
B vitamins work with vitamin D to improve cognitive performance. Folic acid (vitamin B9) plays a role in the production of several neurotransmitters that affect mood, sleep, wakefulness, and motivation. Folic acid also plays a role in the regeneration and repair of brain tissue. In addition, folic acid improves the number and function of mitochondria in the brain, which improves energy levels.
Folate supplementation may improve cognitive function and reduce inflammation. You can find folic acid in spinach, Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, romaine lettuce, lentils, chickpeas, and avocados. Excess alcohol intake and use of stomach acid blockers can cause folic acid deficiency.
Magnesium helps regulate mood, and supplementation may reduce anxiety, fatigue, and sleep. Magnesium sources include leafy green vegetables, black beans, almonds, and avocados.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health. They can reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, anxiety and depression. They can also improve sleep. Low levels are associated with mental disorders. These fatty acids can be found in wild salmon, sardines, walnuts, extra-virgin olive oil, and fish oil supplements. If you take a supplement, look for a total of nearly 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA fatty acids. In animal research, omega-3 supplementation kept memory under stress and the microbiome balance associated with less depression.
Clearly, healthy nutrition is vital to brain health. Enhancing neuroplasticity through nutrition will also facilitate the development of new constructive neural pathways later. You’ll want to coordinate planned changes in your eating patterns with your health care provider. Discuss supplements and any medical conditions that may indicate a need for caution.