EATING FOR BRAIN HEALTH
The brain is a remarkable organ. It is responsible for your ability to think, problem solve, process emotions, make memories, your five senses (sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing) and physical movement. With so many things to do, your brain requires a lot of energy. Proper nourishment will keep your brain happy now and prevent diseases typically associated with aging.
The basic working unit of the brain is the neuron. It is a specialized cell that transmits information to other nerve cells, muscles or glands via chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. There are approximately 100 billion neurons in your brain that rely on a steady stream of energy to function. The right foods will take care of your brain and keep it functioning properly. Conversely, the wrong foods will not nourish your brain and can speed up age-related brain diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, cognitive decline and impaired memory.
The good news is that we are seeing more and more studies that highlight which foods are best for a healthy brain.
THE MIND DIET
This diet is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, both of which are revered for their ability to lower blood pressure, reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and decrease risk of diabetes. Participants who adhered to the diet lowered the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by as much as 53%. It is thought that the diet works by lowering oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which can be quite detrimental to the brain. This diet is full of antioxidant-rich berries and vegetables, lean proteins, wild-caught fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil, all of which decrease inflammation. The more you can control inflammation, the healthier your brain will be.
Known as the “sunshine” vitamin, vitamin D has long been known for its role in the development of strong bones. More recent findings have linked vitamin D deficiency to non-skeletal conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, cognitive impairment and dementia. The best source of vitamin D is the sun (UVB rays), but most people are cautious about sun exposure and increasing their risk of skin cancer. Plus, wearing sunscreen blocks the absorption of the rays that allow for the vitamin D to enter the body. There are limited foods that are rich in vitamin D, so supplementing with Vitamin D3 is often recommended. Consider getting your blood vitamin D levels checked to determine how much vitamin D you will need to supplement. According to the Vitamin D Council, your recommended intake could range from 1,000-5,000 IUs.
PREBIOTICS AND PROBIOTICS
Good health begins in the gut. The bacteria that live in your gut number in the trillions and it is both the diversity and the ratio of good bugs to bad bugs that impact the health of your body, including your brain. We know that the gut bacteria directly communicate with your brain, influencing the production and function of neurotransmitters. Probiotics—the good bugs—can be found in fermented foods, such as kimchi, miso, kefir, yogurt and sauerkraut. Prebiotics—the indigestible fibers found in plant foods—keep the probiotics alive and kicking. Onions, garlic, asparagus, oats, jicama and Jerusalem artichokes are some of the richest source of prebiotics. Including these foods in most of your meals will help cultivate a diverse and robust gut microbiome<bacteria and other microbes.>
Approximately 8% of your brain is made up of omega-3 fats, which serve as the building blocks for your neurons. The two most important omega-3s—DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)—play a role in brain development and function, protecting it from oxidative damage and inflammation. Omega-3-rich foods include wild Alaskan salmon, mackerel, sardines, wild Pacific halibut and algae. Plant-based omega-3 fat comes in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which can be converted to EPA and DHA, but is done so poorly. That’s not to say that these foods (ground flax seed, chia seeds, walnuts) aren’t helpful; they are important for their fiber and other inflammation-lowering properties.
Turmeric is a root widely used in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking, usually as part of a curry recipe. Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric that can decrease inflammation and increase brain-derived neurotropic factor (BNF), which amplifies growth of new brain cells, enhances memory and increases the size of the memory center (hippocampus) of the brain. Best absorption of curcumin takes place when turmeric is combined with black pepper in a recipe.