Food and Your Brain
Ten years ago the idea that food could have a profound effect on the brain was totally foreign to me. The research has really exploded recently, and today there are tens of thousands of published research studies on the topic. It is now known that there is a connection between what you eat and anxiety and depression, your stress response, memory, learning, cognition and behavior.
Food affects your brain through multiple means. It not only supplies vitamins, minerals and energy, but also other plant ingredients known as phytochemicals which are supportive and protective of the brain. For example, the anthocyanins in blueberries are associated with greater cognitive performance and slower brain aging. Culinary herbs provide some special benefits too – think rosemary and memory. Another way your diet affects you is through its effect on the composition of your gut microbiome. Some bacterial strains actually produce needed neurotransmitters for you, and research is exploding on the role of particular strains of friendly bacteria and their beneficial effects on anxiety and depression. Scientists are racing to develop and possibly patent “psychobiotics” – probiotics designed to have a beneficial effect on mood. In fact, some probiotic products have already been tested and shown to improve anxiety, depression, and stress. You can support a healthy gut microbiome by eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, miso, green tea, kimchee or real sauerkraut. These types of foods help to replenish and maintain a healthy mix of beneficial bacteria. Many of these beneficial bacteria don’t stay long in your gut, but they do good work as they pass through, by lowering inflammation for example. Those good bugs need to eat too, and that is where a fiber rich diet with lots of colored plant foods come in. The phytochemicals that provide color promote the growth of healthy bacteria. This means the colors of beans, vegetables fruits and grains (such as black or red rice). Try to get a variety of colors weekly into your diet – purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. You can make this fun by taking pictures of your meals and looking at the predominant colors and what might be missing over a week’s time. Get a buddy and make it a game or contest, or if you have children you can make a chart with a star for eating a particular color.
Eating the right foods and limiting the wrong foods can determine whether your body and your brain are inflamed or not. Inflammation is now recognized as the underlying cause of depression. Unfortunately, only holistic or integrative psychiatrists address this, while most prescribe medications for symptoms not causes. What are the wrong foods? Well, they can be the usual culprits such as refined carbohydrates, and the wrong fats, but they can also be anything your body is sensitive to, even though that food might be healthy for someone else. It could be corn, or eggs, or tilapia, or limes. I recently had a client who ate a pristine home cooked diet, including an abundance of home grown organic vegetables and herbs. He was also a competitive athlete and got lots of exercise, but he suffered from brain fog and lack of focus, which was affecting his marriage and his work. It was discovered that eggs were the culprit. Since he didn’t have any other symptoms when he ate eggs, he had never made the connection, and he regularly consumed eggs. If you are sensitive to a particular food, this causes inflammation, and that inflammation then affects the brain. There is a saying – “gut on fire = brain on fire”. The two are linked directly through a huge nerve – the Vagus nerve.
It also turns out that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain. The Mediterranean Diet – when consumed in the traditional manner with an emphasis on vegetables, legumes, nuts, olives and fruits – not just pizza and pasta, is the healthiest for both. There is even a new variation on the Mediterranean diet called the MIND diet, developed by Martha Claire Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center. The MIND diet is designed to slow cognitive decline and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and early research indicates that it is effective in this regard. The diet emphasizes leafy greens and berry consumption, two elements of the Mediterranean diet known to impact brain health. Another connection between cardiovascular health and brain health is that the brain requires good circulation in order to receive sufficient oxygen. If oxygen is low, the brain cannot make the needed neurotransmitters. We all know that there is a connection between diet and the health of our arteries and veins. One indicator of the health of your vascular system is your blood pressure. There is also a connection through a naturally occurring metabolite – homocysteine. When it gets too high in the blood, it is a serious risk factor for cardiovascular disease and homocysteine also attacks memory and cognition. A study of 1,140 people found that higher homocysteine levels were associated with poorer function across a broad range of cognitive functions. Supplementing with a mix of B6, B12 and folate can lower homocysteine. This can take time, but Oxford researchers found that supplementing with this vitamin mix over a two year period lowered homocysteine and cognitive testing scores jumped by up to 70%.
A good place to start is by beginning to implement a Mediterranean type diet. A good resource for getting started with the diet is the Oldways organization, which provides information on traditional diets. From their website you can download recipes and menu plans. https://oldwayspt.org/traditional-diets/mediterranean-diet