If you read my last blog around gut health, you would have discovered that our gut is known as our second brain. The health of the gut affects how our bodies function.
So what about our brains? And how do we look after its health?
Most people are so busy taking care of their bodies that they neglect to look after their brain. Perhaps they don’t associate it as an organ which needs taking care of when, in fact, your brain is the most important organ in your body!
Your brain keeps your heart beating, lungs breathing and all the systems in your body functioning. Brain health is essential in order for the rest of our bodies to function properly.
In this blog post I will look at the key nutrients and tips for looking after your brain, improving mood, concentration and memory.
The gut brain connection
The gut communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve. This long nerve starts in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes and expresses anxiety and fear, and runs all the way down through the gastrointestinal system to the adrenal glands.
Chemical messages like neurotransmitters and hormones allow the signalling and communication to happen. 90% of that signalling is from the gut to the brain, with only 10% coming from the brain downwards.
So you can see why gut health is so important for brain health and mood regulation.
How food affects your brain
What you choose to eat and drink has an enormous impact on your brain’s health. The foods you eat significantly affects your learning, memory, behaviour and mood.
If you consume a diet that is high in sugar and trans fats, it will not only affect your mood and concentration, it will increase your chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
An unhealthy diet can also cause disruptions with the blood-brain barrier. This is a membrane between your brain and your body’s blood supply that prevents harmful substances from entering the brain, protecting it from toxins and pathogens which could cause a brain infection whilst allowing vital nutrients to reach the brain.
Foods to avoid for a healthy brain
Be wary that too much of the foods listed below can be harmful for your brain and overall health.
You want to limit the following foods:
- Refined carbohydrates like pasta, bread, sweets, cakes and pies.
- Artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, which has been linked to behavioural and cognitive problems, such as learning issues, headaches, seizures, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
- All sugary and fizzy drinks drank long term can lead to a host of health problems including impaired learning and memory.
- Trans fats found in rapeseed oil, margarine, shortening, crisps, fried foods have been linked to cognitive decline.
- Processed foods and junk foods can cause inflammation in the body, which affects the brain.
- Fish like tuna can contain high levels of mercury – too much can affect our central nervous system.
- Alcohol is very inflammatory if consumed in large amounts. Excess amounts of alcohol can damage the nerve cells of the brain (neurons) which can lead to memory loss.
- Avoid all food stored or heated in aluminium containers (more on that later).
You don’t have to cut out these foods altogether. I always say balance is key.
Aim for 80% of your diet being healthy wholefoods, that way you can still eat some of less healthy options if you choose to.
Foods that boost brain health
What’s good for your body is good for your brain, but there are some brain superfoods to make sure you include in your diet.
The brain consists of around 60% fat, so EFAs (Essential fatty acids) are very important for brain health.
Excellent sources of these fats include:
- Brazil nuts
- Chia seeds
- Small oily fish like sardines or mackerel
Pumpkin seeds contain powerful antioxidants that protect the body and brain from free-radical damage. They are excellent sources of magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper, all nutrients important for brain health.
Broccoli and leafy greens
Broccoli contains glucosinolates, when when broken down by the body produces isothiocyanates, a molecule that neutralises carcinogenic toxins in the body. It also contains several compounds that have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, including vitamin K which is essential for forming sphingolipids, a type of fat that’s densely packed into brain cells.
Leafy greens like kale, spinach and rocket are full of nutrients which benefit the brain, such as folate, iron, calcium and vitamins E and K and may help you avoid dementia.
Tackle depression with Turmeric
Turmeric contains curcumin, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and directly enter the brain, benefiting the cells there. It’s a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound linked to improved memory, a reduction in signs of depression, and helps cell growth.
Blueberries beat the blues
Blueberries contain a group of compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects which act against oxidative stress and inflammation, that contribute to brain aging and diseases. They also help with brain cell communication and memory.
What is choline & why do we need it?
We need choline to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in functions like muscle movement, mood and memory. Good sources of choline include: meat, eggs, cauliflower, fish and dairy.
Dark chocolate: A little of what you fancy
Dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants which can help support brain health. It contains flavonoids, a group of antioxidant plant compounds which gather in the areas of the brain that deal with learning and memory and is known to boost mood.
Other useful advice for keeping your brain healthy
Good circulation is essential for brain function as it contributes to a good blood supply to the brain. Regular exercise increases circulation so it’s important to exercise regularly. Find an exercise that works for you, even if all you do is 30 minutes a day!
Exercise is also known to improve mental health by boosting the feel-good hormones which also leads to making better dietary and lifestyle choices.
Aluminium is a heavy metal and has been linked to Alzheimer’s. Avoid storing and heating food in aluminium containers, pots and pans. You can also find aluminium in certain deodorants, cosmetics, toothpaste and baking powder, so ensure to check ingredients.
It’s not just your body that needs exercise – your brain needs it too! Keep your brain active by exercising it regularly. Crosswords, puzzles, arithmetic exercises and learning new skills are great for looking after your brain. Socializing is also known to help the brain.
Make sure to get good quality sleep. When you don’t sleep properly your brain doesn’t function well.
The Better Brain Book by David Perlmutter and Carol Colman is an excellent book if you want to delve into this subject deeper.
I hope you have found this article helpful. If you have any questions or would like to know more about how you can improve your diet and lifestyle for overall better health then feel free to get in touch via the Living Well Hub.