It's real: Brain food, or maybe "brain fertilizer" is more accurate. Regardless, over the last five years we've learned that we can grow new brain cells. The technical term for the growth of new neurons is "neurogenesis", and it's kind of a big deal.
Lucky for us, fertilizing our brains is as eat as choosing the right foods to nosh on, and the best supplements to swallow.
Yup, that's right, we can fertilize our brains with food's micro- and macronutrients. Now, it's important to note that while we can improve our cognition with diet, we can also f*ck it up royally by eating the wrong foods for extended amounts of time.
In fact, according to 2013 journal article, “Poor dietary habits are likely contributors to the surge of neurological and psychiatric disorders in the last decade.” Bet you were't ready for that truth bomb.
Guys, girls, ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in between: WHAT WE EAT MATTERS. A LOT.
Let's take a look at what you need to pack your plate with in order to achieve Einstein-caliber thoughts. [And yes, this is all straight from the scientific literature.]
1. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
WHY: First off, the body can't make omega-3s. We must eat them. They are essential to brain sturuture. Most scientific literature notes that DHA, one of the two subclasses of omega-3s (O-3), makes up about 1/3 of our brain. That's incredible. Our brain is made up of a 1/3 of a fat that we can only get from our DIET. Let that sink in.
What are the implications? It means we better be eating our seafood, fish, and fully grass-fed bison, lamb, and beef. Sure, there are some omega-3s in seeds and nuts, but the body is terrible at converting those types of O-3s to the utilizable form of DHA.
This graph (to the right - link for article at the bottom of this post) comparing consumption of fish to rates of "major" depression explains a lot. The relationship is inverse; those who ate less fish were more depressed.
Check it: "Over the past 100 years, the intake ... linoleic acid and trans fatty acids has increased dramatically in Western civilizations, whereas the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has decreased. This might explain the elevated incidence of major depression in countries such as the United States". Another example of food as medicine.
O-3s also play a significant roll in increases BDNF, a brain chemical that increases "synaptic plasticity" aka the ability for us to comprehend, to grow new brain cells, to learn, etc. Low levels of BDNF have been correlated (which doesn't mean causation) with Alzheimers Disease, poor neural development, and accelerated neural aging.
To be honest, I could plaster this entire post with quotes about why we should all be eating a can or two of sardines per day to get more O-3s. If there is one thing the scientific literature is sure about regarding foods for cognitive support, it's the positive correlation between the O-3, DHA consumption and healthy, thriving brains.
HOW: Eat more fresh, canned, smoked, cold smoked fish (smaller, cold water fish are best) and supplement with a molecularly distilled, pharmaceutical grade DHA (I like Nordic Naturals the best, by far) or krill oil. While supplementation, like diet is individual talk to your health practitioner about taking between 3 to 6 grams of DHA per day.
2. Polyphenols; a Class of Antioxidants
WHY: Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant - a protective chemical that decreases inflammatory oxidation in the body - that "various studies have suggested... may protect against cancer, cardiometabolic and neurodegenerative diseases."
The scientific literature shows that certain types of polyphenols can increase Nerve Growth Factor and increase the aforementioned beneficial brain chemical, BDNF.
For instance, curcuminoids, from turmeric, and olive leaf extracts have been documented to protect the brain and enhance cognition (in mice, but still, super cool!).
HOW: Consume green tea, black tea, cacao, turmeric, olive leaf extract and olives, pomegranate concentrate, cloves, black pepper, other aromatic spices and herbs, capers, flax meal, and chestnuts as frequently as possible.
3. Healthy Insulin Sensitivity (aka good blood sugar regulation)
WHY: Too much sugar causes insulin resistance. Insulin is the chemical that unlocks cells to they can take in sugar and use it to make chemical energy.
When cells "resist" insulin's chemical key-like action, the cells stay locked and sugar can't get in. Instead the sugar (which is very "reactive" and therefore inflammatory) stays in the blood stream and wreaks havoc on our most valuable tissues. Not optimal. Not at all.
One article even notes that insulin resistance can cause decreased blood flow to the brain causing reduced memory, and brain function:
"Accordingly, we might expect that the animals with the highest insulin resistance may demonstrate a lower cerebral blood flow, and therefore less brain plasticity. In other words, insulin resistance and impairment of the insulin receptor signaling cascade in the hippocampus may be accompanied by decreasing regional blood flow and reduced memory."
Keep your cells sensitive to insulin, that's how they get their food and how we keep potentially harmful sugar out of our blood stream.
HOW: Eat WHOLE foods. Cook your own meals. Protein at every meal and snack. Eat fiberous foods like beans, legumes, vegetables, winter squash, low sugar fruits, seeds, and raw nuts. Drink water. Eat fatty foods like fish, avocado, coconut, ghee, pastured meats and raw nut butters. Avoid baked goods, juice, sports drinks, bread, pasta, crackers, and the like.
Yes, there is a TON of information here. Yes, there is more to come. We've go to nourish our brains if we want to continually to push our physical, mental, and spiritual limits. Stay tuned for Part II friends.