It’s common knowledge we need food for energy and muscle repair, but what you may not realise is that certain foods and lifestyle traits can boost memory, improve mood and provide protection against age-related cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. To find out more about brain health and the golden rules for optimal cognitive function, we sat down with nutritionist and bestselling author Christine Bailey...
What are the signs your brain isn’t performing at its best?
Even at rest, your brain uses somewhere between 20-30% of your energy intake, emphasising the important role it plays in your overall health. It therefore goes without saying that a poorly functioning brain can affect many different aspects of your health – from brain fog and difficulty concentrating, to disrupted sleep, poor energy levels, feeling tired, wired or relying on caffeine and sugar to get you through the day. If any of these traits sound familiar, chances are you could benefit from boosting your brain health.
What affects brain health?
Insufficient sleep, stress and a lack of regular exercise are the main players that affect the brain, whatever your age. Aerobic exercise in particular can increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor – our brain’s growth hormone), reverse memory decline and support the growth of new brain cells. Staying active will also improve communication between the cells by building new networks in the brain – helping us to recall information and think more clearly. Finally, exercise can help to reduce stress levels, support healthy blood-sugar levels, lower inflammation and improve the insulin sensitivity of cells, all of which are vital for long-term brain health.
What about diet?
What you eat also plays a significant role in brain health. Certain foods can be inflammatory for the brain – these include foods you know you are allergic to, chargrilled and processed foods, artificial sweeteners, sugar, gluten, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, food additives, and preservatives. In short, stay away from junk and fast foods.
So, should we avoid gluten for a healthy brain?
Yes. Gluten is one of the biggest causes of inflammation in the body, so it should be cut out entirely for optimal brain health. Gluten has been shown to increase levels of the protein zonulin in the gut, leading to leaky gut syndrome; this gut permeability allows undigested food proteins and toxins to pass into the blood stream, activating an inflammatory-immune response throughout your body, including your brain.
What about fad diets – how do these affect the brain?
As the brain is 70% fat, a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats is crucial to promote good brain health, so it goes without saying a fad, low-calorie diet will do your body no favours. At the same time, try to avoid a diet high in refined carbs, which can disrupt blood glucose levels and trigger inflammation. That said, there has been lots of evidence about the benefits of fasting and the ketogenic diet, which essentially limits carbohydrate intake to a maximum of 50g per day.
So, what are good options for snacks and meals?
With a weight of 1.3kg (3lb), our brains are one of our heaviest organs, demanding more oxygen and glucose than any other organ and using around 30% of the body’s glucose and 20% of your daily calorie intake. A healthy diet is therefore key to support a healthy brain. Here are some ideas...
Breakfast: Any kind of eggs (never exclude the yolk – this is packed with the building blocks to boost mood) with a couple of servings of vegetables is a great way to start the day. The likes of kale, spinach, broccoli and asparagus are all good sources of vitamin K, a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential for forming a type of fat that’s abundant in healthy brain cells.
Lunch & supper: Try to base your meals on a serving of lean protein alongside plenty of vegetables and gluten-free grains. Look to the Mediterranean diet for inspiration and don’t forget to include pulses, which are packed full of soluble fibre and slow-releasing carbs.
Snacks: Only snack if you’re very hungry or have a long time till your next meal, and focus on protein and healthy fats to keep blood sugar levels balanced. Nuts contain an array of brain-healthy nutrients including healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamin E; walnuts are particularly high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been proven to support brain function. Greek yoghurt, berries and kale crisps are also good options.
Sweet treats: There are over 300 naturally-occurring chemicals in chocolate, and some of them can affect the human brain via the release of particular neurotransmitters, which affect how we think and feel. A recent study found that eating 40g of dark chocolate daily for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in highly anxious individuals.
Which supplements support brain health?
Supplementing with vitamin D and omega-3 fats is a good place to start. Depending on your health history and current health concerns, you may also wish to consider an antioxidant formula for protection and B vitamins, which help with lowering raised homocysteine – a high level of which has been associated with cognitive decline.
Are stimulators such as caffeine good or bad for the brain?
The latest studies on coffee revealed that moderate amounts can benefit the brain. Many controlled trials have examined the effects of caffeine on the brain, demonstrating that caffeine can improve mood, reaction time, memory, vigilance and general cognitive function.
Is there a connection between the gut and brain?
Absolutely. As well as being connected physically, the brain is also connected to the intestines through your gut microbes. Research suggests including probiotic rich foods like yogurt and kefir in your diet may boost your mood and reduce your stress response.
Finally – what are three top brain boosters?
- Lean protein sources: such as organic meat, fish and eggs, will provide the amino acids (i.e. the building blocks) for brain neurotransmitters.
- Plenty of healthy fats: omega-3, monounsaturated fats and phospholipids, which are essential components of a healthy brain.
- Colourful vegetables: these provide crucial vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to protect and nourish the brain.
The Brain Boost Diet Plan: 4 Weeks To Optimise Your Mood, Memory & Brain Health For Life by Christine Bailey is available now on Amazon.
For more information visit ChristineBailey.co.uk