We hear so much about taking good care of our heart or liver (the hardest working organs!), but how many of us know how to take good care of our brain?
While not the largest organ (that honor goes to the liver, internally, and the skin, externally), the brain is arguably the most important, the command and control center of the nervous system. Your brain is in charge of both voluntary and involuntary functions, from lifting your mug of coffee to your mouth to breathing.
Due to the toxic nature of our food supply and environment, the brain comes into contact with various neurotoxins that cross the blood-brain barrier (which is in charge of keeping harmful stuff out of the brain) and have the ability to cause major damage. Neurotoxins adversely affect brain tissue and neuron bundles, affecting cognition, mood, motor skills, etc. Examples are heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum); chemicals found in cleaning products, body care products; pollution; pesticides and herbicides, to name a few.
Your brain is always firing. Let’s talk neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are endogenous (internal) chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse, potentiating some kind of action, whether it be inhibitory or excitatory. Examples of neurotransmitters are feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin & dopamine, responsible for mood, weight control, sex drive and sleep; GABA, which has a calming effect; and epinephrine & norepinephrine. So these neurotransmitters need to transmit these signals to and from neurons, but when the neuron bundles are damaged, the neurotransmitters can’t communicate, and there is a kind of misfire.
It’s like a damaged wire that still has the same amount of electricity pulsing through it but not as much reaches the destination because the wire is frayed. Then, shit starts to go awry: you get depressed, anxious, overweight, have memory problems, even Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. All these conditions are linked to insufficiency of neurotransmitters. Addiction, compulsive overeating/eating disorders, obesity, drug abuse and alcoholism are all signs of neurotransmitter insufficiency. If your brain can’t generate and transmit the chemicals that make you feel good, you’ll seek the effects from outside sources, and food/booze/drugs plug up the same receptors in the brain as the neurotransmitters should.
Add to that our processed, sugary, refined food diet that causes inflammation in the gut, body, and brain, leading to dementia. SO. How to take care of all that grey matter?
Eat for Brain Health
The brain is over 60 percent fat, so give it good omega 3s found in salmon, walnuts, leafy greens, grass fed beef/lamb. You also need high quality, adequate protein, because proteins are amino acids that the body uses to synthesize neurotransmitters. I can’t tell you how many depressed vegetarians I’ve worked with. Soy is not the answer! (Click here to read why). Eat organic animal proteins: chicken, organ meats, grass fed beef/bison, wild fish/shrimp, lamb, eggs. Eggs are high in choline, a brain boosting nutrient.
As I mentioned, good fats from animals are essential, but include also coconut oil & butter–the brain and cell membranes need saturated fats. Equally important is to avoid hydrogenated oils and trans fatty acids! Also avoid inflammatory vegetable oils, and use seed oils (such as sesame) sparingly, if at all. Of course, the rest of your diet should be filled with veggies of all kinds.
Anti-inflammatory diet: Sticking to a gluten free diet rich in organic animal proteins, good fats, and veggies of all kinds will decrease inflammation. Gluten, dairy, sugar, drugs (legal and otherwise) and booze are all digestive irritants that increase inflammation. You don’t want inflammation. This is key because if you have an inflamed gut, you will not absorb the nutrients from your food, so even if you’re getting adequate amounts of everything, the raw materials won’t be there to synthesize neurotransmitters and provide fuel to the brain. Also (and interestingly), the brain and gut and intimately connected, so if you have an inflamed gut, chances are high that you have an inflamed brain, too. That means foggy thinking and frequent ‘where did I put my keys’ moments. Read more here.
You also want to make sure you’re adequately detoxing, because all the chemicals we encounter take a toll. We all have a detox system to filter and neutralize toxins. It can become overwhelmed by meds, pollution, chemicals we apply to our bodies, foods that contain preservatives, and alcohol. Keep your liver happy so it can get rid of the chemicals & heavy metals we come in contact with. Remember that your liver has to detox every single thing you eat, breathe, drink, swallow, and apply to your skin, so keep it happy by eating clean, reducing chemical exposure (go for natural products always), and occasionally liver cleansing. Twice a year is good. Click here to download my ebook which gives you a 21-day holistic detox plan.
Additional Lifestyle Habits for Brain Health
- reduce stress. Stress = high cortisol, which puts the body in a state of permanent fight or flight mode and causes brain atrophy. High cortisol also burns out serotonin. So, relax! Deep breathing and just 5-10 minutes of meditation daily will help. Yoga and exercise, too.
- get good sleep. This is important for brain health, stress reduction, and weight management. Aim for 8-9 hours. Click here for my sleep tips.
- stabilize your blood sugar and prevent hypoglycemia and high insulin levels, which cause inflammation in the brain.
- aside from physical exercise, exercise your brain too! do crosswords or word games, and use your non dominant hand for tasks from time to time. This helps fuse new neuronal pathways.
- as I mentioned earlier, eat & live clean and green. Buy organic meats always and veggies/fruits where possible. Buy natural cleaning & body care products.
- avoid MSG, aspartame and fake sugars in diet sodas. Too much refined sugar can affect brain function, too: Alzheimer’s is being considered “type 3 diabetes!” That’s why it’s so important to regulate blood sugar and insulin.
- play word games or memory games to exercise your brain! I love scrabble.
Supplements for Brain Health
- take a vitamin D supplement (we’re very deficient, as a nation)
- krill oil for omega 3s
- probiotic for gut health
- B vitamins are excellent for cognition
- I love this brain formula, rich in carnitine and nutrients for enhanced brain function.
- Anything that supports circulation helps, too, so get enough vitamin C (you can take up to 2,000 mg in divided doses of 500mg each)
- gingko biloba is great for circulation
- phosphatidylcholine (eat eggs for choline, or you can supplement)
Here is a great brain-healthy EASY recipe
Roasted Salmon, no frills
Get as much or as little salmon as you like, always wild. Rub with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. Top with lemon slices and roast at 375 for about 15-20 minutes. Check after 10 minutes. Don’t overcook it–it will still be a little pink in the center but should flake easily. Serve with my kale-bacon-brussels hash (click here for recipe).
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.
Would be great to understand why you require animal protein instead of other forms of protein from a more plant based diet.
Hi Margaret, I certainly don’t require animal protein, but it is the richest and most bioavailable (meaning most easily used by your body) form of amino acids and certain antioxidants like B vitamins zinc, which are very difficult to obtain via plants alone.