Have you ever thought about how the food you eat directly affects your brain? As its Brain Awareness Week, it’s worth sparing a minute or two to do just that. Do you give your brain what it needs?
The brain is the hungriest organ in the body. Mind you that’s not surprising really as it’s always on the go, managing and controlling everything else in the body, even (and particularly) when we’re asleep. 25% of the body’s energy supply (in the form of glucose, its fuel of choice), is used in the brain
But it’s not just raw fuel that’s used in copious amounts. As well as oxygen and water, the brain relies on us to supply a whole host of nutrients so it can perform well. So along side fatty and amino acids that come from fats and proteins, it desires loads of micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. And these all come from the food we eat, so we literally are what we eat!
When it comes to brain function, quality and content is key. So if you eat a highly processed, nutrient poor diet, high in animal protein and refined fats and sugar, your brain, and the rest of your body, will suffer. It may receive a swathe of bulk nutrients, but not all the essential smaller ones.
And if you are facing a brain-related health challenge, or have a family history of one, then it’s even more important to eat well so you can stay well. Personally, as someone with multiple sclerosis, an incurable autoimmune condition that affects the fatty sheath over nerves in the brain and spinal column, I definitely want to make sure I eat the foods that will help support my body, and my brain in particular. Research indicates that a whole-food plant-based diet, along with other brain-supportive activities like stress reduction and exercise, helps to do just that. This is why I follow Overcoming MS, a 7-step evidence-based programme that covers a variety of actions to take to promote recovery (click here to find out more).
But it’s not just people with MS that can benefit from eating healthy brain foods. Whole plant foods provide lots of anti-oxidants that help to reduce inflammation that can cause damage anywhere in the body, including the brain. Recent studies are showing positive effects for people with Alzheimers Disease for example. This devastating condition builds up over a long period of time; it’s believed that diet and lifestyle during the decades before first signs of cognitive decline are key. So eating a great diet is important for any one, particularly those with a genetic risk.
Anxiety and depression, which affects approximately 1:6 people in the UK, can also be improved with diet. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for mood, is mainly made in the gut. If you eat a poor diet, gut health suffers. And as 90% of serotonin, the neurotransmitter connected to mood, is made in the gut, if you have poor gut health, you just won’t be able to make enough happy chemicals. Eating great food really can improve your mood.
All whole plant-based foods provide nutrients that support the body by providing wonderful nutrients and anti-oxidants to reduce inflammation – I talk about this more in my book Eat Well Live Well with The Sensitive Foodie. There are however a few shining stars that are particularly good for the old grey matter.
Dark leafy greens like kale and spinach. It’s always a great idea to eat your greens; when it comes to brain health, research shows that they can help keep brains 11 years younger. Now that’s really worth knowing!
Nuts, particularly walnuts (they even look like a brain!) which have a good amount of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids in balance with omega 6 and almonds that have lots of anti-inflammatory vitamin E**
Berries like raspberries, blueberries and strawberries all contain fantastic amounts of vitamin C and other anti-oxidant phytonutrients that help reduce inflammatory damage. They also taste delicious!
Wholegrains like brown or red rice, wholewheat (if you’re not gluten intolerant) and oats all have good sources of fibre that support the microbiome and promote a healthy brain/gut connection, as well as a range of B vitamins and even omega 3 fatty acids.
Seeds, in particular flaxseed and chia seeds which are fantastic sources of plant-based omega 3 fatty acids, but also whole sunflower and pumpkin seeds that have a good balance of health fats as well as other supportive phytonutrients and fibre.
If you make sure you have a range of these every day, your body, and particularly your brain, will love you for it. Many of the recipes you can find here on my blog include these ingredients – why not try a few to boost your brain power?
**Vitamin E has powerful anti-oxidant effects. Research suggests it is best to get it directly from food rather than supplements.