Seven foods to support brain health series

“The brain is the most important organ in the body. If it’s damaged beyond repair then it’s pointless worrying about the rest of the body because it just won’t matter”. Whenever I hear stories about brain health – or brain deterioration – these words come flooding back to me. For this was the on-going discussion between neuro-surgeons and intensivists regarding patient care I found myself in the middle of when I worked in neuro intensive care.

Of course, every organ in the body is important, and when one is under functioning it can impact the whole body. But following a potentially catastrophic head injury or incident, the neuro specialists are right, the focus had to be on recovering as much brain function as possible, sometimes putting other organs like the heart or lungs under extreme pressure to do so. It literally was a life or death situation.

On a normal day, though, most people don’t have to think about how well their brains are working. Or indeed what might be harming this most precious organ little by little, day after day. If like me you have a condition (multiple sclerosis) that impacts brain health, you might well be very aware of how well your brain is functioning! And hopefully taking action to keep it as well as possible.

The brain works really hard every day, even when we sleep. It’s estimated to have 171 billion cells with approximately 86 billion neurons sending messages here, there and everywhere. With far higher functioning than the speediest super computer, the brain performs 100 billion operations every second. Because of this, it’s hungry for energy and nutrients, using around 25% of glucose consumed every day. All these processes create waste products which need removing as fast as possible and support to prevent inflammation from rogue by-products. There really is A LOT going on up there!

It used to be thought that once the brain was damaged, that was it. Job done, no recovery. Not any more. The brain is able to heal in such a way that new pathways are formed around and away from the damaged area. This enables the transmission of nerve impulses that sends messages around the body. This is known as neuro-plasticity. And it’s a wonderful thing!

Neuro-plasticity is also a key part of mindfulness and meditation practices used to manage depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. Focusing on something as simple as the breath stops your mind firing off negative or stressful thoughts. Repetition of the process creates new pathways so positive thoughts become more common than the negative. As I said, it’s a wonderful thing.

With our ageing population, there’s a huge increase in the number of people developing and living with neuro-degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. Some people see this as inevitable, especially if they have certain genes that increase the likelihood of developing these conditions. But having the genes doesn’t mean that’s that. There are things that can be done to prevent them being ‘switched on’. And even if you don’t carry these genes, certain lifestyle practices can either contribute to developing or not developing these chronic health problems.

  • smoking (don’t!)
  • alcohol intake (limit it or avoid it completely)
  • sedentary (get moving for at least 30 minutes 5 times a week)
  • loneliness and social isolation (find your tribe, connect with the local community)
  • stressed all the time (find a practice to reduce it)
  • lack of mental stimulation (keep learning and challenging your brain)
  • poor sleep (take action to improve it but don’t stress if you find it hard)

And of course my focus:

  • Western diet full of refined carbs, saturated fats, animal foods and low fibre and fresh produce (focus on eating a plant-predominant or whole-food plant-based diet full of lovely brain and gut-loving nutrients.

But are there some foods better than others for brain health? Whilst a whole-food plant-based diet provides fabulous anti-inflammatory nutrients that support all parts of the body, research has highlighted some specific ones that are really worth eating on a regular basis – if not daily. These are things I eat all the time, partly because I love them. But particularly because I know my already battered brain loves them even more!

Over the next week, I’m going to share my seven top foods to eat for brain health. Each day I’ll explain why they support the brain and share my favourite ways of eating them. If you don’t already include them in your diet, I hope you will start to think about doing so (as long as you’re not allergic to them of course!). And pay attention to the list above to see what else you can do for your hard working brain.

 

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