Brain Diet: What do I eat?
Your powerhouse of thought.
Your elegant system of navigation.
How do you eat to make it amazing?
I have had the absolute pleasure of attending two conferences in the last two weeks and I am so excited to share with you some of the pearls of wisdom gleaned there. With great love for one of my family members, I am sharing the following information on brain health and wellness in the hopes that it may inform not only my family, but also you, as to how to care for this amazing elegant structure that is so key to high functioning.
So, what is the brain?
The brain is a highly elegant and changeable structure. Your brain cells, called neurons, are like a forest of profoundly interconnected small trees that attach to each other with long "arms" or "branches", which are called dendrites. Supporting the neurons are a variety of cells that help the neurons create or reinforce connections when you repeat certain thoughts or actions, or learn new things.
In addition to the architecture of the brain, at a more tiny level are the molecules of the brain. Dopamine. Serotonin. Norepinephrine. Acetylcholine. GABA. We have only found 100 brain molecules but there are more molecules yet to be identified.
On a more simplified level, there are sections to the brain: brainstem, limbic system, prefrontal cortex, and cerebellum. The simplified level allows us to understand how certain parts are related to specific kinds of activity.
The brain is also electric, and magnetic. Brainwaves show the electric patterns of the brain. Magnetic field measurement shows the magnetic patterns. Much like your computer and your smart phone run on principles of physics - electromagnetic forces - your brain also has an EM, ElectroMagnetic, mode.
So, the brain, as you can see, is multifaceted, like you.
So, how do you care for these multiple facets? Let's divide the complex brain into four simple areas, and look at what you can do.
BRAIN QUICK FIX
You can bio-hack your diet and lifestyle to support your brain. In addition to what you eat, how the food gets processed in your body and to your brain does depend on your "activity diet", so I have included recommendations for this as well.
For you busy types, here is a summary of key steps to help you boost brain power:
- Support Brain Cells with: magnesium glycinate 200-400 mg daily, calcium in your foods, adequate protein, a bedtime of 10 pm, glutathione or NACC, omega 3 and DHEA. Test for B vitamins, zinc, iron, ferritin, and supplement if needed.
- Balance Brain Molecules with: a probiotic and prebiotic, collagen, daily mindfulness, daydreaming for 5 minutes every hour when at work or problem-solving.
- Optimize Brain Power with: exercise 30 minutes 3-5 times per week at 50-75% heart rate, lift weights, practice mindfulness, yoga, DBT, deep breathing, get professional guidance to reduce stress and distress, avoid simple carbohydrates (flours, processed foods, sugar, high glycemic index foods).
- Brain Physics reset with: practice of different mind states, practice positive feelings and moods. Try increasing your awareness as per instructions below, guided meditations for alpha and theta brainwave states, Heart Math for positive moods, use Muse for brainwave states.
Below is the detailed rationale for the steps above.
Neurons are made of elements to make them electricity work, need to be "cleaned" regularly, and are wrapped in layers of insulation made from healthy fats.
In addition, neurons connect their branches in response to how you choose your habits: thought, action, learning, and more. So, how you choose to think, behave, and interact with others determines how the neurons will connect to make networks that influence how you see your world, and respond to your world.
1/ Elements: Make sure your diet includes a healthy range of nutrients and minerals so that you have the sodium, potassium, and calcium to support neuron "battery power", and that your kidneys and gut work well to support the brain. Consider supplementation with Magnesium glycinate 200-400 mg per day to deepen sleep, slow down the nervous system, and reduce anxiety (1,2). Other supplements to consider include: thiamine (B1), folate (B9), B12, vitamin C, calcium, and zinc. Consult with your physician to assess for deficiencies in these vitamins (3,4).
2/ Clean the brain: Astrocytes, small star-shaped cells in your brain, clean out waste product. They do this during deep sleep, and use glutathione to do so. The lymph system also cleans the brain. So, ensure that your sleep habits and diet and exercise support brain cleaning. Go to bed at 10 pm, avoid food or caffeine in the 3 to 10 hours before sleep, and don't observe blue light devices like your smartphone or computer in the 3 hours before sleep. Consider taking NAC, N-acetylcysteine, to build glutathione, or take foods rich in glutathione like avocado, eggs, turkey, as these may be neuroprotective given antioxidant action in the brain (5,6,7).
3/ Feed your brain fat: Research shows improved thinking and cognitive function when healthy fats are in the diet. Omega 3 and DHEA are proven to be helpful. The fat also turns on antioxidant activity in the brain. Use extra virgin olive oil which increases autophagy, or cleaning up of old cells, in the brain, and eat salmon for DHEA content - wild caught (8,9).
Dave Asprey, founder of the Bulletproof Empire, talks with researchers twice weekly and has research regarding his products occurring in multiple universities. He reviewed healthy fats and explained a few key options for health related to energy and brain cell power: (1) blended butter in coffee suspends the fat droplets in a particular way that ensures quick delivery to mitochondria, supporting energy, (2) caffeine stimulates ketone production (88% increased production of ketones from two small cups of black coffee) so if taken without sugar and with fat then this feeds your neurons which prefer to run on ketones instead of sugar, (3) fasting intermittently from 8 pm to 12 noon or even 2 pm ensures ketone delivery to the brain which results in mental clarity, and (4) caffeine is best mold-free: if you get shaky, anxious, jittery after coffee there is a chance you are reacting to the mold (not everyone does) so then use mold-free coffee - Bulletproof sells this and you can order it online, and (5) he recommends medium chain triglycerides to boost ketone production (from talk at the Feel Good Summit). He also warned against peanuts, which have an unusually large fat molecule that is found with more frequency in the brain of people with dementia. He recommends a specific approach to food.
A large percentage of your brain molecules are made in your gut. Learn how to have a healthy gut and gut microbiome to support these molecules. Alternate between high drive and relaxation to balance molecule use in the brain. Practice mind sets, or mental states, that support healthy brain activity.
1/ Healthy gut for brain health: Bacteria in the gut produce molecules used by the brain, and impact molecule receptors in the brain. About 90% of the serotonin in your body is produced in the gut by microbes, ie bacteria. Good bacteria in the gut increase the number of GABA receptors in the brain, which increases your ability to sleep well, feel calm, inhibit over-thinking (10,11,12,13). Ensure that you have building blocks for these molecules with adequate protein intake. Consider taking a probiotic and prebiotic; however, do note that the same form of bacteria, such as B. Fragilis, can produce beneficial or toxic metabolites depending on the environment in your gut, so do follow up on how any probiotic affects you, and don't take it if it makes you feel worse (14). Eat foods with beneficial bacteria like sauerkraut, miso, yogurt, kefir. Take foods or supplements to heal gut inflammation such as bone broth and collagen.
2/ Balance brain molecules: Alternate between high drive and relaxation by fitting in mindfulness and daydreaming into your daily life. Reduce stress. Reduce strong emotions, aggression, conflict.
3/ Mind states: practice mind states that support health brain activity. These include positive feelings like compassion, kindness, and gratitude, and shifting to more relaxed brainwaves like alpha and delta brainwave rhythms. Learn how to do this with Heart Math or the Muse or simply meditation.
The different sections of the brain relate to different powerful states that contribute to high performance including (1) strong mental processing power, (2) being "even keel" in the face of change, and (3) being confident in your security or safety (9).
1/ Strengthen mental processing power: In the front of our brain, the Prefrontal Cortex or PFC, is a power called "executive function". Here we problem-solve and make decisions on next steps and behaviour. We counter cravings. We set actions to align with values. Strengthen this area with exercise (especially lifting weights), avoiding simple carbohydrates (flours and processed foods, high glycemic index foods, sugar), and limiting fruit intake. Be social. Lift weights to increase brain efficiency (15).
2/ Even keel: keep your cool even in the face of change or strong emotions by learning how to balance your limbic system and adapt to stress. Most of our decisions are based in "emotional cognition", so get clear on how your emotions and feelings work to make this are more smooth, thus enabling you to think more clearly. Exercise to create positive mood chemicals like endorphins and endocannabinoids. Practice mindfulness, yin yoga, yoga nidra. Consider a coach, therapist, or psychiatrist for psychotherapy. Study DBT, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy.
3/ Create confidence: Create a sense of confidence and safety to calm the nervous system. Walk, run, or do another bilateral balancing activity like tai chi, qi gong. Learn how to breathe deeply to stimulate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. See a therapist to heal from past trauma, and remove yourself from unsafe environments.
As described above, your brain has electromagnetic activity. Some of this is seen in brainwaves that shift from Alert problem-solving or high stress activity, called Beta Brainwaves, to chill or Daydreaming activity, called Alpha Brainwaves. You can learn to shift between these states through simple training (13).
The Daydream Mode, or Alpha Brainwave state, literally recharges the brain as there is more voltage in this state, than in the Alert Mode, or Beta Brainwave state. By recharging in Daydream Mode, you improve your ability to solve problems (your executive function), enhance creativity, and reduce anxiety and stress.
1/ Master your brainwaves: become aware of the way Alert Mode, versus Daydream Mode, feels. For five minutes, try math problems, reviewing your finances, focusing on solving a problem. Write down how this feels. Then, for five minutes, daydream about a vacation you would love to take, or how you envision your ideal future, or what it is like to spend time in a place that you love. Write down how this feels. Now try going between the two states. You can also use a Muse, or another brainwave device, to see objective evidence of yourself switching between these two states, or use guided meditations online.
2/ Become more aware: notice in your daily life, when you are in Alert versus Daydream Mode. Especially at work. Set a timer for every hour and then write down, on the same piece of paper, if you are in Alert or Daydream Mode. Notice what percentage of the day you are in each mode. Notice what activities trigger which modes. Notice what you like and dislike about each mode. Note when the Alert Mode is associated with stress, and set a timer to remind yourself to take 10 minutes to practice Daydream Mode at that time of stress and Alert Mode.
I invite you to try a step by step plan to increase your brain health and wellness. Do remember that the information given here is in preliminary stages, so is for your wellness, and does not replace the advice of a medical physician...
Approach one aspect at a time.
week one: sleep
7 PM: Set a reminder on your phone or alarm clock. Turn off all blue light devices: smartphones, computer, TV, artificial lights. Take a walk, talk to a friend, practice yoga, or read. Have water handy to drink so that you avoid eating for an even deeper sleep. You can add lemon or a pinch of cayenne to the water to suppress appetite. Take your supplements. If you take only one, take magnesium which can be liquid, tablet, a skin gel, or as magnesium flakes in your bath. Others to consider include: glutathione or NACC, melatonin to reset sleep schedule, calcium, zinc, thiamine, folate, vitamin C, B12.
9 PM: Start to get ready for bed. Brush your teeth, dry body brush to move lymph fluid, journal, meditate.
10 PM: In bed asleep.
week two: diet
Continue the sleep plan. On Saturday before week two, sit down and create a meal plan for the week. Ensure this includes foods rich in omega 3 and DHEA. Also include alternatives to sugar such as tea, water, fruit that is low glycemic index. Put a sticky note that says "I eat well for my brain and avoid sugar and processed foods" by your bedside and repeat this ten times when you wake up, and ten times when you go to bed. Believe that you are worth this amount of powerful and beautiful self care. Try seeing yourself as a luxury car or property that you want to be in top form, or a beautiful set of jewels or fabric that you want to keep soft, luxurious, exquisite.
Go shopping for your foods, pre-make meals to take with you, and store healthy snack options in places like your bag or purse, your office, your snack cupboard. Place out glass containers of water so that you reach for water first to appease appetite so then you create space to make the right food decision.
Your shopping list may include: avocado, eggs, grass-fed turkey, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, seeds, nut butter, salmon, dark green leafy vegetables as they are high in nutrients, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt, kefir, collagen, bone broth, a prebiotic, a probiotic. Make sure that when you look on the conveyer belt, you have successfully avoided sugar, processed food, fruit, processed oils. You may choose low glycemic index fruit as 10% of the week's options or try a week fruit-free.
Consider trying coffee in the morning: black, or blended with butter. Use mold-free coffee. Try goat or sheep butter blended into the coffee, or use grass-fed cow butter as per Dr. Mark Hyman's recommendations. Don't have coffee past 12 noon or, at the latest, past 2 pm, as metabolites will still be active when you are trying to fall asleep. If you are a slow caffeine metabolizer, then you should not have coffee at noon or later.
week three: activity diet
Continue the sleep and diet plan. Add in a daily activity like walking with a friend, so that you are getting exercise and a social interaction. If you prefer to exercise alone, then focus on what you are grateful for as you spend the time moving your body. The current recommendations are for moderate exercise intensity for at least 30 minutes 3-5 times a week. You can exercise in a fasted state to kill off old mitochondria, and can add in a small cup of black coffee prior to exercise and still be in a fasted state, as per Dave Asprey. Lifting weights after your walk or run can stimulate brain efficiency as per the DR's EXTRA study, as per Max Lugavere. Add in a sauna 4-7 times a week, and you have a 65% reduction of risk for Alzheimer's disease. This is for typical Finnish sauna's which have dry air with intermittent wet air from throwing water on the coals, temperatures 80-100 degrees Celsius, length of sauna not determined.
Also, try increasing social activity, and Daydreaming activity. Practice positive emotions and walk away from negative emotions like anger, anxiety, irritability, sadness, fear. You can also use Heart Math or the MUSE to get you out of a stress state and into a calm state.
I sincerely hope you may find this useful. The information here is preliminary, and not guaranteed to change your brain health or wellness, and does not replace advice from a medical physician. However, you can try some of the above approaches, and notice if you feel more mentally sharp, clear, on it.
Wishing you the best, always,
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- From talk by Dr. Helen Messier at the Autoimmune Functional Medicine Conference 2018.
- From talk by Max Lugavere, authour of Genius Foods, at The Feel Good Summit 2018.