Food for Thought: Healthy eating for a sharper brain

    Food for thought - Douglas Magazine Feb/March 2023

    Brain fog is the latest buzzword in our modern world — that fuzzy mental state that can affect productivity and focus. But in this pivoting, problem-solving, changeable era, staying sharp is more essential than ever. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a magic pill to keep your brain in tip-top shape?

    You Are What You Eat

    There may be no magic pill, but there are ways to give your brain a boost, and it starts in the kitchen. Experts say a diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, oily fish and healthy fats like olive oil, is the best defence when it comes to cognitive health.

    “Research shows that the best brain foods are the same ones that protect your heart and blood vessels,” say the brainiacs at Harvard Medical School. Their latest publication, A Guide to Cognitive Fitness, notes sleep, exercise and eliminating stress — behaviours that reduce blood pressure and improve circulation — are all essential for a high-functioning brain.

    The brain is a complex organ, and much still needs to be learned about how exactly our brains work, but neuroscientists know that serotonin plays a role in memory and learning, the omega-3’s found in nuts and fish are necessary for brain function and development, and nutrients in leafy green vegetables and antioxidant-rich blueberries, avocados and beets can fight cognitive decline. 

    Conversely, consuming foods that contain sugar and saturated fats can harm the brain by damaging blood vessels. Studies have shown that high blood sugar leads to significant cognitive decline, especially later in life. And chronic alcohol use actually shrinks the size of your brain and can result in alcohol-related brain damage and dementia.

    Recommendations? Limit sugar and alcohol, avoid trans fats, fried and processed foods, and limit red meat to 12 ounces a week.

    Heal Thyself

    There are all manner of supplements, diets, books and products that promote a healthier brain. The latest is The Better Brain, a new book by Canadian scientists Bonnie J. Kaplan and Julia J. Rucklidge, which looks at how to improve mental health by protecting, supporting and healing the brain with proper nutrition.

    The premise is simple. Like our cardiovascular health, our brain health is linked to diet, and we can treat mental disorders — from anxiety and depression to ADHD — with the foods we eat, especially those that reduce or prevent inflammation in the body.

    Both Kaplan and Rucklidge say their training in medicine and psychology focused on using drugs to treat mental disorders, with minerals and vitamins “of trivial importance.” But they say the latest research proves “our brains need at least 30 micronutrients,” and many of these nutrients are missing in our modern diets. While most people understand how diet impacts heart disease and diabetes, “the public is less aware of the impact of nutrition on brain health,” they write.

    “Given that our society’s food choices have moved so strongly toward ultra-processed products, we need to learn about the substantial scientific evidence proving that micronutrient intake influences mental health symptoms, especially irritability, explosive rage and unstable mood,” they go on to say.

    The Better Brain details Kaplan and Rucklidge’s own brain research with a comprehensive program, including recipes, to feed your brain with the nutrients it needs. The ideal diet for your brain, they say, is “a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.” 

    Promising Commercial Products

    While most nutritionists say it’s the synergy of nutrients in whole foods that are best for the body, some studies have shown that even a regular multivitamin can support the brain.

    And there are new brain-enhancing products, including alcohol-free botanical tonics brewed with “functional mushrooms” by Auralis Botanical Brewing Company in Ontario (the lion’s mane drink is said to enhance focus and concentration), and MOSH protein “brain bars,” created by American journalist Maria Shriver and her son Patrick Schwarzenegger, with brain-boosting ingredients from grass-fed whey protein and cocoa beans to their “brain blend” of flaxseed, bovine collagen, lion’s mane mushrooms, ashwagandha, omega-3’s and B vitamins.

    Thinking clearly and decisively is important in business, whether you’re pitching proposals, answering emails or leading a team in a big project. Food may not make you smarter, but if you find yourself forgetting names or distracted by multitasking and technology, tweaking your daily diet might help. So give your brain a boost and banish the fog with the nutrients it needs. After all, you are what you eat!

    Brain Boosters

    Food for thought - Douglas Magazine Feb/March 2023

    SeafoodFatty fish is loaded with healthy omega-3’s, especially DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), and that’s food for a healthy brain. Eat fish at least once a week, especially salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel or cod.

    NutsAll nuts, with their healthy fatty acids and vitamin E, improve memory by preventing inflammation, but walnuts and almonds are in the superfood category with twice the antioxidants of most nuts, and loads of omega-3s, like alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), for a healthy brain.

    Tea and CoffeeThe good news is that your morning jolt of java may be more than a daily eye-opener. Studies show moderate caffeine consumption improves mental function and might help new memories stick. Just go easy on the sugar.

    Leafy GreensEat your greens is the best advice when it comes to eating smarter. Spinach, kale and arugula are rich in micronutrients including folate and vitamins E and K, protecting the body from damage by toxic free radicals. A daily serving of greens can both prevent cognitive decline as we age and sharpen our memories. 

    BerriesThe flavonoids that give blueberries, blackberries and strawberries their intense colours boost brain health. Berries are loaded with antioxidants and nutrients that stimulate blood flow and aid concentration, and one study shows that consuming two or more servings of berries per week can delay memory decline by up to two and a half years. 

    Other Brainy FoodsSome other brain-boosting foods to add to your diet include beets, high in nitrates and antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain and reduces inflammation; pumpkin seeds that are high in zinc, a mineral that’s vital to brain health; olive oil and avocados, both rich in anti-inflammatory, monounsaturated fats; and eggs, with choline to improve brain function, and tryptophan, the amino acid in serotonin, another brain booster.

    Cinda Chavich is a longtime food writer, author and journalist based in Victoria. Good food, she says, is always your best medicine!