After a long rainy run, waiting for Dane to return from another epic 3 hour surfing experience, I now have time to write another blog post…and this one is based off of my class on Brain Food.
The brain is highly metabolic, utilizing many nutrients in order to function properly. There are neurons and neurotransmitters that all require a nutrient dense diet in order to work optimally. However, the Western diet is full of foods that cause inflammation to the brain and generally are nutrient poor. Consequentially many metabolic imbalances occur including decreased cognition, increased risks of Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Eating a diet that supports brain health, as well as leading an active lifestyle, can help increase overall wellbeing and cognitive function.
Ditch Refined Vegetables Oils
Refined vegetable oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and grapeseed are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Although omega-6 fatty acids are essential we are getting too many in our diets today. Why is this of a concern? Omega-6 fatty acids release chemicals that promote inflammation in our bodies. Although we need to have some of these chemicals to help fight off an infection or a fever, if we have too many all the time, chronic inflammation can cause us harm, especially in the brain. The brain is made of 60% fat. And if we eat too many omega-6 fatty acids, more of these fatty acids will be utilized, promoting more inflammation.
Tip: Purchase quality cooking oils such as unrefined extra virgin olive oil, unrefined avocado oil, unrefined coconut oil, organic ghee, and unrefined flax/hemp oil.
Eat More Omega-3 Rich Foods
Did you know that a deficiency in omega-3 has been associated with an increased risk for ADHD, dementia, depression, and anxiety?
Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory. In order to ensure good fatty acid balance in the brain we need to make sure to eat enough omega-3 rich foods. By reducing omega-6 intake and increasing omega-3 intake we can hopefully balance the ratio between the two. Remember they are both ESSENTIAL fatty acids. However, the Western diet is often 15-20x higher in omega-6 than in omega-3.
Tip: To help ensure good EPA and DHA status, eat deep water fatty fish such as wild caught salmon, sardines, and black cod 2x per week.
Ensure Adequate Choline Intake
Did you know that 50% of Americans may be deficient in choline?
Choline is a phospholipid found in every cell membrane and is found in large amounts in liver (418mg) and eggs (125mg) and lesser amounts in soy (57mg) and wheat germ (25mg). Vegans and vegetarians must make sure to get adequate amounts in their diet to avoid deficiencies. It plays an important role in neurotransmitter production, detoxification, and helps reduce high levels of homocysteine along with many B vitamins. Choline is especially important during pregnancy for the developing brain of the fetus.
Tip: Enjoy pasture-raised eggs for breakfast multiple times per week. Or if you are feeling adventurous try this liver pate as an appetizer.
Eat Plenty of Foods Rich in B Vitamins & Magnesium
Did you know that 50% of depressed individuals are deficient in folate? And that low levels of B12 are linked to a 5x increase in Alzheimer’s Disease? And that B6 deficiency may contribute to the onset of depression?
Getting adequate B vitamins through your diet is just as important for optimal brain functions as is getting enough omega-3 fatty acids. In fact researchers have found that B vitamins helped improve cognitive function more than just omega-3 on its own. Folate and vitamins B6 and B12 play very important roles in a cycle called methylation. If this cycle is not working properly many side effects are seen due to high levels of homocysteine impacting brain health and function as well as many other body systems. However, not only is the Western Diet poor in B vitamins, but also the elderly, women taking contraceptives, and those that abuse drugs and alcohol have an increased need for these vitamins. Vegans need to supplement with B12 as it is only found in animal products.
- Foods rich in folate include: lentils, chickpeas, asparagus, and more.
- Foods rich in Vitamin B6: chickpeas, salmon, tuna, beef liver, sweet potatoes, bananas, and more.
- Foods rich in Vitamin B12: clams, liver, fish, dairy products, and eggs.
Many Americans are not getting enough magnesium via their diet because it is found mostly in beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. However it is an essential mineral and is need in over 350 enzymatic actions throughout the body. Specifically for brain health, magnesium is needed to help make neurotransmitters.
Tip: Eat at least 1 serving of each whole grains and beans or legumes every day!
Eat Plenty of Antioxidant Rich Food
Did you know that individuals that consumed dark cocoa, tea, and red wine have enhanced cognitive performance?
All plants are rich in phytonutrients. Each color indicates a different variety with its own unique benefits. However, the plants darkest in color such as berries and dark leafy greens, red yams, carrots, etc contain the most. Herbs and spices are also very rich in phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are potent antioxidants, preventing damage to cell membranes and reducing inflammation. Those most studied for brain health include blueberries, grapes, dark cocoa, tea, and red wine (1/2 glass per day).
Tip: To ensure adequate intake of antioxidant rich foods try to make half your plate fruits and veggies and cook with fresh herbs and spices daily.
Get Your Food-Based Probiotics Daily
Did you know that your gut is considered your second brain, also known as the enteric nervous system?
Having a gut feeling is more than just a saying! There is a nerve called the vagus nerve that connects the brain to the entire gastrointestinal tract. It aids in the release of digestive enzymes and helps in food absorption. Also it seems that the brain can alter the gut bacteria along our GI tract and that our gut bacteria can lead to behavioral changes. It is a two-way communication! For example, leaky gut can lead to many cognitive and mental changes including depression, fatigue, confusion, and poor memory. Also stress impacts our mental state by changing our gut bacteria. For example, prior to a presentation or large exam often times people experience diarrhea from anxiety. This is just a simple indication of how our guts and our minds are intrinsically connected.
Also, did you know that 80-90% of serotonin is produced in the GI tract? This feel good neurotransmitter predominantly plays a role in reducing the speed at which food is emptied from the stomach as well as acid secretion. Without adequate amounts of serotonin we can experience insomnia and have depressive feelings.
Therefore, having a healthy gut is very important to having a healthy mind. Not only is a compromised gut going to have a reduced ability to absorb the vitamins and nutrients we need. But also, the gut, our bacteria, and our minds are all able to communicate via the vagus nerve.
Studies have found that supplementing with probiotics can alter the way humans, as well as rats, react to certain life stressors. Probiotics have shown to reduce anxiety like behavior and improve feelings of depression and anger.
Tip: Get your food-based probiotics daily via naturally fermented yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, etc, to encourage a healthy gut flora.
Move Your Body Outside
Exercise is very important for brain health. Researchers have found that exercise alone helps increase Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a fertilizer for the brain. High levels of BDNF have been associated with increased cognitive function and decreased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. Even more interestingly, researchers found that daily exercise and adequate omega-3 status, increased BDNF more so than either alone. So get your exercise and eat your fatty fish!
Tip: Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days per week. Do what you enjoy! Dance, swim, walk, hike, run, etc.
Another benefit of being active outdoors is that you can soak up the sun rays and produce vitamin D naturally via the UVB rays hitting your skin. Vitamin D plays many roles throughout the body, including reducing inflammation in the brain, supporting neuronal growth, and protects against excitotoxicity. However, if you are located in the Pacific Northwest or anywhere above the 42nd parallel, during the months of October thru March there is inadequate UVB production to synthesize vitamin D from the sun. Therefore, supplementing with vitamin D during the fall and winter months can be very helpful. Speak with your practitioner regarding what a safe amount would be for you. Food sources rich in vitamin D include mushrooms, fatty fish, fish liver, eggs, and fortified dairy/nut milks, and juices.
Stress alone suppresses BDNF—that powerful brain fertilizer. It also negatively impacts the good bacteria in your gut. Finding ways to manage your daily stress can help decrease inflammation and enhance cognitive function. Deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress and stimulate the “REST & DIGEST” nervous system.
Tip: Close your eyes and take 5 deep breaths prior to each meal and during times of stress to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
When you are dehydrated often times your mental function is impaired. You process information much more slowly and have difficulty concentrating. Often times people mistake signals of dehydration as hunger. Most importantly, start your day with a fresh glass of water before you reach for the coffee. During night your body naturally releases a lot of water through your breath and perspiration. Ensuring adequate hydration can be a simple fix to your brain fog and can help with weight maintenance.
Tip: Drink half your weight in fluid oz (opt for filtered water whenever possible).
Below you will find a delicious recipe, perfect for the fall weather, that will nourish your body, mind, and soul. It is rich in antioxidants (especially vitamin A), vitamins (especially B6), minerals (especially zinc and magnesium), fiber and plant based protein. This soup is made with Garnet Yams. They are often called both a yam or a sweet potato. At your grocer just look for the potato with dark red skin and orange flesh. Although I use bone broth to increase the protein, this soup can easily be made vegan or vegetarian by swapping out the bone broth for a vegetable broth. I prefer Imagine “No Chicken” Vegetable broth for best flavor. See note at the bottom of the recipe for further information. Serve this soup with a side salad, like this massaged kale salad, or this Emerald City salad. OR simply serve with a piece of whole grain toast topped avocado, a sprinkle sea salt, and sprouts.
Spiced Garnet Yam Soup with Chickpea Croutons
For the Chickpea Croutons
2-15 oz canned garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons avocado oil
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon cumin powder
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
½ teaspoon sea salt
For the Soup:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 small shallot, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ teaspoons coriander seeds, ground in a clean coffee grinder
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
3 medium-sized red garnet yams, peeled and cubed
1 cup cashews, soaked for 4 hours in warm water
4 cups Pacific Chicken Bone Broth (can also use Imagine “No Chicken” Vegetable Broth)**
2 cups fresh water
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Generous pinch cayenne
¼ cup freshly chopped cilantro
To make the croutons: Preheat the oven to 400° F. Mix the avocado oil, and spices in a small bowl. After rinsing and draining the chickpeas, place them onto a clean kitchen towel and rub dry. Pick out the chickpeas, leaving behind any of the skins that have come off and transfer them into the bowl with the spices. Mix well with a spoon until they are evenly coated. Spread the chickpeas on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (optional) and bake for ~50 minutes, until crispy and crunchy. Shake the baking sheet half way through to ensure even cooking. Take them out of the oven and set aside to cool.
To make the soup: Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the onion and shallot. Saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, ground coriander (use coffee grinder to grind whole seeds), salt and pepper, and mix until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the sweet potatoes and sauté another 2 to 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, strain the soaked cashews and place into a high speed blender. Add 2 cups of broth, and blend on high until completely smooth. This is your extra smooth savory cashew cream. Pour the mixture into the soup stock, add the remaining broth, and fresh water. Stir and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat to low and let it simmer for 20 minutes, or until sweet potatoes are soft.
Remove from the heat and purée the soup with an immersion blender. Add the honey, lemon juice, cayenne, and additional salt and pepper to taste. Return to heat and warm. When ready to serve, garnish the soup with a handful of chickpea croutons, fresh cilantro, and a drizzle of olive or avocado oil.
Note: The cashews can be substituted for an even amount of coconut milk if desired. Also, reheating the chickpea croutons at 425 degrees for 5-10 minutes can add extra crunch if they absorbed moisture after the first roasting.
**When substituting the broth with vegetable stock use ½ teaspoon less of sea salt as the vegetable broth generally contains more sodium. Use additional sea salt to taste at the end.
--Recipe inspired from www.Food52.com by Aysegul Sanford Jan 2015--
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