Foods That Improve Brain Health
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Food has a great impact on our lives. Unfortunately, some of us do not realize this until we have suffered an illness. I could list all the good foods and bad foods here but I hope you read through this article and see the other factors that relate to improving brain health.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A HEALTHY BRAIN.
Your brain is that the center of your body and communicates with your heart and most other abdominal organs via your vagus nerve. Because of this, your brain is involved with movement, coordination, breathing, heart rate, and your five senses. And if that isn’t enough, your brain also helps you learn, create, store memories, navigate the world, and process external inputs.
It controls executive function: a set of skills that includes focus, planning, decision-making, working memory, time management, and selfcontrol. This is why focusing on good brain health is so important to living your best life! While your brain may be a small percentage of your total body weight, it uses about 20 percent of all the energy expended by your body.
We used to think the brain ran on carbohydratebased fuels only, but recent studies show that the brain may run even more efficiently when fueled by ketones resulting from fat metabolism. This state is called ketosis. One way to improve your brain health is to make sure you have metabolic flexibility, meaning your body will effortlessly switch back and forth between using carbs or ketones as fuel. We all know that brain cells die throughout our lives due to injury, aging, and various assaults such as infections and toxins.
Only recently have we understood that we can grow new brain cells (neurogenesis) and make new neural connections in response to learning and experience (neuroplasticity) throughout our lives. These are two exciting and positive new discoveries that should inspire us and give us hope for lifelong brain health. A critical protein that plays a key role in creating new brain cells is BDNF (brainderived neurotrophic factor). the great news is that there are many choices within your control that influence the production of BDNF. Exercise is the most powerful of these choices, but diet, lifestyle, and supplements like curcumin and omega3 fatty acids are also helpful to facilitate neurogenesis. This is a powerful and important message!
You probably know that what you eat and drink can affect your heart health, but did you know that it can affect your brain health as well? Generally, speaking the things that are good for your heart are also good for your brain. Great news! Because you eat multiple times a day, you have many opportunities to make choices that keep your brain functioning well.
Before we talk about individual foods that may improve cognitive function, let’s look at broader dietary options that support good brain health. Both the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet (a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet) are associated with less cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Those who adhere most closely to the Mediterranean diet retain more brain volume and have a reduced risk of major chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. What are the foods common to these dietary plans? They all encourage eating fish, lean meats, plentiful fresh produce, olive oil, high-fiber legumes, and whole grains (if tolerated) while minimizing salt, sugar, and processed foods. Are you already experiencing brain fog or early cognitive decline? Then you may want to take it one step further and consider the Ketoflex 12/3 food plan. This way of eating, promoted by Dr. Dale Bredesen, reduces inflammation even further and puts your body into mild ketosis allowing your brain and body to burn ketones.
You achieve ketosis by eating a colorful plantrich diet, clean proteins, reducing your carbohydrate intake (like whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables), increasing healthy fats, and incorporating at least a 12-hour fast each night which includes a threehour fast before bedtime. If you carry an ApoE4 gene, you may want to gradually increase your overnight fast to 14 to 16 hours or more. As part of a comprehensive personalized approach.
The Ketoflex 12/3 food plan has contributed to reversing symptoms of cognitive decline, even earlystage Alzheimer’s. Exploring one of these approaches to eating may be a great place to start on your journey to better brain health! Remember, there’s not one ‘best’ diet for everyone – work with your healthcare provider to find the best one for you.
METABOLIC FLEXIBILITY AND MILD KETOSIS
What is ketosis and why might it be helpful? By achieving a state of mild ketosis, your body and brain become metabolically flexible to burn ketones or glucose as fuel, and this can improve your brain function. It is especially helpful to achieve mild ketosis if you are experiencing any insulin resistance or cognitive decline and if you carry the ApoE4 gene. Look out for the keto flu as you adapt to eating fewer carbohydrates and generating your own endogenous ketones.
Keto flu is a cluster of transient symptoms like headaches, nausea, brain fog, fatigue, and lightheadedness that is often experienced when the body is transitioning to creating endogenous ketones. It is thought to be caused by dehydration and lost minerals. Make sure you ingest plenty of electrolytes to prevent these symptoms while your body transitions to burning fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.
If you experience keto flu symptoms or feel that you need more energy during the adjustment period, you may want to consider using exogenous ketone esters or salts, such as Perfect Keto or KetoneAid brands, to provide your body with fuel. But remember, the goal is to eventually generate your own endogenous ketones. Keep track of your ketone levels at home by using a blood test like Keto Mojo and Precision Xtra, or a breath test like Biosense you get the fatty acids that your brain needs.
Eating enough fat is important, but the type of fat you eat also matters. For optimal brain health, your body needs the correct balance of omega3 ALA, EPA, and DHA as well as omega6 linoleic acid. Your body can’t produce ALA or linolenic acid and is not efficient at making EPA and DHA, so look for food or supplement sources of these essential fatty acids.
These nutrients are especially important for brain formation and optimal brain functioning because they support neuroplasticity and help you avoid dementia. Focusing on adding more omega3 fatty acids to your diet may be helpful. You may also need to add a highquality supplement to meet your needs for these important nutrients.
(Note that some omega6 fatty acids such as GLA can be antiinflammatory. (These may be found in borage oil or evening primrose oil.) So, embrace eating enough good quality fats to give your brain the nutrients and essential fatty acids it needs to function well. What are good quality fats? Some examples include olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, salmon, nuts, and seeds.
WILD CAUGHT FATTY FISH
You’ve probably heard that fish is brain food. In truth, fatty fish is one of the best dietary sources of essential omega3 fatty acids, contains high-quality protein, and is associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline. Focus on getting at least two servings of fatty fish per week. Make sure to select wild-caught over farm raised options since they generally have a more favorable fatty acid profile and may contain fewer toxins from the feed.
Choose mainly from the cold water “SMASH” fish: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring, because they have a shorter lifespan and less time to accumulate mercury which has been linked to memory loss and other health issues. Higher concentrations of mercury have been found in some patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
If you choose to eat meat, choose 100% grass fed for a better fatty acid profile (higher omega3 to omega6 ratio, which may be less inflammatory). Meat from animals fed exclusively grass contains two to five times more polyunsaturated omega3 fatty acids than meat from feedlot animals. Make sure that the animals are not “grain-finished” for the most supportive nutrients.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Enjoy eating nuts and seeds daily on their own or in your smoothies or salads. They contain good-quality fats, fiber, magnesium, and other nutrients. Nuts such as walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and contain many other phytochemicals important for minimizing inflammation. They have been found to encourage the growth of new brain cells and improve communication between neurons. If you are following a ketogenic diet and trying to reduce your carbohydrate intake, macadamia nuts or sacha inchi seeds are optimal choices as they are low in carbs.
Flax seeds are a very rich wholefood source of the omega3 fatty acid ALA. You can get the benefits from the seeds themselves or from flax oil. If you eat the seeds, be sure to grind or mill them to allow for better digestion and absorption of the nutrients. Chia seeds are also rich in omega3 and other polyunsaturated fatty acids. A oneounce serving has five grams of complete protein (contains all the essential amino acids). Proteins are one of the building blocks of neurotransmitters that improve mood and brain functioning.
Be sure to eat a large variety of plant foods. These are rich in phytonutrients such as polyphenols and have powerful antioxidant and antiinflammatory effects which support your brain. These compounds reduce your risk for chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Many phytonutrients give plant foods their colors. To make sure you are eating these brain protective compounds, choose a variety of plant foods in different colors to increase your intake of protective polyphenols and other phytonutrients in your diet.
To include a wide variety of polyphenolic compounds in your diet, eat plant foods in every color. Eat green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, and summer squash. These foods contain high levels of flavonols, carotenoids, and anthocyanins that may protect against developing Alzheimer’s disease or reduce the neurotoxicity of the betaamyloid in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Include brown plant foods too by eating more mushrooms. They are full of powerful antioxidants like glutathione.
COLD PRESSED EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Perhaps the richest source of polyphenols is freshly coldpressed extra virgin olive oil which protects your memory and learning ability and reduces the classic markers of Alzheimer’s. Because olive oil is such an important part of the Mediterranean diet, it may be responsible for much of the brain-protective Page 1 effect of that food plan.
When you choose an extravirgin olive oil, pay attention to the color of the oil (darker is better) and consume it as close to the pressing date as possible. Polyphenols are easily oxidized themselves, so protect them in your olive oil by keeping the oil away from light or heat, and storing it in a dark bottle.
EAT TO REDUCE TOXINS
We mentioned earlier how important it is to remove toxins from the body to improve brain health. Eat vegetables from the Brassica family to help you detox: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Be sure to eat them chopped and raw or lightly steamed to release the most sulforaphane—a potent antioxidant that helps the liver remove toxins.
For the highest sulforaphane intake, grow and eat your own broccoli sprouts. Also consider adding lemons, garlic, parsley, cilantro, dandelion greens, and supplements like milk thistle and glutathione, which all support your body’s ability to detox effectively.
Eating for your brain includes eating more eggs, especially eggs from pastureraised chickens. There is no reason to fear eating these superfoods, and this includes the yolk! Eggs contain many vitamins and high levels of choline, a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is critical for learning and memory and can help you sleep better too.
And remember, eggs aren’t just for breakfast—enjoy them all day long. Note that since eggs are one of the top allergens, you should be mindful of any symptoms like runny nose, congestion, headaches, or cramps within 72 hours of eating eggs.
HYDRATE WITH HEALTHY BEVERAGES
The beverages you drink can be just as important as the foods you eat when it comes to your brain health. Drink a full glass of filtered water when you wake up to replenish the fluids your brain and the lymphatic system lost overnight. Even a dehydration loss of less than 1% of your body weight can make a difference in your memory, cognition, and ability to detox, so drink clean filtered water frequently throughout the day. Berkey, Aquasana, and AquaTru are brands of water filters you may want to consider for your home.
Include antioxidantrich green tea, coffee (just a little, and not too late in the day), or mushroominfused beverages like the Four Sigmatic brand to give you a boost in focus and cognition. Regularly drinking siliconrich mineral water can decrease levels of aluminum in your brain. Tart cherry juice and beet juice can help reduce your blood pressure and increase blood flow to your brain. There are lots of ways to drink yourself for brain health!
OPTIMIZE YOUR GUT HEALTH, FEED YOUR GUT BACTERIA
We’ve talked about what you should eat to nourish your body and brain, but did you know you should also take care of your gut health and feed the good organisms that live in your gut? Inflammation and leaky gut often go hand in hand. When you have a leaky gut, undigested food, toxins, and other substances that should be eliminated as waste may enter your bloodstream instead, causing inflammation. To reduce inflammation and prevent leaky gut, first identify and eliminate the foods to which you are sensitive.
Then eat prebiotic fiber including resistant starch so your gut organisms can thrive and protect your health. They produce shortchain fatty acids like butyrate that keep your gut healthy and may be critical for communication between your gut and your brain. Some good foods to include are dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, green bananas, jicama, and apples. Resistant starch examples include cooked and cooled sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and rice.
PROVIDE YOUR BRAIN WITH THE HORMONES IT NEEDS
Optimal hormone levels are critical for maintaining cognitive abilities such as memory, thinking, problem-solving, spatial ability, and even emotion for both men and women. Studies have found that hormonal fluctuations are one of the key factors that cause defects in cognitive function. Relevant hormones include thyroid, pregnenolone, estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, cortisol, and vitamin D (actually a hormone!). In postmenopausal women, there is significant evidence that supports the beneficial effects of transdermal estradiol on cognition and the protective effects regarding Alzheimer’s disease.
In men, preliminary evidence suggests that testosterone loss may be a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia in elderly men. Vitamin D, produced by the skin under UV stimulation or ingested from food, is actually a hormone, essential for human health. More and more evidence indicates that low levels of vitamin D may be associated with an increased risk of developing agerelated cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
Vitamin D plays a role in neurotransmission, reducing betaamyloid and Tau accumulation, and taming inflammation, all of which are associated with Alzheimer’s. What should you do? Reach out to your healthcare provider and initiate a dialog about optimizing your hormone levels for overall health and more specifically for your brain health.
ASSURE OXYGENATION ALL DAY, ALL NIGHT
Our brains need adequate oxygen to function properly. Studies indicate that people with sleep apnea—pauses in breathing or reduced oxygen levels during sleep—are more likely to develop cognitive impairment in later years, especially affecting attention and executive functions. Check your oxygen saturation levels using a pulse oximeter or other technological tools such as the Apple Watch, or Fitbit.
Your daytime oxygen levels should be between 96100%, and when you sleep they should be very close to your normal daytime levels. If you find that your oxygen levels drop more than 12% at night, explore causes and solutions with your doctor. Your overall health, including your brain health, depends on it!
AVOID SUBSTANCES THAT NEGATIVELY IMPACT YOUR BRAIN
In addition to the toxins we’ve already discussed, there are some commonly used products that can negatively impact your brain. These include tobacco, excessive alcohol, and anticholinergic drugs. While an occasional glass of red wine might offer some health benefits from the phytonutrient resveratrol, excessive alcohol acts as a neurotoxin that damages multiple structures in your brain while also impacting your liver’s ability to detox.
This damage can lead to brain atrophy, memory loss, and sleep interference, especially our ability to reach REM sleep which impacts memory formation and cognition. If you choose to indulge occasionally, choose dry red wine and look for organic, sugar-free, lowalcohol options such as Dry Farm Wines.
By now you probably know that smoking is bad for your health – especially for your lungs. However, did you know that it also negatively impacts your brain health? Yes! Nicotine and other toxins found in cigarettes are linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. They increase oxidative stress in the brain, and impact cardiovascular health and hypertension, along with other markers that correlate with poor brain health and increased risk for Alzheimer’s.
So, if you’re still smoking, quit! Higher cumulative anticholinergic medication use is related to an increased risk for dementia. So, what are anticholinergic medications? The list includes any drugs that block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the central and peripheral nervous system.
This impacts the transmission of messages which affects learning and memory. These include some medications for depression, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, similar disorders, overactive bladder, and epilepsy. Common OTC examples include Benadryl, Tylenol PM, Advil PM, and Sominex. Work with your healthcare providers to explore options to minimize the use of prescription and OTC anticholinergic drugs when possible.
One of the most important ways to protect your brain from deterioration is to get enough good-quality sleep! Lack of good quality sleep is directly correlated to an increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Target seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
Why is sleep so important? At least two critical functions for good brain health happen when you sleep: Your brain processes the information collected during the day and consolidates it to create your memories, and Your brain’s glymphatic system works to clear betaamyloid and other waste products it is especially efficient during deep sleep and when you sleep on your side.
What can you do to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep? Keep a regular sleep schedule, develop a routine to prepare you for bed, and confirm that you don’t have sleep apnea.
Tips that can help include: Limit caffeine afternoon, keep your bedroom dark and cool (65 degrees F recommended), and engage in activities that promote stress reduction and relaxation in the evening to prepare yourself for a restful night – perhaps take a hot bath with Epsom salts (magnesium in the salts aid sleep) and lavender essential oil (which may help you relax), meditate or listen to relaxing music. Reduce exposure to blue light after dark as it impacts the production of melatonin, a necessary hormone for good quality sleep – so put away your electronic devices or wear blue-light-blocking glasses.
Another way to improve the quality of your sleep is to get exposed to the morning sun – this helps regulate your circadian rhythm and increases the production of melatonin later at night. Consider tools like the Oura ring, Beddr Sleep Tuner TM, Fitbit, and Apple watch that can monitor the impact of your efforts to improve your sleep. These will give you information on how long you’re sleeping and the amount of deep sleep, REM sleep, and your heart rate variability while sleeping.
It is never too late to make positive changes in your habits to optimize brain health and performance. You have it within your power to grow new brain cells and rewire the connections between them. As presented here, there are many factors within your control to improve your brain health today and throughout your life.
Minimize inflammation by stopping attacks on your brain and improve detoxification. Be sure to consume all the nutrients essential for your brain. Create an environment that is stimulating for your brain. This will also support a healthy body and heart. Just as it’s never too late to make changes to optimize your brain health, it’s also never too early, so get started today to live your best life!
1. Cunnane, S., et al, (2016) Can Ketones Help Rescue Brain Fuel Supply in Later Life? Implications for Cognitive Health during Aging and the Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience.
3. Van den Brink, A. C., Brouwer-Brolsma, E. M., Berendsen, A., & van de Rest, O. (2019). The Mediterranean, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diets Are Associated with Less Cognitive Decline and a Lower Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease-A Review. Advances in Nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 10(6), 1040–1065.
4. Sofi, F., Macchi, C., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., & Casini, A. (2010). Effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet: Can it help delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: JAD, 20(3), 795–801.
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