Food as fuel for the brain
Did you know that the brain is the body’s number one priority over all other organs for survival? The type of foods we eat impacts the chemical messengers (called neurotransmitters) in the brain. Without the right amount of food “fuel” these chemical messengers can either create a sense of focus, and well-being or confusion and despair. Choosing the right foods really makes a difference in a host of behavioral disorders too such as OCD and ADHD. And even if your currently taking prescription medications for some type of brain improvement most people find by making some smart dietary changes they can get better results.
Proper nutrition is essential to a well-functioning body and brain.
For example; when the brain produces serotonin, tension is eased. When it produces dopamine or nor-epinephrine, we tend to think and act more quickly and are generally more alert. Eating carbohydrates alone seems to have a calming effect, while proteins increase alertness. Complex carbohydrates, which raise the level of tryptophan in the brain, have a calming effect.
The two other important brain chemicals that are influenced by foods are dopamine and nor-epinephrine. Both of these produce a feeling of alertness, increase the ability to concentrate, and create faster reaction times. There are two possible mechanisms for how this happens: (1) serotonin production is blocked by the consumption of protein-rich foods, resulting in increased alertness or concentration, or (2) levels of dopamine and nor-epinephrine are increased by the consumption of protein-rich foods.
Let’s look at some of the worst foods first –
Worst mood foods and their Impact on brain health
1) Sugar: Acts like an opiate on the brain. Sugar overworks the adrenals and contributes to stress. Highly addictive; spikes blood glucose; increases risk for diabetes & elevated triglycerides.
2) Processed Flour: Nutrient devoid; acts like an opiate on brain; leads to chemistry disruption; contributes to stress and hormone imbalance; elevates blood glucose and triglycerides.
3) Gluten containing grains: Highly allergic to many people these grains irritate & inflame the GI tract causing nutrient mal-absorption. Stimulates brain as an opiate; create lethargy and brain fog, agitation & thyroiditis. In addition many people are now reacting to even the gluten variety of free grains so removal of these may even be necessary.
4) Low quality Omega 6 fats: This type of fats are all highly unstable and become rancid quickly which creates oxidation and leads to brain inflammation and cell damage corn oil, soy oil, canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil.
5) Soy: Phytates in un-fermented soy cause nutrient mal-absorption (esp. zinc, iodine & iron) and interfere with thyroid hormone production, technically called endocrine disruptors. Research suggests soy increases estrogen levels too. Small amounts of fermented soy (tempe, Tamari, Miso) are better choices, but should be eaten on a limited basis and even then many are reactive to soy and find relief from symptoms once it is removed from their diet completely.
Other mood saboteurs – Low calorie diets
- Skipping meals disrupts blood glucose and leads to low energy, cravings and binging
- Low calorie dieting leads to inhibition of serotonin and thyroid hormone
- Low fat dieting increase depression and irritability, can lead to low blood sugar mood swings – hypoglycemia; diabetes and reduce libido
- Low protein diets mean low energy & mood because brain and body are low on amino acids which make natural antidepressants and stimulant (serotonin, nor epinephrine and GABA)
- Pre-packaged “diet” foods are devoid in nutrients, highly processed and loaded with inferior fats and chemicals
Avoid these foods!
All of these can trigger reactions and you could be allergic to them so uncovering these trigger foods through either specialized IgG testing or an elimination/provocation diet is very helpful.
- artificial sweeteners
- dairy products
- night shade vegetables
Best foods for the brain
Numerous studies have found that Omega-3 fatty acids are important in reducing depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADD/ADHD, as well as, dementia. A common factor in up to 31% of people with major depression is a deficiency of B vitamins, and one in particular – folate, specifically in the form of methytetrahdrolfoate.
Other studies, conducted in the 70’s, associated vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency with a range of moods including, feeling fearful, irritable, depressed, and agitated. Other research has found that a low-fat diet can actually exacerbate depression.
Magnesium is frequently low supply for those with memory, cognition, focus problems as well as those with depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorder – indeed this is not surprising since magnesium and all the essential minerals are found in abundance in green leafy vegetables and bone broths of pasture raised animals; food not consumed by many who are afflicted with these conditions.
The swing in mood and energy that people sometimes feel throughout the day can be modified by reducing the intake of foods with a high Glycemic Index (GI). Foods that are typically digested slowly – low GI foods – such as minimally processed grains, legumes, certain fruits and vegetables, have less impact on blood sugar levels than foods with high GI. Low GI foods have less impact because digestion is slower and there is a slower release of blood glucose. High GI foods include processed flour, sugar, doughnuts and corn flakes. Consume low GI foods to reduce the level of blood glucose and thus the swing in mood and energy.
1) Protein (aim for a steady stream through out the day in meals or snacks)
Proteins in the diet affect brain performance because they provide the amino acids from which neurotransmitters are made. Protein contains all 22 amino acids essential for creating important neurotransmitters and thus good brain health. Tryptophan and tyrosine, are precursors of two very important neurotransmitters that impact our mood; serotonin and dopamine. Fish are especially beneficial due to their healthy fats and high mineral content.
Choose from these healthy proteins
- Fish, poultry, eggs, lamb, beef pork venison, buffalo, dairy products ( if not reactive), shellfish
- Fermented soy products such as tempe, miso, tamari (please limit)
- Vegetarian sources include nuts, seeds, beans and brown rice and high quality protein powder
2) Healthy fats (6 -8 Tbl per day)
Omega 3 & 9 rich foods (long chain fatty acids) promote proper cellular permeability and allow important fat soluble nutrients (A,D, E) to flow into and out of our cells. These fats stave off depression, lower inflammatory arachidonic acid, help regulate insulin levels, promote stress coping GABA and mood regulating sex hormones and increase feelings of satiation. Fats are major components of the brain cell membrane and the myelin sheath around each nerve. So, our diet must include an adequate amount of fat and the right kinds of fat can greatly affect brain development and performance.
Remember to include a small amount of one of these healthy fats with your protein:
- olive oil
- fish oil/EPA combination
- flax-seed oil
- butter (from grass-fed cows)
- coconut oil & milk
- cashews, macadamia & almonds, pumpkin seeds
3) Vegetables and fruits (eat at least 5 -7 cups per day)
Vegetables provide vitamins and minerals necessary for brain chemistry and good moods. They can calm and energize and carbohydrates this type of carbohydrates do not spike blood glucose as grains do so they are superior.
Sometimes called super foods, because they are rich in antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin A, C and vitamin E and beta-carotene, these foods are especially important to brain health because they help protect brain cells from free-radical damage caused by environmental pollution. Known as free radical scavengers these provide defense from free radicals and help protect our brains as we age. Studies suggest that taking supplements of vitamins C and E can also, help prevent the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slow the progression of memory loss.
Here’s what you need:
- dark green and leafy vegetables = B complex and magnesium
- orange & red colored vegetables and fruits = vitamin A, C & bioflavonoids
4) Other Good Carbs
Our brains need a constant supply of glucose from carbs for fast energy.In fact, the brain utilizes 20 percent of the body’s carbohydrate supply so a steady supply of low GI foods is essential to feeding your brain. All whole grains (I suggest sticking to GF varieties) and legumes slow digestion and help stabilize blood sugar. Fruits digest quickly so they are a easily used as fuel by the brain.
- fruits (2-3 servings per day)
- grains (1-2 servings per day)
- legumes (1 – 2 servings per day)
- starchy & non- vegetables (3 -4 servings per day)
Lack of certain dietary nutrients contribute to the development of mental disorders. Notably, essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the general population in America and other developed countries; and especially in patients suffering from mental disorders. Studies show daily supplements of vital nutrients often effectively reduce patients’ symptoms. Supplements that contain amino acids also reduce symptoms, because they are converted to neurotransmitters that alleviate depression and other mental disorders. Dietary supplements can aid the treatment of the four most common mental disorders currently: depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Nutrition Journal 2008.
Minerals, in particular are critical to mental functioning and performance. Magnesium and manganese are needed for brain energy. Zinc is essential in protecting your mind and brain from the aging symptoms of forgetfulness. Sodium, potassium and calcium are important in the thinking process and facilitate the transmission of messages. Iron is also required to carry oxygen to the brain cells and aids in the formation of brain neurotransmitters, which affect attention and learning capacities.
Finally, a direct correlation exists between GUT health and brain health so proper ratio of friendly flora and digestive enzymes is essential. Indeed, many people find that once they establish proper digestion, eradicate yeast overgrowth or other pathogenic bacteria, they notice improvement in both focus/concentration as well as more stable emotions.
Did this post resonate with you? Do you wonder if your mood and concentration problems could be helped by better nutritional choices? Complete my Are We a Fit? and let’s have a confidential phone conversation about it.
~~~I teach people just like you how to transform from hopeless to happy again every day. Very often these people tell me that working with me was the catalyst for so many other positive transformations in their lives.
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