Feeding your hungry brain

By Delia McCabe*

Your brain is your primary survival organ; therefore it’s also the hungriest and most nutrient-demanding organ  you possess. It gets first choice of the nutrients you eat, and if you’re short-changing it by eating the wrong foods and avoiding the right ones, you can’t solve any health challenge. In other words, if your brain is malnourished, you can be sure the rest of your body is going to battle to maintain health.

Here are seven steps to a brighter, lighter you.

Sweat, sleep, sex and stress: what they mean to your brain

More and more research is revealing that when we take care of our bodies through exercise, when we reduce and manage our stress levels and surround ourselves with loving and supportive relationships, we help our brain to stay healthy for as long as possible. Add great sleep and the pleasure of sex to this mix, and our brains can work efficiently and give us the support we need to remain calm, happy and productive in our busy lives.

Our brains respond to these positive activities, and the reduction of stress, by becoming more robust at the cellular level, thereby enhancing neuronal functioning.

What you need to focus on is becoming more physically active, reducing your stress levels naturally and improving your relationships, along with getting more restorative sleep and boosting your sex life.

 

What food intolerances do to your brain

Specific foods are more likely to cause a brain reaction – and addiction – than others, and knowing which ones they are, and removing them from our diet, can improve our brain function.

In addition, optimal digestive health is critically important for our busy brains, and by ensuring ideal digestion and absorption are maintained, we can improve our brain’s ability to function optimally.

You should focus on removing the foods that you may be intolerant to, such as gluten and/or dairy, among others, and improving gut function, both of which directly affect mental health.

Why food additives are bad for your brain

Modern food processing uses a vast quantity of additives to ensure shelf stability, and removes compounds, such as fibre, which are important for optimal health. Unfortunately, most of the additives used in processed food are not tested in combination, so their safety is questionable, especially regarding brain function.

In addition, additives can pose a direct threat to brain cells, and removing them from our diet is critically important for brain health.

Heavy metals and other toxic compounds found in many household cleaning products and pesticides also pose a threat to our delicate brains.

You need to focus on eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods that haven’t visited a factory before you buy them, such as colourful fresh produce and whole, gluten-free grains and legumes; making your own salad dressings and sauces; and avoiding additives in the minimally processed foods you might eat, such as rice cakes or crackers.

The vitamins and minerals your brain needs

Vitamins and minerals are crucially important for optimum brain health, because the brain uses them to generate energy, make neurotransmitters, and ensure membrane flexibility and permeability, among many other activities. These nutrients have specific roles to play in the brain, and modern diets – as well as very restrictive diets – can irreparably compromise brain development, growth and maintenance.

Antioxidants in whole, unprocessed foods also support great brain health by quenching free-radical activity and the dangers it poses to brain health. In addition, pure, clean water is required to ensure optimal brain function, because dehydration has a direct and immediate effect on the brain’s ability to function.

What you need to focus on is eating a large variety of seasonal, colourful fresh fruit and vegetables as well as sprouts, and whole, gluten-free grains, legumes and nuts and seeds, while supplementing wisely with nutrients according to your specific needs.

Protein and communication in your brain

Neurotransmitters are tiny compounds that brain cells use to communicate with each other; they’re made from the building blocks of protein and amino acids, along with other nutrients, that our diets need to provide. Mood-altering substances, from coffee to antidepressants, affect these neurotransmitters.

Although many people believe animal products and protein powders are the best sources of protein, they may come with risks to optimum brain function. Poor digestion and inadequate liver function also affect the body’s ability to make these neurotransmitters with ease.

Focus on eating a variety of gluten-free grains, such as quinoa and millet, along with legumes, sprouts, nuts and seeds. If you choose to eat animal products, they should be organic, and all animal flesh should be both organic and grass fed. Most fish in the ocean live in contaminated seawater, so wild-caught fish is the best option, but it shouldn’t be relied on to supply the brain’s requirement for protein.

Stable energy for your brain

Carbohydrates are the brain’s primary source of fuel, and although there are different forms of them, the brain prefers unprocessed, nutrient-dense, high-fibre carbs, rather than quick-release types that negatively affect blood glucose.

Coffee provides a temporary solution to a tired brain, artificial sweeteners come with their own dangers, while refined sugars contribute to general physical and cognitive ageing. Ensuring all meals (and snacks) contain unrefined carbohydrates will deliver a steady supply of glucose to keep the brain fuelled, along with the ability to sustain an even mood, and focused thinking.

Focus on whole, unprocessed, fibre-rich carbohydrates such as leafy greens, brassicas (cruciferous vegetables), coloured root vegetables, gluten-free grains and legumes, along with fresh fruit and berries.

The foundation fats for your brain

Fats and oils are among the most misunderstood topics in nutrition. With the dry weight of the brain being 60 per cent fat, the issue of fats and oils is very important to grasp fully.

Although the body can make both saturated and monounsaturated fats, it cannot make polyunsaturated fats, which comprise 20-25 per cent of the brain’s fat. Unfortunately, most people eat too many damaged fats and are therefore not getting enough of the right fats to ensure their brain is working optimally. Additionally, cooking with the wrong fats leads to the consumption of more damaged fats.

Research has shown that the consumption of the right fats can improve brain development and overall function.

What you need to focus on is cold-pressed, organic oils that are stored in dark glass bottles. Coconut oil and butter are good sources of saturated fats; extra-virgin, single-origin olive oil is a good choice of monounsaturated fats; and a balanced blend of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fats is best as the source of polyunsaturated fats.

This is an edited extract from Feed Your Brain: The Cookbook, by Delia McCabe, available from www.exislepublishing.com and good bookshops and sites.

*Delia McCabe has a Masters in Psychology and is completing her doctorate on the effects of certain nutrients on female stress. For the past 20 years, she has combined her knowledge of the human brain with research into how food influences brain function. She has seen repeatedly that the right diet can have a dramatic influence on memory, mood, ability to focus and stress level. Following the success of her first book, Feed Your Brain, she wanted to provide readers with more quick and tasty recipes to make ‘brain-healthy’ eating even easier.

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