We know that what we eat impacts our physical health. But there’s also a growing body of research that tells us that it can have a major impact on mental health as well. Because of this, brain food is set to be a huge heath trend for 2020 (and beyond).
Your brain’s the control center of your body. It’s in charge of keeping your heart beating and lungs breathing. So it makes a lot of sense to treat it right – and that means feeding it well! But it doesn’t work alone. A lot of that brain power comes from the gut – or more specifically, the gut-brain axis.
What you eat plays a starring role in your overall brain health and can even improve specific mental tasks, such as memory, focus, and concentration.
So, what exactly is this gut-brain axis, and if food boosts brain power, what should you be eating?
The Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is a communication network between your gut and your brain. It’s a complex system made up of various neurons and neurotransmitters that send signals back and forth through the body. Research has made it abundantly clear that there’s a definite connection between the gut and the brain. This connection plays an important role in things like your memory, concentration, anxiety, even cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.
You have approximately 100 billion neutrons in your brain, and about 500 million in your gut. Those 500 million in the gut are connected to your brain via nerves in your nervous system. These neurons tell your body what to do. Your gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are produced by both the brain and the gut, and they control your feelings and emotions.
In fact, the gut has even been called a “second brain” because it produces lots of the same neurotransmitters as the brain, like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid.
The cool thing is, thanks to science, we now know that certain foods can nourish those neurons, increase neurotransmitter production, reduce inflammation, and protect against neural degeneration!!
Including some or all of these into your diet can boost brain health (and overall health), leading to better mental function!
When it comes to oxidative stress, the brain is highly susceptible because of its high metabolic load and its abundance of oxidizable material, such as the poly-unsaturated fatty acids that form the plasma membranes of neural cells. Oxidative stress is when there’s an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in your body.
Unfortunately, we now know that long-term oxidative stress can lead to serious, chronic health conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Luckily, research shows us that increasing the antioxidants in your diet can play an important role in protecting the brain from the damaging oxidative stress.
Foods rich in antioxidants include:
- Dark chocolate
- Dark green veggies like kale, broccoli, and spinach
- Orange vegetables like pumpkin and sweet potatoes
These vitamins and minerals are all antioxidants: glutathione, taurine, arginine, citrulline, zinc, creatine, selenium, and vitamins A, E & C.
It may seem odd, but more than half your brain is fat. 60% in fact. And half of that is the omega-3 kind. Omega-3 fatty acids are normal components of cell membranes and are essential for normal brain function. Your brain uses them to build brain and nerve cells.
Research shows that is help protect the brain from degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Studies in humans have also determined that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the cognitive deficit that is associated with psychiatric disorders.
Any time you hear someone talk about omega-3s, they’ll probably mention fish. Fish, especially fatty fish, is super high in omega-3s, making it ideal as a brain food. Fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and lake trout are all full of omega-3s.
That said, fish isn’t the only omega-3 food. Others include:
- Chia, hemp, and flax seeds
- Seaweed, nori, and spirulina
- Kidney beans and edamame
Adequate levels of folate are essential for brain function. Part of its role is to lower inflammation and reduce homocysteine, both of which are linked to degenerative brain disorders. Folate can also prevent beta-amyloid plague (a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease) from forming. Beta-amyloid plaques are proteins that damage your brain cells and disrupt the communication between those neurons we mentioned earlier. This can lead to memory loss and reduced brain function.
Research shows that a folate deficiency can lead to neurological disorders like depression as well.
The primary sources of folate is vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, spinach and Brussels sprouts. Just remember, cooking vegetables causes folate loss so eating them raw will deliver the most benefits. Other foods include:
- Citrus fruits
- Nuts and seeds
Believe it or not, caffeine is actually really good for the health of your brain. And, while research shows the effects tend to be more short term, caffeine can still boost brain function and help with your cognitive function – specifically focus and concentration.
This is because of the way caffeine interacts with adenosine receptors. Remember those neurotransmitters we mentioned earlier? Well, adenosine is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. When it binds to neutron receptors in the brain, it inhibits the tendency of neurons to fire. This slows down neural activity. Over the course of the day, adenosine builds up – that’s why you feel drowsy by the end of the day.
When you consume caffeine, it competes with the adenosine to bind to the same receptors, and instead of slowing down the neurons, is stimulates the central nervous system, giving you that feeling of alertness.
As a bonus, caffeine also stimulates the central nervous system by promoting the release of other neurotransmitters like noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, which can help boost your mood, attention, and focus.
For caffeine, coffee is obviously your go-to. Others include:
- Dark chocolate
- Green and black tea
Probiotics are live microorganisms, usually bacteria, that are good for you. We like to think of them as helpful bacteria. They’re great for the gut-brain axis specifically.
What affects the gut often affects the brain and vice versa. When your brain senses trouble, in times of stress for example, it sends warning signals to the gut. That’s why your stomach feels so off when you’re feeling stressed out. But it works both ways. If you’re dealing with gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, or chronic constipation, these can impact the brain and may trigger anxiety or depression.
Probiotics can work wonders as far as protecting the health of your gut, and thus, the health of your brain. Research shows that probiotics can help with neurological conditions such as depression and anxiety and can increase the production of dopamine and serotonin.
Great sources of probiotics include:
- Fermented vegetables
- Fermented soft cheeses
Benefits of Brain Food
I think it goes without saying that what we eat impacts our health. I think it’s safe to assume that we all know that. Feeding your brain the right foods can help now and in the future, giving it the boost it needs to stay focused, alert, and strong as we age. #BrainPower