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  • Writer's pictureKellie Blake RDN,LD,IFNCP

Brain Health Nutrition

Brain health complaints are common in my practice. It seems like we have all suffered from brain fog, anxiety, mood changes, headaches, attention problems, memory issues, and/or insomnia at some point and our current pandemic situation is likely to increase these symptoms in many people. But, just like with every chronic disease, these issues are rooted in inflammation, gut dysfunction, and nutrient deficiency. While it may seem like we just have to live with these symptoms, especially as we get older, the truth is, we have so much control over how our brain functions.

We can not separate the brain from the rest of the body. What happens to your body, happens to your brain and vice versa. So, we can not simply target the brain with one stand-alone therapy and hope for miraculous results. We must approach brain health with a comprehensive plan that improves total body health.

The base meal plan to improve brain function will need to be personalized but in general is one that is plant-based and adequate in healthy fat and clean protein. Avoiding processed foods and additives, inflammatory oils (like canola, soybean, vegetable, corn oils and margarine), sugar, caffeine (if not tolerated), sensitive foods (such as gluten and dairy), excess calories, conventionally-raised animal products, processed meats, farmed fish, and alcohol are important as well.

In addition to the therapeutic brain health meal plan, there are several brain-supporting nutrients to consider:

1. WATER: Even mild dehydration has been shown to affect mood (especially in females), but also affects cognitive performance in children and the elderly. Our bodies are made of 55 to 75% water (depending on age) and it is vital for whole body health, as well as brain health. Drink clean, filtered water as your dominant beverage and aim to get at least half your body weight in ounces every day.

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These vital fats are a component of neuronal membranes, assist in brain development, and are involved in brain cell signaling. Inadequate omega-3 fatty acid intake can predispose us to a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce neuroinflammation and also help regulate the gut microbiome, which is so important in brain health. You can obtain these fats from fatty fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, and sardines (always being mindful of fish quality to avoid toxins), nuts, seeds, and fortified foods. If you do not eat fish twice per week, you may consider an omega-3 fatty acid supplement from a reputable source, so speak with your provider.

3. Vitamin D: People with brain health issues typically have lower vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is important for many body functions, but is especially important for brain health. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. We get vitamin D when the sun hits our bare skin. Unfortunately, sun exposure isn't consistent for many people and there aren't many good food sources of vitamin D. Eating egg yolks, fortified products, mushrooms, and fatty fish will help some, but most of the time vitamin D3 supplements are required. Talk to your doctor or provider about how much vitamin D you should be taking.

4. B Vitamins: There are eight B-vitamins, all with important brain functions. A large percentage of those in developed nations are deficient or marginally deficient in one or more of the B vitamins, which can affect brain function negatively. B vitamins are found in leafy greens, fish, eggs, meat, poultry, legumes, nuts, fortified foods, and nutritional yeast.

5. Magnesium: 68% of Americans are not getting the recommended amount of magnesium. Magnesium is a co-factor in hundreds of reactions in the body. Specifically in the brain, magnesium is required for many of the pathways, enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters associated with regulating mood. Magnesium can easily be obtained from foods such as dark chocolate, avocados, nuts, seeds, legumes, bananas, and leafy greens. Interesting fact, you can also absorb magnesium through your skin during an Epsom-salt bath.

6. Zinc: While zinc deficiency is rare, 35 to 45% of Americans over the age of 60 have inadequate intakes of zinc. Lower zinc levels are seen in neurological diseases and low levels of zinc have been found to create anxiety and depression. Increase your intake of zinc by eating grass-fed red meat, sustainable shellfish, legumes, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, ground flax seeds, cashews, almonds, and dark chocolate.

As you can see, there is much opportunity to take control of brain health. Focusing on an overall healthy meal plan and adding in some specific brain nutrients can help improve your symptoms today, but also help keep your brain healthy for the future. Of course, nutrition is only one aspect of brain health - we must also make healthy choices with regard to sleep, exercise, stress, and toxin exposure. If you would like to learn more about brain health, or would like a personalized plan, contact us for a free 15-minute phone consultation.


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