The brain has long been the domain of specialists like neurologists and brain surgeons. But you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to take good care of your brain.
I’m not a brain expert. I am, however, a health practitioner with training in functional nutrition, and I’m struck by how much power we each have to impact the health of our brains.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how central, and essential, our brain is to our individual sense of self and well-being. And how integral our mind and nervous system is to the rest of the body, which is a complex and dynamic network of interrelated systems — digestive, cardiovascular, immune, and other systems.
Did you know that imbalance in one arena impacts the rest, including the nervous system and brain? Conversely, trouble in the brain means trouble elsewhere in the body.
Because I’m fascinated by the many factors that influence brain health, I’ve decided to write a series of short(ish) blog posts, each one focused on a different facet of what you can do to slow down cognitive decline, or protect and even improve your cognitive function.
Starting with your gut. Because, as an Integrative Pediatric Neurologist (whose name I do not have) articulated so well, “the gut is the soil where the brain grows.” In other words, in tending carefully to the needs and well-being of your digestive tract, you’re cultivating your brain’s ability to function well.
How can you do that? First, by understanding that one of the most powerful ways to influence your cognitive function is by making good choices about the foods that you eat. Every day you have an opportunity to nourish your gut with what will help it, and the rest of your body, to thrive.
While your specific needs may differ from mine or even from those of your partner, child, or best friend, there are some fundamental food-related principles that can make a huge difference for all of us.
Since inflammation reduction is a primary strategy for improving both gut and brain health, I’ll mention three effective nutritional ways to curb inflammation:
1) The most important of which is to enjoy, on a regular basis, a wide variety of colorful vegetables. Tap the artist in you, or pretend you’re a painter!
Fill your ‘palette,’ or plate, with a rainbow of leafy and other greens, purple cabbage, dark red beets, bright red tomatoes and peppers, orange carrots, yams, and winter squashes, yellow summer squashes, and many other richly-hued, nutrient-dense foods. They’re known to reduce inflammation throughout the body, help with regulating blood sugar, and improve blood flow to your brain.
2) Certain spices and herbs also offer great benefits for your gut and brain alike. Do yourself a favor by incorporating delicious seasonings into your meals.
For example, use Italian and French herbs like rosemary, oregano, and thyme, as well as curry spices — especially turmeric yet also ginger, coriander, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and others. These herbs and spices help reduce inflammation, slow down aging processes, and protect and strengthen cognitive function.
3) The three most inflammatory foods in the American diet are gluten, dairy, and sugar. Try replacing these and other processed foods with nutrient-dense whole foods. That step alone helps most people feel better, especially if you’re feeling poorly or are coping with pain or discomfort.
Another tactic for good gut and brain health is to make sure you consume an appropriate amount, for you, of ‘smart’ oils and fats. For example, feature Omega 3 oils from wild-caught seafood, seaweeds, and certain seeds (ground flax and chia).
As well, replace refined vegetable oils with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, nuts (including almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios and others), coconut oil, organic butter or ghee, avocado, pastured eggs (if tolerated), or grass-fed meats.
There is, of course, quite a bit more you can do with foods to nourish your digestive tract, which in turn fuels your brain, than I’m addressing in this blog piece. But I can’t resist mentioning one more important practice for you to try, if you haven’t already.
Feed the good bacteria in your gut with small amounts of prebiotic (resistant starches in such foods as green bananas, cold cooked potatoes, beans) and probiotic foods (naturally fermented drinks, cultured yogurts, and condiments like sauerkraut). Your microbiome, and your brain, will thank you if you do!
If you’re interested in boosting your gut and brain health, I suggest starting with one step that feels doable for you. Stick with that for a while, and pay attention to how doing so makes you feel.
If you’d like to learn more about the most powerful ways to preserve and enhance your cognitive function as you grow older, and you happen to live in Western Massachusetts, come to my free workshop about Brain Health Through A Functional Nutrition Lens.
When? Tuesday, February 26th, from 6:30-8:00PM, at River Valley Coop in Northampton. For more information and to pre-register, click on RVC’s event page link: http://rivervalley.coop/event-details/free-workshop-brain-health
My next blog post will focus on the high impact that fitness can have on overall health, and in particular on brain health.