Eating For Your Brain
Charlotte Faure Green is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, speaker, writer, and brand nutritional advisor. She provides one-to-one expert guidance both online and in person at her Brighton clinic. She helps stressed bodies and minds regain balance through real-world sustainable changes. You can find her on Instagram @charlottefauregreennutrition or contact her through her website at charlottefauregreen.com.
To say the brain is a fascinating and complex organ is an understatement! That 3lb grey organ that sits in our skulls is responsible for our thoughts, our actions, interpreting the environment we live in and governing not only our movement, our cognition, and our mood but how our other organs function - and that is just the very tip of the iceberg! Our wonderful brains do so much for us every second of every day, we want to ensure we are nourishing them properly. We are well versed with eating for our bodies, but rarely do we consider that what is on our plate can nourish our brain too.
The brain is not just gristle and grey matter but is made up of the food that we eat - it’s building blocks are made of proteins and fats, and uses minerals and vitamins (like B6, B9, B12 and zinc) as the builders to put it together. Consensus from neuroscientists is that the brain requires about 45 different nutrients to function, and what it doesn’t get from our diet, it creates itself.
The brain uses about 25% of our daily energy requirement at rest and is the hungriest organ in our body, so we want to be feeding it right!
The way we feel about food affects our mood and sense of self. Here is where we can support our bodies and brains, to feel their best in challenging times.
Our brain has a clever function called the “blood brain barrier” – a protective membrane which tightly controls what substances are allowed into the brain – think of it like a clever network of bouncers stopping naughty clubbers (or rather toxins, and unsuitable nutrients) from entering. Brain injury, stroke and illnesses may impact the blood brain barrier, causing a permeability that may lead to impaired cognitive function. Studies suggest that the permeability of the barrier may also be affected by alcohol consumption and a diet rich in ultra-processed foods (or UPFs).
UPFs are foods that have gone through several industrial processes and may contain a number of flavourings, colouring, and additives like sweeteners. Consumption of UPFs may lead to metabolic changes that cause systemic inflammation, which can lead to blood brain barrier impairment and then neuroinflammation. Furthermore, a diet of UPFs may disrupt the gut microbiome and gut-brain axis (vital signalling between the gut and the brain).
A diet rich in UPFs replaces the consumption of more beneficial and nutrient dense whole foods – which provide antioxidants, essential nutrients for body and mind health and antioxidants.
What foods to add to your diet for your brain
It would be too simplistic to say that one can merely eat oneself out of an anxious, stressed, or depressed state. But the potential for what we eat, or importantly what we don’t eat, and when and how we eat, to influence our mental health is often seriously overlooked.
If you’re looking to make a start at eating for optimal brain health, here are some tips on the top foods and supplements to ensure you’re getting in regularly:
Current UK guidelines suggest a minimum of 2 portions of oily fish per week for optimum DHA. The brain is approximately 60% fat and DHA, a form of omega 3 fatty acid, which has been shown in studies to help boost mood, memory, and cognition. S.M.A.S.H. is a handy acronym for sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring – we should add trout to that too, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it – they are all rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Current UK guidelines are two portions of oily fish per week and if you’re not hitting that or follow a plant-based diet, a good quality omega 3 supplement taken daily is a quick win.
Diverse range of plant foods
An ‘ecosystem’ of varied gut bacteria is a huge factor for all aspects of health, including brain health. Each strain of bacteria performs a different beneficial function, with each strain needing different foods to thrive. Fibre in plant foods act as prebiotic foods which nourish the good bacteria in our gut. When you eat a diverse variety of plant foods that are high in fibre, you’re giving your microbiome the best chance to produce fatty acids that downregulate neuroinflammation, upregulate neuroplasticity and mood-supportive neurotransmitter production.
Dehydration can mimic feelings of anxiety or panic; our bodies can feel fatigued and our brains sluggish. Our blood is 92% water, and so the smallest decrease can cause blood pressure to drop. Our bodies like homeostasis, so will create an alarm (increased stress hormones) to alert us to the imbalance. Water is part of the make-up of our brain, it fills the gaps between the cells and helps our brain to form proteins and remove waste products. Staying hydrated is the quickest and easiest win for our mental and physical health and doing so may greatly improve cognition and mood.
Dark chocolate - the darker the better, minimum of 70% - is a superfood! Packed with antioxidants, polyphenols and stress-busting magnesium, dark cacao can do some magic for your brain. Polyphenols found in cacao give it it’s bitter taste and a recent study hypothesised that they inhibit an enzyme that is responsible for keeping cortisol (our stress hormone) active, so eating dark chocolate may lower circulating cortisol in the brain! When we are stressed, we lose large amounts of super mineral magnesium in our urine, it’s called the magnesium dump and science has not yet figured out why it happens. And it is not very useful. Magnesium can halt the stimulation of stress hormone release from our adrenal glands, and prevents them from entering the brain, so a deficiency can lead to more stress. Dark chocolate is rich in magnesium, so truly a health food! Not a fan of chocolate, or only like milk chocolate? Magnesium can be found in nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, salmon, avocado, broccoli, and whole grains like quinoa. Supplementing is generally considered safe and well-tolerated in most, but medication interactions should always be checked, and practitioner guidance recommended.
The Mediterranean diet has long been associated with a reduction in the risk of depression. So, what does it look like? A diet rich in a variety of vegetables (including dark leafy greens), fruits (including berries for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory prowess), legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, olive oil, oily fish and a low intake of highly processed food and red meat, reduces inflammation and provides nutrients that are depleted when mental health is challenged. Stress is nutritionally very expensive on the body, so replenishing these stores is vital in healing.