Feed Your Brain: Improving Mental Acuity, Memory, and Focus
The brain controls all of the functions of the body, so is essentially our “computer” to keep the body working. Brain signals are key to the maintenance of homeostasis in the body and of course, are critical to all of our thinking processes. The best ways to preserve brain function are to “feed” the brain the right nutrients, to exercise, to “use it or lose it”, and to maintain social contact. We will focus here on the nutrients that keep the brain healthy. The nutrients suggested below can be ingested through food or supplements. In the case of supplements, there are combination formulas available that may combine two or more ingredients.
Foundational Nutrition for the Brain
Omega-3s—These fatty acids are essential to the diet, i.e. the body cannot manufacture them. Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish like anchovies, sardines, mackerel, cod, salmon and other cold-water fish and in grass-fed beef. They are also found in plant foods like flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and organic canola oil. Omega-3s convert to EPA and DHA, which are responsible for their positive effects on the body. EPA has anti-inflammatory effects and improves blood flow, both factors in preserving memory and learning. The brain is very high in DHA, so many of the structures in the brain, including the cell membrane and the myelin sheath, can be fortified by this molecule. DHA improves learning, memory, and reaction to stress.
The omega-3s in plant foods do not convert as readily to EPA and DHA as animal sources do. The balance of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats (found in corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower and safflower oils) is important. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be about 2:1 for optimal health and the typical American diet is more like 20:1! Most packaged foods have omega-6 oils, the source of them in many Americans’ diets.
A Probiotic—The gut contains the key to our health in many ways. It’s crucial to the proper functioning of our immune system, the production of serotonin, and whether or not our food is converted to energy and absorbed. Under inflammatory conditions, the tryptophan in our gut converts to quinolinic acid rather than serotonin, which crosses the blood-brain barrier. Quinolinic acid is a neurotoxin and is connected with Alzheimer’s. A good probiotic will fight inflammation, allowing the gut to properly perform the above functions. If you prefer not to take a probiotic, make sure you include lots of cultured and fermented foods in your diet like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tamari, and miso.
B Vitamins—The B vitamins have many benefits to the body. They are cofactors in many of the enzymatic reactions that help break down food and convert it to energy. The health of the nervous system depends on an adequate supply of these vitamins and they are crucial to alleviating stress. Vitamins, B6, B12 and folic acid are important in ridding the body of homocysteine, an inflammatory compound that is implicated in Alzheimers, dementia, cardiovascular, and other inflammatory diseases. Methylation, an important reaction in many body processes, is facilitated by folic acid, B6 and B12. Vitamin B5 can help to control cortisol, an excess of which causes fogginess in the brain and depresses the immune system. Vitamin B12 is very important to memory. B3 and B6 assist in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. Foods that are high in B vitamins are whole, unprocessed grains, brewers and nutritional yeasts, raw, unfiltered honey, superfood spirulina, meats, and fish.
Magnesium—Magnesium is one of the most prevalent minerals in the body. It is depleted in many Americans due to poor diet, poor soil quality, the use of antacids, proton pump inhibitors, and H2 blockers, and excessive stress and toxicity. Chronic use of acid-blocking medications can cause serious mineral deficiencies, particularly magnesium, and also deplete B12. Magnesium is essential for the neurotransmission that orchestrates mood, cognition, memory, sleep, relaxation, and overall emotional well-being. It is a cofactor in the production of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are responsible for healthy mood, behavior, appetite, cognitive function, sleep patterns and stress response. An evolving body of science supports the use of magnesium for psychiatric care.
Stress reduces the body’s retention of magnesium. At the same time, magnesium is a very important anti-stress nutrient as it regulates both the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis and a healthy response to ACTH, a stress signal, to the adrenal glands. High magnesium foods include sea vegetables, avocado, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, halibut, whole grains, dark chocolate, and mackerel.
Other Important Nutrients
Antioxidants—Free radicals, molecules with an unpaired electron, are produced in the body in response to natural processes like metabolism and exercise, but can also be produced by environmental toxins and other stress on the body. Free radicals can build up in nerve cells as you age, impairing brain function. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, thus preventing the damage they do to the brain.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant. It also improves blood flow to the brain. Vitamin E is an umbrella for several different forms of the vitamin. Vitamin E is also typically from soy, so there is a concern with genetic modification. The “dl” form is the synthetic form and is not well recognized by the body. Use the natural “d” form. I suggest eating foods high in vitamin E like wheat germ oil, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, spinach, broccoli, swiss chard and other greens.
Alpha lipoic acid is an antioxidant that is both fat and water soluble. For this reason it can easily pass into the brain, the nerves and the cells. It also recycles vitamins C & E, so can boost their effect in the body.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant and has been studied for its ability to calm chronic inflammation, which underlies many brain conditions. Research has shown that it can reduce beta amyloid deposits in the brain, a factor in developing Alzheimer’s disease. Resveratrol activates the SIRT1 gene, also known as the longevity gene. It is found in grapes, red wine, and to a lesser extent, peanuts. To get a therapeutic dose you may want to supplement and it is important that you buy a supplement in the trans-resveratrol form.
CoQ10 is an antioxidant that is found in every cell that acts as the “energy spark plug” in the cell. People with higher levels of CoQ10 have been found to have higher mental acuity.
Acetyl l-carnitine is an amino acid derivative that helps the body produce energy, improves blood flow to the brain, and functions as an antioxidant. Antioxidants are also prevalent in—you guessed it—fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables offers a variety of antioxidants. I love to use a greens formula as it offers vitamins, minerals and antioxidants from a range of green foods.
NAC is an amino acid derivative that promotes glutathione, one of the body’s main detoxifying agents. NAC , unlike many nutrients, crosses the blood-brain barrier, so can directly benefit brain tissue.
PQQ stimulates new mitochondria (which provides the brain with energy), increases nerve growth factor, and provides antioxidant protection for neurons. There is a great CoQ10/PQQ combination that seems to work well for taking the debris out of the brain. I have recommended it to several people that are recovering from head injuries or anesthesia with good results.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid that is present in every cell in the body, but is especially abundant in the brain. It is a crucial building block for the cell membrane, making it important to nerve transmission. It enhances nerve growth factor, which helps manage nerve tissue and repair functions. More than 40 human studies suggest that PS supports just about all brain functions that can be measured and it has garnered two qualified health claims from the FDA.
Gingko biloba is perhaps one of the best known herbs for increasing mental acuity. This is due to the fact that it increases blood flow to the small capillaries (and thus is also good for the eyes, ears , hands, feet, and sexual arousal) and acts as a protective antioxidant. Gingko has a blood thinning effect and should not be used by those on blood-thinning medications.
Dark chocolate contributes to brain health because the caffeine in it increases mental acuity, it provides antioxidants, and it is high in flavonoids that improve blood flow to the brain.
Bacopa is an ayurvedic herb that boosts memory. A study in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that elderly patients improved brain function when taking 300 mg per day, particularly in the areas of verbal information processing and attention.
Citicholine is an intermediate in the production of phosphatidylcholine, a major constituent of the gray matter of the brain. It also helps with the synthesis of acetylcholine, one of the main neurotransmitters in the brain. It also helps restore phospholipid content in the brain and is important to focus and concentration.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom has been used in Asia for hundreds of years and used to be eaten only by emperors. It is increasingly being studied for its neuroprotective effects. It stimulates nerve growth factor, so it helps regenerate the nerves. It also helps with blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
Coconut Oil—Damage caused by Alzheimer’s and other brain conditions disrupts the brain’s ability to use its primary energy source, glucose. The ketones released from the digestion of coconut oil can provide an alternate energy source. About 2 Tbsp per day is enough to achieve therapeutic blood levels of ketones. Make sure the oil is virgin, organic, and cold-pressed.
Avoiding Toxins to the Brain and Nervous System
Excessive saturated fat—Diets high in saturated fat are linked with a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s and can cause the retention of heavy metals in the body, which are harmful to the brain. However, many healthy nutrients in the brain are found in animal products such as eggs (choline), and red meat (carnitine, B12). I think the most important factor in eating red meat is that it is pasture-raised, organic, and grass fed. A serving size is the size and thickness of our palm, and 2-3 servings a week is more than adequate. Eggs and dairy should be organic.
Excessive sugar—In the last 20 years, Americans’ intake of sugar has increased from 25 lbs per year to 125 lbs per year! Sugar is bountiful in sweets and many other packaged foods. Excess sugar can cause chronic inflammation in the body. A sugar high leads to a brain low. Simple sugars cause insulin to spike rapidly, causing blood sugar to dip, and a release of cortisol due to the stress on the body. Excess cortisol causes cloudy thinking and difficulty sleeping, also tough on the brain.
Metals like aluminum, iron, and mercury can accumulate in the body and cause damage to the brain. Since aluminum has no function in the body it is best to try to avoid it altogether. It can be found in canned food, baking powder, non-organic dairy products, cookware, single serve creamers, salt packets, and antiperspirants. Acid blockers like Mylanta and Malox contain aluminum whereas Rolaids and Tums do not. Iron has some functions in the body, namely being a component of red blood cells, so it does not need to be avoided altogether. The issue is with excessive amounts. Red meat should be limited to 2-3 servings per week and your multivitamin should not contain iron.
Mercury is a neurotoxin and should be avoided. The most common causes of exposure to mercury are through dental amalgams, large fish (in excess), and other environmental exposure. If you have a mouthful of mercury fillings it is probably cost prohibitive to go out and have them all removed, but if you have occasion to remove any of them it is important to have it done safely as disturbance of the metal can cause issues. If you are having a filling replaced, do so with non-mercury containing fillings. Chlorella and cilantro are excellent for chelating mercury and removing it from the body.
Food Toxins like dyes and preservatives have been linked to cognitive decline. Chemicals like saccharin, aspartame, and olestra likely have no place in food. By eating organic you can avoid these substances in food.
Prescription Medications are treated as toxins by the body. Some are more harmful than others and place and undue burden on the liver. According to Power Foods for the Brain certain medications like Versed, Valium, Altivan, Xanax and statin drugs (Zocor, Crestor, Pravachol, Mevacor, Vytorin, and Lipitor) cause memory loss. Certain prescription and over the counter sleep medications also cause memory loss including Ambien, Unisom, Nyquil, Tylenol Flu Nighttime, and Alka Selzer Plus Night Cold. Some antidepressants block acetylcholine, one of the main neurotransmitters in the brain. These include Elavil, Norpramin, Tofranil, Pamelor, Effexor, Prozac, and Paxil. Antihistamines including Dimetapp, Chlor-Trimetron, Tavist and Benadryl also block acetylcholine. While prescription drugs are sometimes necessary, saying that they are over used would be an understatement. We should first look to the diet, weight management, exercise, stress reduction, and natural supplements for healing.
That’s a lot of information, I understand. Talk to our staff about what nutrients might be most important for you in maintaining mental acuity and healing brain fog. Remember that there are some great combination products that address many aspects of brain health—healthy fats for brain structure, antioxidants to protect the brain from deterioration, nutrients that improve blood flow or energy use in the brain, and of course, diet. Some superfoods for the brain are salmon, blueberries, greens, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and greens. Stay sharp and we’ll see you soon!