Updated: Feb 4
It is well recognized that diet can impact health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, so it should come as no surprise that nutrition also plays a key role in brain function.
A brain that functions well means you will have good memory and concentration, good reasoning skills, good physical coordination and be able to perform optimally at work or play. It also means that your mood and emotional state is generally good.
Your brain has a huge job to do. It’s a bit like the manager of a huge factory. It has to oversee everything that is going on, make sure things are working the way they should, and prioritize functions. And then it needs to communicate all of that to the rest of the body. In order to do all of that, it needs to be well nourished.
You might be surprised to learn that the brain gets the nutrients it needs from two sources:
The food you eat.
The microbes living in your gut, commonly referred to as the gut microbiome.
Nutrients that Nourish the Brain
Did you know that the brain is the fattiest organ in the body? Your brain is about 60% fat and contains more cholesterol than any other organ in the body! What? Yes, it’s true, so it should come as no surprise that fat is essential for brain health.
Omega 3s and monounsaturated fats
Fish - especially fatty fish like salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies
Olives and avocados and their oils
Raw nuts and seeds – about ¼ cup daily
B vitamins support all the metabolic activity in the brain. They are often cofactors needed for various reactions, such as energy production, cell repair and neurotransmitter synthesis.
Meat (all kinds) – animal foods are the only bioavailable source of B12
Liver – a powerhouse of Bs
Eggs – keep the yolks runny to optimize B vitamin content
Leafy greens – particularly high in folate (B9)
Raw nuts and seeds
Magnesium is important for nerve transmission - it regulates neurotransmitter function, and has neuro-protective effects.
Nuts and seeds
Some fatty fish - salmon, mackerel, halibut
Dark chocolate (yay!)
Microbial Metabolites that Nourish the Brain
Your digestive tract is host to around 130 trillion organisms. These organisms are an ecosystem composed of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Many of those organisms actually benefit humans. It’s a nice, cozy symbiotic relationship. You provide these microbes with a home, and in exchange they help you. You might be interested to know that microbes help brain function.
Just like you go poop after a meal, your gut microbes also poop. While their “poop” is a bit different from yours, it also comes from the food you eat. That’s right – the food you eat is feeding both you and your microbes.
Microbes will utilize a lot of the substances in food that you can’t digest. Fibre is a really good example of a substance that you can’t digest, but that your microbes love. After they have metabolized those substances the end products (a.k.a poop) are called metabolites (sometimes also referred to as post-biotics). It’s these metabolites that can impact your body and brain.
Gut microbes produce neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine and melatonin. These chemicals impact mood and cognitive function.
B Vitamins & Vitamin K
Microbes produce some of the key nutrients that you brain needs such as B vitamins. Vitamin K is another nutrient that they make that is important for cognitive function.
Short Chain Fatty Acids
Short chain fatty acids (SCFA) are another substance your microbes make that impact the brain. Research has shown that SCFAs affect cognition and mood
How to Feed Your Microbes so they Poop the Good Stuff
Now that you know that your microbes can help your brain, you might be wondering how you can feed them to support the production of those beneficial metabolites.
Vegetables, Herbs & Fruit
These foods are rich in fibre, but also rich in polyphenols, which your microbes need to make beneficial metabolites such as neurotransmitters.
Fresh and dried herbs
Vegetables of all colours – the more variety, the better
Fruit, especially berries
As the name implies, resistant starches are starches that resist digestion. Since your microbes feed on things you can’t digest, foods high in resistant starch provide a good food source for them. In particular these starches will preferentially feed microbes that make SCFAs.
Plantains and green bananas
Cooked and cold potatoes - potato salad is a tasty way to eat cold potatoes
Cooked and cooled rice - bring on the sushi!
Oats and lentils
It’s Actually Pretty Simple
While it might feel a bit overwhelming to realize that your brain needs fats, magnesium, B vitamins, and foods that support the microbial production of neurotransmitters, and SCFAs, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Start by filling half your plate with a variety of vegetables at each meal. Drizzle some olive or avocado over your vegetables.
Make sure to have a source of good quality protein that regularly includes fish. Lastly, have potato salad, or sushi regularly.
Imagine that plate right now with your favorite foods on it. Is it a large salad with grilled salmon and an olive oil dressing? Is it tuna rolls with a seaweed salad? Or is it a steak with a medley of vegetables roasted in avocado oil?
Are you salivating just thinking about that meal? Before you head out on your next shopping trip, make sure to have the ingredients you need for that meal, along with some fish, and a variety of vegetables that include leafy greens, and fresh herbs. And don’t forget a good quality olive or avocado oil!
CONTRIBUTED BY: Tracey Reed - Holistic Nutritional Consultant B.Ed, C.H.N.C.