It has taken me years to delve into the science of the brain. When I first got curious on this topic most of my time was spent with books on brain science, medical journals and so on, but years into my learning much of my time is spent reading about plants and foods and how the human body interacts with them.
These topics are essential to modern neuroscience because every thing we eat becomes part of us.
The food we eat in turn shapes our brains just as surely as it shapes our bodies.
It’s a simple and undisputable principle: Our brain receives nourishment (or not) through the foods we eat every single day.
Of all of the organs in our body the brain is the one most easily damaged by a poor diet.
Every aspect of the brain calls for proper food, from its very design to its ability to perform. The foods we eat are broken down into nutrients, taken up into the bloodstream, and carried up into the brain. Once there, they can replenish depleted storage, activate cellular reactions, and lastly, become the very fabric of our brains.
Consider this the next time you reach for a brownie: Its ingredients will actually become part of your brain.
It is surprising just how little attention this topic receives, in science and in mainstream culture.
Culturally, the overwhelming majority of best-selling diet books emphasize getting thinner or looking younger, although there are a few popular diets that optimize against coronary conditions or blood sugar or food sensitivities.
The brain, it seems, is well-suited to think about most anything except its own well-being.
When we eat a fatty, sugary meal and experience symptoms like sluggishness, brain fog, and drowsiness—these symptoms originate not in the stomach but in the brain.
More importantly, these aren’t strictly momentary effects.
The latest research, indicates that a poor diet causes the loss of key structural and functional elements in the brain, with an aggressively higher vulnerability to brain aging and dementia.
Science has now shown that some foods are neuroprotective, literally shielding the brain from harm and supporting cognitive fitness over the course of a lifetime. Conversely, other foods and nutrients are downright harmful for the brain, thereby slowing us down in general and deeply increasing the risks of dementia.
So how can we improve our diet in a brain-healthy way?
Despite what our minds might tell us when presented with a brownie, what our brain actually craves is very specific, carefully selected foods.
To get you started, here are three surprising tips for maintaining a brain-healthy diet:
Drink water (a lot!)
The brain itself is 80 percent water. And every chemical reaction that takes place in the brain, including energy production, needs water to occur. This means that water needs to be replenished on a daily basis. The brain is so sensitive to dehydration that even a minimal loss of water can cause symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, dizziness, confusion (which many of us have experienced in our lives), and more importantly, brain shrinkage (which all of us must do everything to avoid).
Most people don’t yet realize that the water they’re drinking is not optimal for brain health.
Purified water, club soda, seltzer—none of these beverages contain the minerals that the brain needs to stay hydrated and work efficiently. The longevity and well-being of both your brain and your body are critically dependent upon consuming hard water. This refers to plain water that is high in minerals and natural electrolytes.
Hard water isn’t hard to find – it is best to drink spring or mineral water. Whether it comes from an underground spring or from an artesian well, spring water is the product of rain and snow filtered through layers of rock, where it picks up all sorts of valuable minerals that are good for you.
Likewise, sparkling mineral water that comes from a natural spring also contains various healthful minerals. Carbonation isn’t added by the bottler but from the spring itself. That means that the bubbles in these bottles are completely natural.
In many cities, tap water is perfectly good too—but if you filter it, you may be filtering out some of those essential minerals. If so, take mineral supplements along with your water. Whichever way you get hard water, remember that your brain can’t generate any on its own.
Don’t wait until you’re thirsty or exhausted. Train your own brain to keep itself on point and keep water in close reach wherever you are to support the habit.
Eggs, caviar and cold-water fatty fish
Of all animal foods available to us, eggs are hard to beat for brain nutrition. Eggs contain so many nutrients that are optimized for a nascent brain to develop. Fish eggs are especially good because these nutrients are combined with an astounding omega-3 DHA load.
Fish eggs contain a unique blend of nutrients that are perfect for brain health: omega-3 DHA fat (a must-have for the brain, most abundant in fish), choline (a B vitamin essential for memory), vitamins B6 and B12 (needed for a strong nervous system), iron (needed for healthy blood), brain-building protein, and even anti-aging vitamins.
Caviar can be expensive, of course, so I also strongly recommend cold-water fatty fish like salmon, trout, bluefish, sardines, and anchovies. These are all cheaper and excellent alternatives that are accessible to many more people.
Get enough fiber and probiotics
An absence of fiber has been shown to harm our guts and to therefore affect the population of friendly bacteria in those guts (the microbiome).
There is a direct connection between gut health and the brain—a topic all its own—a low-fiber diet may have negative long-term effects on the brain.
If you need more convincing, consider this: A large body of literature on centenarians shows that, all over the world, those who are 100 years old and counting follow high-carb diets.
That’s a solid clue that the relationship is a broadly beneficial one. When centenarian diets were studied in more detail, it was noted that over 80 percent of calories in their diet comes from vegetables, fruit, legumes, and complex carbohydrates like whole grains, brown rice, oats, and sweet potatoes.
These foods are packed with brain-supportive nutrients—from protein to B vitamins to a bounty of antioxidants and minerals. They are also a good source of glucose, the main energy source for the brain. Combined with a high-fiber content to stabilize blood sugar levels, these foods support a healthy digestion and therefore boost the immune system too.
Probiotics are natural beneficial bacteria in the gut and a diet high in fiber and natural foods will support healthy bacteria. Fermented foods can add these if your gut has been depleted by stress, factory made foods or too much sugar or alcohol in your diet.
Dark chocolate (my favourite!)
As my dad loves to point out (and he doesn’t know much about food): chocolate makes you happy!
Of course, sugar free, dark chocolate is preferable.
Chocolate with cacao content of 80 percent or higher is rich in theobromine, a powerful antioxidant known to support cellular aging and reduce the risk of heart disease.
In conclusion, the more we learn about what kicks off and accelerates brain aging, the clearer it
becomes: It is never too soon to take care of your brain.
What we all can do is to take care of the brains we’ve been given, nourishing them thoughtfully, thus naturally extending our chances of a longer, healthier life. For every one of us, our future lies in our own hands and whatever those hands put into our mouths.