The brain is in charge of every function in the body — from breathing, to digestion to circulation. And yet, this important organ is just as susceptible to the negative effects of poor lifestyle choices as the rest of the body. What we eat (or don’t eat) can increase inflammation in the brain, thereby impacting our cognitive function and rate of decline, our risk for neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and even our risk of developing certain mental disorders such as depression. By making wise choices today, you can stay mentally young and healthy no matter what your age is.
It all starts with inflammation.
Inflammation is an essential immune response that can help the body heal from injury or illness. However, when it becomes chronic, inflammatory chemicals that are released can cause damage to normal cells and tissues. There is a reason inflammation has been termed the silent killer! We often don’t feel the effects of inflammation until it has already caused damage, and this is especially true for the brain.
Take a look at your current diet and lifestyle habits to see if any of the following causes of inflammation apply to you:
- High stress levels
- Poor sleep
- Low fruit and vegetable intake
- Processed foods high in Omega-6 fats and/or trans fats
- Foods with a high glycemic load – high in sugar and low in fiber
If any of those factors sound familiar, then we need to take action! In our fast-paced culture, high stress levels have become the norm. Yet this tops the list of factors because hormones released during times of stress trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals that overtime wear down the body.
From a diet perspective, your best tool in fighting inflammation is an anti-inflammatory diet. In a nutshell, this type of diet is heavily plant-based. That includes a minimum of four to five vegetable servings each day (if you can get up to eight or more then even better!), along with fruits, some whole grains, and beans. It emphasizes high quality proteins, avoiding anything that has been processed. This could include vegetarian sources of protein such as whole soy foods, beans, and nuts and seeds. Or it could include wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised chicken. Last, but certainly not least, an anti-inflammatory diet incorporates a hefty dose of healthy fats! Unfortunately this last group is one that we have avoided for several decades, but it’s about time that we start adding it back in.
Why is fat so important for our brain health? And what are the best fats for our brain?
Our brain is at least 60 percent fat – that number right there should tell you that a low-fat diet will not support your brain health! At least 15–20 percent of the fat in our brain is DHA (Docosahexanoic Acid), an Omega-3 fatty acid. It is essential for growth and development of the brain, as well as normal functioning of the adult brain. In fact, deficiencies of DHA are linked to cognitive decline, increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. The best source of DHA in our diet is fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and herring. This is why a higher fish intake has been linked to a 36 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. There are also low levels of DHA in certain meats and whole eggs.
Here are some other healthy fats for the brain:
- Avocado – Rich in monounsaturated fats that can help improve blood flow, this is a great food to add to a salad or sandwich, or try in an omelet.
- Nuts – Eating a variety of nuts provides unsaturated fats and Vitamin E, but walnuts are a particularly good source of healthy Omega-3 fats. One study found that a regular intake of walnuts can boost memory and concentration. Add some to oatmeal or a salad for an extra crunch, or make your own trail mix.
- Olive oil – Studies have found this healthy fat can improve cognitive function. Use extra virgin olive oil to make your own salad dressing or drizzle over vegetables.
As an added bonus to incorporating more fats into your diet, your meals will be much more satisfying. This is because fat adds flavor and contributes to fullness. So the next time you sit down to a meal, make sure to include this brain healthy nutrient!
- Arab, L., Ang, A. (2015). A Cross Sectional Study of the Association Between Walnut Consumption and Cognitive Function Among Adult US Populations Represented in NHANES. J Nutr Health Aging. 19(3): 284-290.
- Horrocks, L.A., Yeo, Y.K. (1999). Health Benefits of Docosahexanoic Acid (DHA). Phamacol Res. 40(3): 211-25
- Martinez-Lapiscina, E.H., Clavero, P., Toledo E., San Julian, B., Sanchez-Tainta, A., Corella, D., Lamuela-Raventos, R.M., Martinez, J.A., Martinez-Gonzalez, M.A. (2013). Virgin Olive Oil Supplementation and Long-term Cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomized trial. J Nutr Health Aging. 17(6): 544-552.
- Wu, S., Ding, Y., Wu, F., Li, R., Hou, J., Mao, P. (2015). Omega-3 Fatty Acids Intake and Risks of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Meta-Analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 48(1-9).
About the author
Julie Smith is part also part of Baylor Scott & White Health’s integrative medicine program as a nutrition counselor. She is a registered and licensed dietitian who takes a functional and holistic approach to nutrition. Julie has been part of Baylor Scott & White since her undergraduate days at Baylor University where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition Science in May 2011, followed by her dietetic internship at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, which lead into her current full-time position.