It’s common knowledge that your nutrition has a major influence on your digestive health and your heart health, but did you know that the food you eat also affects your cognitive health?
Your gut and your brain are connected through your vagus nerve, one of your main parasympathetic nerves. We call this the “gut-brain axis.” Through the gut-brain axis, your gut and your brain are in constant communication with each other and influence one another.
Your gut influences your brain through three main pathways:
- Gut Bacteria. An overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut is closely linked to poor mental health, brain fog, and reduced attention; whereas, a diverse, healthy microbiome in the gut is correlated with optimal cognition.
- Detoxification. Your gut is a major player in ridding the body of toxins through liver detoxification, digestion, and excretion. A buildup of toxins that aren’t being expelled properly due to an unhealthy gut can also lead to poor cognition.
- Hormone Production. Some of your neurotransmitters actually originate in the gut. For example, 90% of your serotonin, the “happy” hormone, is produced in the gut, and when your gut is unhealthy, that production is affected. This can lead to a decline in mental health.
So, intuitively, a healthy gut promotes a healthy brain. How do you build a healthy gut? Through nutrition!
The food you eat is one of the defining factors of your gut health. According to Christaney Townsend, dietitian at PALM Health, “The food we eat feeds the bacteria in our gut — whether it’s good or bad bacteria. So, it’s important to choose foods that will feed the beneficial bacteria.”
Similarly, strong nutrition will support the other processes in the gut, such as detoxification and hormone production, and will help decrease inflammation.
An inadequate diet is also often associated with fatigue, poor decision-making, slow reaction time, and sometimes anxiety and depression. You may have experienced this in instances when you’ve eaten a lot of inflammatory, unhealthy foods or not eaten enough food in general.
So, what foods should you choose to support proper brain function?
The 4 Key Nutrients For Brain Health
“There are four key nutrients to aim for when it comes to brain-healthy foods: healthy fats, antioxidants, B vitamins, and vitamin D,” says Christaney.
- Healthy Fats
There are a few forms of fats in food: trans fats, saturated fats, and unsaturated fats. Trans fats are man-made and are quite inflammatory: you’ll find them in a lot of processed foods and fried foods. These are best to avoid. Saturated fats are okay in moderation, but you want to limit them in order to preserve your cardiac health. These are found in butters, fatty meats, and cakes.
Unsaturated fats, though, are the healthy fats — also called omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are instrumental in cultivating healthy cognition because they are highly anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is a common root cause of neurodegenerative diseases, so healthy fats help combat their onset.
Similarly, healthy fats increase the amount of ketones used as fuel in your brain, and as you age, your body actually starts to prefer ketones over glucose as fuel.
Some foods that are rich in healthy fats include fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), avocado, seeds, nuts, and olive oil.
Antioxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, help protect your nerve cells and lipids from free radical damage, which can contribute to chronic neurological diseases as well as day-to-day symptoms like brain fog.
Christaney recommends red bell pepper, oranges, kiwi, strawberries, and grapefruit for vitamin C, and almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and wheat germ oil for vitamin E.
- B Vitamins
B vitamins are integral for neuron development and synaptic connection, which is how your neurons relay messages and information to one another.
B6, B12, and folate are the “big 3” B vitamins to focus on for brain health. They also work together to lower the levels of homocysteine in your blood. Too much homocysteine increases inflammation in your body and is associated with cognitive decline and dementia.
You can get B6 from foods like salmon, tuna, beef liver, chickpeas, oatmeal, potatoes, and bananas; and animal proteins like turkey, chicken, eggs, and red meat are great B12 sources. Folate is abundant in green leafy vegetables, fruits, and fruit juices.
- Vitamin D
Finally, vitamin D is critical for the mental health side of brain function. It helps reduce anxiety, boost mood, and retain clarity.
But did you know that roughly 45% of American adults are deficient in vitamin D? Chances are, you may be too — so it never hurts to boost the amount of vitamin D you get from your food.
Try eating more salmon, sardines, egg yolk, beef liver, cod liver oil, and mushrooms. You can also try a daily vitamin D supplement, which can be a great way to get more of it if you have trouble with some of those foods.
You may notice that there is a lot of overlap in the foods recommended for each of those nutrients, so when you incorporate some of those foods, you’re checking multiple boxes at once, which is great news.
If you’re looking for more specific diet recommendations or food plans, you can also look into the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, the Cardiometabolic food plan, and the Ketogenic diet. These plans all have targeted benefits for brain function and preventing neurodegenerative diseases.
It’s always best to go about starting new food plans and diets with the support of an expert. At PALM, we offer nutrition counseling with Christaney Townsend, our registered dietitian, who will work one-on-one with you to determine a food plan that works best for your goals and habits and who will help keep you accountable as you make those changes.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can improve your nutrition, contact reception to schedule an appointment with Christaney.