Food for thought: Brain health starts on your plate
Guest post by Tina Stibbe, freelance writer
Brain health could be described as the absence of any disorders affecting its faculty to fulfil its tasks. As we age, our brain capacity reduces due to the loss of neurological integrity, leading to cognitive decline and, in some cases, to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
There are means to counteract this trend. Cognitive function is highly dependent on the maintenance of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to stay flexible and adapt to new situations and stimuli. The basic mechanisms involved in plasticity include neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons, and the reorganization of synaptic networks. This can be influenced by factors like physical activity, mental exercise and, last but not least, our diet.
In fact, the Cleveland Clinic identifies food and nutrition as one of six pillars of brain health.
Brain food – Less meat, more leafy greens
The Swiss Nutrition Policy for 2017-2024 established that currently, most people eat too salty, too sweet, too much animal-sourced fat, and not enough fruits and vegetables. We thereby let valuable nutrients slip through our fingers and miss the chance to give our brain proper food. This phenomenon is also known as the Western diet.
In their guidelines to prevent cognitive decline the World Health Organization (WHO) states that diet can have either a direct effect on the development of dementia or an indirect impact by influencing other risk factors that in turn promote dementia, such as diabetes.
The WHO recommends to eat healthy and balanced, adhering to the so-called Mediterranean-like diet: vegetables and fruits, fish, and whole grain products. A similar approach is the so-called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.
More recently, a combined approach called the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet has become the focus of dietary recommendations. It is comprised of natural, plant-based foods, including a lot of leafy greens and berries, and limits the intake of animal products altogether. Studies suggest that people following the MIND diet showed a significantly slower decline in cognitive functions, so much so that at best, their brain functions equaled that of a person 7.5 years younger than themselves.
The super powers behind brain food
The exact mechanisms through which especially plant-based foods exert their neuroprotective powers are not entirely understood to date. It is thought that nutrient-dense foods, like the ones included in the aforementioned diets, work as a multifactorial unit – meaning that different components of these diets can act together and reinforce each other’s benefits.
Moreover, there is mounting evidence that brain health promotional foods contain certain chemicals, dubbed nutraceuticals (i.e., nutritional pharmaceuticals), that possess neurologically beneficial features. Those include polyphenols (a group of chemicals contained in plants), micronutrients (such as vitamins and trace elements) and polyunsaturated fats (making up about 50% of the fatty acids in our brains). While the latter is important for the optimal structural design and thereby function of the brain, the first two share the common property of being able to reduce oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, thus protecting the brain from damage.
The brain is listening to the gut
A fairly young field of research explores on how the intestinal organs are communicating with the brain and vice versa. The channel through which this exchange happens is called the gut-brain-axis and utilizes transmitter molecules via many different routes including the nerves, the immune system, hormones and so on. The chemical messenger substances released in the gut are dependent on the ecosystem of bacteria inhabiting it and are directly related to our diet. It has been shown that people on a vegetarian or vegan diet have more beneficial bacterial cultures in their intestines, that are also more stable and diverse than that of omnivorous eaters.
Translating this into (easy) practice
Wondering how to translate all of this into practical advice so you can make easy (maybe even fun and tasty) adjustments to your everyday life?
That’s why the Women’s Brain Project (WBP) is running the Be Brain Powerful Switzerland campaign, a 30-day brain health challenge that you can sign up for. Based on WHO guidelines and the Cleveland Clinic’s pillars of brain health, the campaign delivers a challenge a day for 30 days right to your inbox. Available in English, French, Italian, and German, all you need to do is sign up here and you’ll see how to improve your food and nutrition – among other things.