For me personally, now that I’ve crossed into my 50s, nourishing my brain has become as much a part of my daily routine as managing my core muscles was in my 30s and managing my diet was in my 40s. As I identify behaviors that benefit my health, I incorporate them into my lifestyle and maintain them as habits, so that I don’t have to think about them.
We’ve already identified several lifestyle habits that promote brain health:
- Learning new skills
- Memorizing complex pieces of information
- Prayer and faith
- Caring for a pet
- Maintaining an active social life
Over the coming weeks, I will have more activities to share with you. Some of them, I know you are going to love. By the time we’re done, you’re going to have so many fun and interesting activities to choose from, you’re going to need a bigger calendar to do them all…and you are going to love your life while you care for your brain.
Eating For Your Brain
Of course, it should come as no surprise that one of the best things you can do for your brain is to feed it the right kinds of food and avoid the wrong ones. (You knew I was going to get this eventually, didn’t you?)
So let’s take a look at some of the best foods to keep a healthy brain.
This wasn’t going to be a shock to anyone who has been reading “Wellness Wednesday” for a while. I’ve been on a campaign to right the wrongs that have been spread about fat for decades. Your brain (along with all the other parts of your body) uses fat as fuel — healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, animal fats, and nuts. It’s a macronutrient on the same level as protein and Vitamin C.
I’m not talking about vegetable oil, canola oil, or the other concoctions people use to deep fry foods. Vegetable oil is destructive to your heart, skin, hair, and brain, especially when it’s heated — in fact, it goes rancid when it gets hot.
By the same token. even olive oil is best served cold, like over a salad or in a smoothie. As it turns out, the Mediterranean Diet (which we’ve talked about often here) includes healthy portions of olive oil and nuts, so brain-healthy recipes are abundant. When you look at the people who live in the Blue Zones, like Ikaria, Greece, where the Mediterranean Diet is the norm, you see vitality and longevity together – people living past 100 years old with their brain intact.
Tangent: Is Healthy Fat Biblical?
It reminds me of a verse from Deuteronomy that says, “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated” (34:7). You could infer from that verse that his mind was also clear and fully-functional.
How can I make that claim? Well, Psalm 105 describes the history of Israel from the covenant of Abraham to the conquest of Canaan. In verse 37, talking about the Exodus, it says, “…there was not one feeble [sick] among their tribes.” Do you remember what they had for dinner the night before they left Egypt? Roast lamb, which is high in protein and fat. After 400 years of being abused, they were healthy enough to march across the Red Sea and into the wilderness. Could it be because of the Mediterranean Diet? They all lived in the Mediterranean Basin their whole lives.
I am interested in matching up the Kosher diet expressed in Leviticus against the Mediterranean Diet sometime. I’m willing to bet that the way God instructed His people to eat is a formula for longevity, vitality, and brain health. If you have a rabbi friend and you would be willing to introduce me, that would be a conversation I would treasure.
When we talk about healthy fats, someone always brings up fish. That’s good. Many fish are high in health-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Fish also play a huge role in the diets of the Blue Zones, especially in Greece, Italy, and Japan, so the results speak for themselves. You can probably think of others.
There was one exciting aspect of a high-fish diet that I hadn’t heard before. A 2014 study conducted by UCSF Radiologist Dr. Cyrus Raji shows that:
“If you eat fish just once a week, your hippocampus — the big memory and learning center — is 14% larger than in people who don’t eat fish that frequently. If you have a stronger hippocampus, your risk of Alzheimer’s is going to go down. In the orbital frontal cortex, which controls executive function, it’s a solid 4%. I don’t know of any drug or supplement that’s been shown to do that.”
I encourage people to supplement their diets with a multi-vitamin because our soil–and by extension our food supply–has been depleted of its native nutritional load. But the more you can get your nourishment from real food, the better, especially when it comes to meats. For example, Vitamin B-12 is crucial for balancing many of your body’s neurochemical processes, but you can really only get it from meat. I haven’t seen a pill yet that can substitute for the real thing. Omega-3 fatty acids are the same. It’s better to get it directly from fresh, wild salmon.
And all the ladies said, “Amen.”
I probably don’t need to give you another reason to eat chocolate. There is a caveat, but I’ll save that for the end.
Chocolate is high in flavonoids, which we have mentioned here in the past. Flavonoids have been linked to increased blood flow, especially in the brain. They protect brain cell neurons and are high in antioxidants that prevent inflammation. Win, win, win.
Organic dark chocolate (especially chocolate that is at least 85% cacao), is highest in the plant-based phytonutrients, which makes it the best in this category. Every other kind of chocolate (that I am aware of) is mixed with sugars and milk, which offset any potential nutritional value. You know how I feel about sugar. So, the Snickers might perk you up, but it will not benefit your brain, and will ultimately send you crashing. Just don’t.
Berries come up often here because they are high in anti-inflammatory antioxidants (and they’re great in smoothies, on salads, or just as a snack). You may have heard about the brain benefits of eating blueberries in the morning. One thing that makes blueberries especially powerful for the brain is a flavonoid called anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is one of the few chemicals that crosses the blood/brain barrier. It settles in the hippocampus and promotes the growth of neurons that improve learning and memory. Once again, your food can do things for your body that no pill can reproduce.
As a life-long Floridian, citrus is a pretty important part of my life. Fortunately, it’s great for your brain, too. Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and other citrus fruits are high in concentrations of flavonoids (there’s the word again). When it comes to brain health, flavonoids, flavonols, and flavonenes are important nutrients that promote neuron growth. Of course, citrus is also high in antioxidants like Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and countless other good things your body needs every day. However, they are also high in sugar, so lest it sound like I’m promoting a high intake a fruit every morning, please keep it in context of your vegetable intake, which should be proportionally much higher.
Not As Hard As You Thought
So there you have it, a simple way to protect your brain by eating more of the things you already enjoy. And if you don’t enjoy one of them (I’m thinking of my friends who don’t like fish), do it for your brain. Stop by my office or hit me up on Facebook, and I’ll give you a simple way to prepare salmon that you will love.
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“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas