What is Brain Food?

Your brain is the most important organ in the body. It is unique to everyone and is the center for all cognitive function and communication throughout the body. Cognitive function is your ability to learn, make decisions, be attentive, and think. It is dictated by the activity of your neurons communicating in the brain with the nerves throughout your body.


How Does Your Brain Work?


Your brain is filled with neuronal networks that send electrical signals to various regions of the brain. Neurons behave similarly to an electric circuit; they are able to respond to different inputs and propagate unique responses depending on that input. New connections can form between your neurons, sparking neuroplasticity - the process in which your brains connections reorganize to adapt to new situations as well as help compensate for injury and disease. This is important for brain health because working different areas of your brain enhances functionality, strengthens connections, and prevents cognitive decline.


Neurons communicate with each other through neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical compounds that are secreted from one neuron and fit to receptors on neighboring neurons like a lock and key. The transmitters trigger an electrical response that is sent down the length of one neuron to the next.

Cognitive health is strongly associated with these connections; the more of these connections and networks you build, the healthier your brain is. Actively receiving and transferring neurotransmitters is what keeps your neurons healthy. You can strengthen your neurons and their connections by supplying the brain with sufficient amounts of nutrients, physical activity, cognitive stimulation, and restorative sleep. These connections span all throughout the brain helping interpret our sensation and perception and turn them into our emotions and physical reactions.


Your Brain and Your Body




The brain communicates to the body by neuronal stimulation of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland releases chemicals into the bloodstream which are delivered to the endocrine glands. The endocrine glands react to these chemical signals and either increase or decrease their hormone production. These hormones are then secreted to the blood stream and distributed to the rest of the body. Different hormones trigger various responses; some hormones need to be present or absent for certain functionalities.

Some hormones are produced by other systems to be sent back to the brain, specifically the receptors on the hypothalamus. This signals to the brain to stop the signal from the pituitary gland, ultimately reducing hormone production. The same process can also be used to increase hormone production depending on the signals sent.

Specifically, the stomach communicates with your brain via hormones. Ghrelin is the hormone that is secreted when your stomach is empty, telling your brain to increase the release of appetite stimulating hormones. Once you are full, the stomach releases leptin to reduce appetite stimulating hormones. Having a healthy cycle of these hormones can directly impact neuroplasticity due to their activity in the brain.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are responsible for controlling functions essential to survival which do not require hormonal signals. A few vital functions include breathing, swallowing, and a regular heartbeat. A healthy brain is crucial to maintain optimal performance of your nervous system. Processes that are and are not dictated by hormones act in unison, thus giving you the ability to navigate and live in the world.


The Neurons' Life Cycle




Brain aging is the common term for the loss of our neuronal connections. As you grow, there is a finite amount of space for neurons and their connections. Naturally, we will lose our neurons and the connections that we do not use anymore. Connections that are inactive are deprived of the energy and nutrients they need to survive. This gives your brain more material and nutrients to strengthen the connections you readily use.

Although natural degradation occurs, neurons can also be destroyed prematurely. Neuroinflammation occurs when neurons are exposed to toxins which cause an inflammatory immune response. Inflammation is associated with the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier, which is responsible for protecting the brain and helping it maintain the proper environment it needs to be healthy and grow. When toxins break through this barrier and enter the brain, neurodegeneration can occur. Over time, if neurons are continually exposed to toxins they may break down, leading to premature cell deal.

As this immune response becomes chronic, there is a larger issue with neurodegeneration. Amyloid, a protein, is produced to help protect the brain from foreign invaders. Although this protein typically helps with neuronal growth and repair, it can sometimes be produced incorrectly which leads to a structural change in the protein. When this occurs, the protein can not function correctly, and it can actually harm your neurons. If this process occurs repeatedly, neurodegeneration can occur.

A byproduct of insulin production is an enzyme that degrades insulin after it has been used. This enzyme is also responsible for the degradation of amyloid. When your blood sugar is chronically elevated, this enzyme can only focus on the degradation of insulin; therefore, diverting attention from amyloid causing a buildup in the brain. A buildup of amyloid plaque is one of the primary indicators of degenerative diseases.

In order for you to function at your optimal capacity, you must supply your brain with the essential nutrients it needs to grow and operate properly. Neurons are highly dependent on minerals, antioxidants, and beneficial fatty acids that you can provide to your body.



Fuel Your Brain


Brain food is more than nutrition, it is the actions you take to fuel your brain: all of the components that help build and restore cognitive functions. Countless research has shown that proper nutrient intake, exercise, decrease in toxic exposure, quality sleep, and social interaction all improve cognitive and physical health.


1. Physical Activity




When you exercise, your brain releases beneficial growth factors that preserve nerves and neurons by strengthening their synapses. When the brain runs low on these growth factors, it produces amyloid, leading to neurodegeneration. It takes around six to seven minutes of medium to heavy activity for your brain to start producing these beneficial growth factors. Medium to heavy activity requires higher intensity, when your heart rate is elevated and it is harder to breath. You should always consult your physician about finding the activity that is best for you and your health.

Here are some examples of different physical activities you can try:

Aerobic Strength and Resistance Balance Flexibility
Jogging Squats Heel-toe-walk Neck stretch
Hiking Lunges Single leg balance Shoulder and back stretch
Biking Push-ups Back leg raises Shoulder rotator stretch
Jumping jacks Crunches Side leg raises Wrist stretch
Stair stepper Planks Yoga Lower back stretch
Swimming Bicep curls Tai Chi Hip stretch
Dancing Tricep curls Side-stepping Hamstring stretch
Martial arts Pull-ups Medicine ball plank Calf stretch

2. Nutrition




Detox and rid your brain of possible toxins by consuming the appropriate amount of these foods.

Consume more:
Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Provide support of cognitive processes
  • Upregulate genes beneficial in synaptic function and plasticity
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Improve immune system
Antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients
  • Increase cognition
  • Improve neuronal connectivity
  • Improve neurotransmitter strength
  • Fight free radicals
Healthy source of organic complex carbohydrates
  • Whole, unprocessed grains
  • Fiber-rich vegetables
  • Berries
  • Root vegetables
Avoid
  • All sugars and sweeteners
  • All artificial sweeteners
  • All chemical additives
Saturated fats and trans fats
  • Reduce cognitive processing
  • Increase neurological dysfunction
  • Avoid refined oils

3. Sleep




When you sleep, you are giving your brain time to rest, recover, and build new connections. Restorative sleep allows your body to focus its energy on important detoxifying processes and memory consolidation.
  • Create a healthy sleeping environment
  • Maintain a consistent sleeping schedule
  • Get enough sleep every night
  • Avoid stimulation and/or exercise before sleeping


4. Cognitive Stimulation




Strengthen your neurons and their connections by actively working them. This can happen in a variety of different ways. The more cognitive stimulation you receive, the more expansive your neuronal network will become. The following cognitive activities are ways to challenge your brain and strengthen your connections. They also help provide a way to relax and destress, giving your brain time to rest and restore. This allows time for overused processes to have a break and focus their energy on other tasks.
  • Learning a musical instrument
  • Computer programming
  • Writing an article
  • Karaoke
  • Stand-up comedy
  • Learning to dance
  • Playing a challenging game
  • Card game, chess club, mind puzzles, crosswords, puzzles
  • Mentoring others
  • Volunteering in your community
  • Making jewelry, crafts, and models
  • Drawing, painting, and sculpting
  • Taking academic courses
  • Forest bathing
  • Daily reflections
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Reading

5. Reduce Toxic Exposures




You want to reduce your overall toxic load on your body to protect your brain from aging and degrading. Reduce your everyday toxic exposure by focusing on The Big 5.

1. Filter your water
2. Filter your air
3. Eat organic, nutrient rich, and anti-inflammatory food
4. Use personal protective equipment when using chemicals, especially cleaning products
5. Limit body hygiene products filled with chemicals


Small Steps You Can Make Everyday




The following recommendations will guide you to beneficial behaviors that increase your neurological health and decrease your behaviors that may have adverse effects. You are in control of fueling your brain and body; take time to think about how your choices impact your neurological health everyday.

Nutrition


Work towards increasing:

  • Organic foods
  • Fresh and frozen vegetables
  • Fresh and frozen fruits
  • Beans and lentils
  • Sugar-free nondairy plant milk
  • Whole, unprocessed grains
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Healthy oils

Work towards eliminating:

  • Sweets
  • Processed junk food
  • Sugary cereals
  • Baked package goods
  • Chips, crackers, salty snacks
  • Buttery popcorn
  • Processed white bread products
  • Dairy
  • Processed meats and poultry
  • Canned soups/noodle packets
  • Refined oils

Physical Activity


Work towards increasing:

  • Taking the stairs
  • Moving while doing a stagnant activity: watching TV, working, studying, etc.
  • Walking or riding your bike whenever possible
  • Dancing, Tai Chi, or yoga at home
  • Using common household objects to help work out

Work towards decreasing:

  • Sitting for long periods of time
  • Long hours of sedentary behavior
  • Watching TV without exercise
  • Avoiding the stairs
  • Days without any form of physical activity

Sleep


Work towards increasing:

  • Relaxation before bedtime
  • Enjoying a regular schedule
  • Meditation
  • Light during the day
  • Exercise earlier in the day

Work towards eliminating:

  • Electronic usage at night
  • Eating before bed
  • Drinking caffeinated beverages at night
  • Noise that wakes you up
  • Physical activity later in the evening

Cognitive Stimulation


Work towards increasing:

  • Time spent with families and friends
  • Activities you love
  • Learning new, cognitively challenging activities
  • Being a part of different social circles
  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Listening to music
  • Cultivating healthy relationships
  • Living a purpose driven life

Work towards decreasing:

  • Long periods of inactivity
  • Sitting for extended periods of time
  • Daily screen time
  • Listening to music loudly
  • Overstimulation from multitasking and information overload

Toxic Exposure


Work towards increasing:

  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Exfoliating your skin with Epsom salt baths or saunas
  • Intake of filtered water
  • Quality sleep
  • Organic foods

Work towards eliminating:

  • Toxic body hygiene products
  • Chemical filled cleaners
  • GMOs
  • Glyphosate


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An Inflammation-Centric View of Neurological Disease, Beyond the Neuron, Skaper, SD (Department of Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences, University of Padua, Padua, Italy) 

Ayurvedic Approach to Food and Dietary Supplements for the Brain and Neurologic Health, Sharma, H (Integrative Medicine, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA) 
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