Brain Power: The Gut-Brain-Nutrition Connection
We are never truly alone. On our skin, in our gums, and in our guts live 100 trillion organisms, altogether known as the microbiome. These beasties comprise 90% of the cells of our bodies, though these cells are so tiny in size that it appears our own human cells predominate.
What do they have to do with psychiatry? It turns out way more than we might have suspected. The gut and brain have a steady ability to communicate via the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system.
“Essentially your gut is your 2nd brain, explains Wendy Cohen, RDN, CDN. “The familiar phrase and advice ‘listen to your gut’ and the feelings of ‘butterflies in your stomach’ before a first date are surefire signs of the gut-brain connection.”
According to scientists and researchers at Johns Hopkin’s university, your gut microbes speak directly to your brain via the gut-brain axis. This axis controls your digestion, immune function, mood and stress. Your enteric nervous system (located within the wall of your gut from your esophagus down to your rectum) uses many of the same neurotransmitters that your brain does, such as serotonin and dopamine. In fact, more than 90% of serotonin( ahh the feel-good neurotransmitter) is made and stored in your gut.
Your gut and brain even look like each other! So no wonder what we eat can directly affect our brain function.
So now let’s talk nutrition.
Here’s a menu of foods to eat to keep your gut, and especially your brain, robust and strong which is essential for a compatible gut-brain relationship.
- Turmeric: For long-term brain power, turn to this Indian staple,. This brightly hued herb is used in curry and has been shown to protect against inflammation as well as Alzheimer’s. You can sneak turmeric into just about anything, with it’s calming subtle flavor (unlike it’s neon-like color) it might light up your dish but not your taste buds.
- Healthy Fats: Foods rich in healthy fats, including avocado and salmon have neurological benefits as well as cardiovascular ones. Try an avocado in your smoothie in the morning (you only need ¼) or add some soaked cashews. The blend will be creamy and your head will receive a multitude of benefits.
- Go beta-carotene: The antioxidant responsible for the orange hue in fruits and vegetables has been shown to increase brain function. Aim for orange at every meal if you can, looking to such options as carrots, squash (pumpkin recipe), sweet potatoes, oranges and peppers.
- Cheers for chickpeas: Back to the chickpea comment above (related to turmeric), but chickpeas are rich in vitamin B and folate. Studies have shown that individuals with low levels of folate are at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s.
- Go for the Joe: If you’ve had a rough night, heading for a cup of coffee isn’t such a bad idea. Coffee helps stimulate the central nervous system and can increase overall cognitive function. Just remember to keep it to 3 or less cups per day.
- Chocolate: the real stuff has a lot of health benefits including boosting memory, cognition, and mood. This sweet treat, in it’s dark form with a high percentage of cacao, is famous for reducing inflammation and cardiac risk.
- Tea: As I sip my tea, I’m discovering how healthy tea is for your memory. Tea is rich in polyphenols, antioxidants found to improve memory and overall cognitive function. In addition, tea may help inhibit the activity of enzymes that are linked with the development of Alzheimer’s Disease. Try taking Nature’s Way Olive Leaf Supplements to boost your antioxidant intake.
- Beets: Beets don’t often receive a lot of acclaim. But according to research foods rich in nitrates help increase blood flow, helping protect your brain from dementia.
- Rosemary: Herbs, including rosemary and oregano help reduce inflammation in the body. Scentually, however, these herbs also have beneficial effects helping increase memory and recognition.
- Sunflower seeds: A variety of seeds including flax seeds and pumpkin seeds, as well as sunflower seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamin E, which has been shown to help protect your brain. Try adding a tablespoon to your daily diet.
We are going to throw garlic in for very good measure too. Garlic’s inflammation-reducing properties are beneficial for your brain and helps with improved memory and learning. An article published in “The American Society for Nutritional Sciences” in 2001 noted that aged garlic extract, known as AGE, may play a part in protecting against brain function loss, as indicated by its ability to increase memory, cognitive functions and longevity. A compound found in garlic and known as dilly trisulfide, or DATS may play an important role in reducing tumor growth in patients with glioblastoma, the most deadly form of brain tumor. (Thanks Livestrong, for the statistics!)