Is there one diet that’s best for brain health, I mean really rocking’ brain optimization? This is a vast subject as seen from the number of books for sale on Amazon and the number of podcasts on the subject. There are so many confounding factors that I believe it basically boils down to one thing: It depends. It’s helpful to consider the following:
- prior health issues/diseases
- current ailments
- gut biome health
- lifestyle choices
- environmental stressors
Certainly there are standard diets that can help people with a variety of problems such as high cholesterol, weight management, and diabetes to name a few. However, when we talk about brain optimization and your intake of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and neurotropic precursors (relating to the growth of nervous tissue), and even smart drugs (nootropics) then we start to want to get more information on what we specifically need to maximally feed our brain for performance given the answers to the above considerations.
How about not eating so much?
Before exploring on what to eat, let’s explore the easier path, that is when not to eat or Intermittent fasting, that is, engaging in mini-fasts. There are many ways to doing this and one popular method is to give your body about 11 hours before it’s next meal. Many people who skip breakfast and don’t eat until lunch are basically engaging in this type of mini-fast (sugar and cream in your morning coffee or tea is not fasting!). It turns out, that even in the time of Plato, fasting was used as a way for the body to repair itself from illness. In times of war or other environmental stress, in which food intake was scarce, health issues often seen in times of prosperity (such as high blood pressure, obesity, heart conditions) remarkably fade during these times. As detailed by Dr. Mark Mattson in his TED talk, research shows that, in fact fasting is good for the brain. This is because when you don’t eat for a finite period of time, there are neurochemical changes that improve cognitive functioning by increasing neurotropic factors. Remember these are important for the growth and survival of developing neurons or brain cells as well as the maintenance of mature cells. These neurotropic factors also increase stress resistance and reduce inflammation, neither of which we want when we strive for a better brain.
And the role of sugar?
You’ve heard it before, the brain uses about 20% of the sugar we eat each day to fuel communication between cells (for a bit more discussion on the structure see here).
To actually see quantitatively how sugar is used in the brain, the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research took a PET scan. Here they used a chemical tracer almost identical to glucose to track its uptake. The areas in red are the areas in the brain that are using the most sugar. As you can see, a large part of our brain responds to sugar! It’s no wonder that the popular press talks about our addiction to sugar.
So, getting back to diet and brain health, it would seem as though sugar would be good for the brain, even needed for functioning, no?
If only the story was so straightforward!
Sugars, also know as carbohydrates, when ingested, signal the reward centers in our brain’s – and these reward centers are all over our brain. See again the above picture for where sugar is used in the brain. As these reward centers are activated, we enjoy the feeling this gives us and so we are inclined to repeat the behavior….eating sugar!
Overstimulation of these areas is where the problem lies..loss of control and cravings are what can be expected. However, the story literally goes deeper. Not only is your brain stimulated but SO IS YOUR INTESTINAL SYSTEM. Yes, it’s true, your gut also has sugar receptors.