By Dina Eliash Robinson
“What you feed your body, you also feed your brain—sometimes to its detriment.”
Mark Hyman, MD—best-selling author, physician, founder and medical director of the UltraWellness Center.
Brain At Risk
The amazing “pilot” that directs our thoughts, movements and identity from its perch atop the spine is under siege and in dire need of protection, healing and rescue from physical and environmental injuries.
While damage inflicted during contact sports, accidents or violent encounters can often be repaired through surgery, psychotherapy or other medical treatments, problems affecting memory and various cognitive functions due to aging, stress or other causes, require lifestyle changes—primarily optimum nutrition fortified with exercise, stress management and attitude adjustments.
Fortunately, more of us are becoming aware of the destructive effects of processed, chemicals-laden and genetically modified (GMO) junk foods and instinctively reach instead for organic produce, poultry, eggs and other nutritious edibles when shopping for groceries. We no longer feel insulted when called health nuts. In fact, we’re even a little proud that our preference for safer and better quality foods and willingness to spend a little more time, attention and, if needed, money to protect the self-repairing abilities of our amazing and complex bodies is earning us respect—maybe even a touch of envy. These days we flaunt our status as gourmet foodies—just as once scorned nerds are now enjoying being hailed as geniuses.
We no longer apologize for giving unsolicited advice about nutrition, nor for warning others about the carcinogenic effects of pesticides and GMO products. Being called alarmists is no longer regarded as an insult but a challenge to the critics to fact-check the information about these poisons. And since our topic of today is the care, feeding and protection of the brain, we’ll run up the black flag with skull and crossbones about such deadly toxins as Chlorpyrifos—an organophosphate pesticide classified as a dangerous neurotoxin, which has been found to lower kids’ IQ, cause poor memory, learning disability, increased tendency to develop attention deficit disorder (ADD), autism, dyslexia and delays in motor development. In adults, Chlorpyrifos has also been linked to lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
And as if poisoning our food supply wasn’t enough, Monsanto, DuPont and other chemical companies have also been loading up the environment with more subtle, invisible pollutants to play havoc with our cerebellum. (See Frontiers in Pharmacology— https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5699236/; The Atlantic—https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-toxins-that-threaten-our-brains/284466/).
Living In A Soup Of Mind-Scrambling Electromagnetic Messaging And High-Voltage Electrical Transmissions
Do you ever get bone-tired without having done much, even after a good night’s sleep? Look around. You might be living or working near high-voltage power lines that sap your energy. Have you noticed too many memory glitches or difficulty focusing? Check your surroundings for too many computers, cellphones and other electromagnetic devices that are busy scrambling your synapses and neurological networks.
The airwaves around residential and business communities are congested with zooming smartphone messages pinging among cell-towers and surges across high-power transmission lines. Decades of neurological research have linked their effect, along with that of the widespread use of (and addiction to) high-tech appliances, to the increase of people suffering brain-fog, difficulty focusing, short attention spans and especially memory problems—symptoms that were once only associated with aging but are now afflicting younger generations.
How Can We Use Foods for Good Brain Health?
Some of the most effective remedies that help clear the mental fuzz and pep up one’s energy include eating so-called “brain foods” to increase memory power and concentration, as well as committing to a daily exercise program, some form of meditation and especially, adopting such simple, self-protective habits as keeping phones and other electronic devices away from sleep areas; limiting screen time as much as possible; and, if at all possible, avoiding living or working under or near high-voltage electrical power transmission lines.
Other commonsense health and safety measures include staying out of the ocean and other waterways after heavy rains and sewage spills to avoid being contaminated by surges of bacteria, viruses and runoffs of toxic agricultural chemicals.
Stress-Busting Memory Sharpening Brain Foods that Protect The Brain From Cortisol Triggers
While some stress can be a motivating force or a boost to one’s creative juices, too much pressure tends to trigger the release of harmful cortisol, the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone known to inhibit restful sleep, clear thinking and other essential biological functions that deplete brain energy.
Health in general is under siege as technology, competition, the uncertainty of a ‘gig’ economy and the increasing speed of changes that allows no time for mental processing or thoughtful skill development, are ratcheting up stress to unprecedented levels. We try to survive in jobs that demand 60+-hour workweeks and 24-7 availability via the Internet and buzzing phones–jobs that bleed into our private lives, leaving no time for rest, recovery or much needed quiet introspection.
Add to this unpredictable work schedules, impossible expectations, required multi-tasking (more accurately described as ‘disrupted, half-baked, semi-focused work’) and juggling family responsibilities, and you’ve got an overactive cortisol pump that eventually exhausts both brain and immune system.
Multi-Purpose Serotonin: Maintaining balanced levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin helps inhibit cortisol surges, makes dealing with (and thus lowering) stress easier and prevents depression and mood swings. Produced by nerve cells from the essential amino acid tryptophan and stored in the brain, bowels and throughout the digestive and central nervous systems, serotonin also keeps appetite in check and improves digestion, sleep, memory and sexual function.
Food Recommendations for Good Brain Health, Improving Memory & Concentration
“Brain foods” recommended by most U.S. and European brain researchers for their calming, anti-depression and other beneficial effects, include:
- Turkey and chicken, which are rich in relaxing, soporific (sleep-inducing) tryptophan—a precursor of the mood-enhancing serotonin hormone. See FreeRangeClub article: EAT YOUR WAY TO CARDIOVASCULAR FITNESS.
- Other tryptophan sources include eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds and bananas.
- In soups, poultry also have proven anti-viral capabilities and are thus traditionally used as a first line of defense against the flu, colds and even outbreaks of shingles. For a low-cholesterol version, discard the birds’ skin.
Adding kale and other fresh, organic, in-season vegetables, gives the chicken soup (i.e. “Jewish penicillin”) greater flavor and healing punch. When made with various combinations of dark green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, bok-choi), anti-cancer cruciferous plants (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), vitamin-rich nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, potatoes), blood-pressure-lowering roots (carrots, parsnips, celery, rutabaga, radishes, beets), nutritious herbs (fresh or dry parsley, basil, dill, tarragon, sage, thyme, memory-boosting rosemary), anti-viral agents (garlic, onion), and spices that provide both powerful anti-oxidants and rich flavors to all cooked dishes (turmeric, cardio-enhancing cayenne, red paprika, digestion-aiding ginger), these hearty soups provide complete health support.
- Steamed and sautéed vegetables—in various combinations and prepared with some or all the above-mentioned herbs and spices, serve as excellent side dishes to fish, poultry and vegan proteins.
(Generic Recipe: Quick-and-easy to prepare veggie dishes can be started with chopped red onions sautéed in extra virgin olive oil over low heat until onion becomes glassy, with chopped fresh garlic cloves added and sautéed for about one minute; chopped tomatoes for tangy sauce can be followed by as many fresh, organic, locally-sourced veggies as are available—flavored with combinations of some of the above-mentioned herbs and spices.)
- Goat dairy is in many ways healthier and, due to its specific enzyme composition, easier to digest than cow or even sheep products. It is also better suited to the diets of people suffering from lactose intolerance or allergic reactions to other dairy. What’s more, goat products are rich in relaxing tryptophan, have less cholesterol and contain higher levels and more diverse strains of friendly bacteria than cow or sheep dairy.
- The plain, unsweetened, fermented goat milk kefir is an effective probiotic, rich in a wide variety of beneficial bacteria that keep the gut’s friendly flora at well-balanced levels. These help digestion, promote clearer thinking process and boost the immune system.
(While traveling or away from home, it is advisable bring along a top-quality probiotic supplement in capsule form, with high concentrations of multiple essential friendly bacteria which can substitute for kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and other non-portable, fermented vegetables. NOTE: The supplements are most effective when taken on an empty stomach, preferably first thing in the morning.)
Goat cheeses such as Feta, cheddar, goat Brie, cream-cheese-style Chavrie, Mozzarella, the gourmet ‘Drunken Goat’ and other varieties are also great sources of protein and calcium.
- Honey—In addition to soothing sore throats, honey is a surprisingly effective relaxing agent to both mind and body, due to its content of anxiety-reducing tryptophan, as well as potassium, which shields the nervous system from stress hormones and acids. Caveat: As healthy as it is, honey is still sugar, off limits to diabetics and with suggested moderation for people who need to lose weight.
- Oatmeal—Unprocessed, organic, instant or ready-to-cook oatmeal is not only a super-nutritious complex carbohydrate, but also a fine source of both stress-relaxer and long-lasting energizer for mind and body. Still, it is best to eat moderate portions, sugar-free (though Stevia-sweetened is OK, if preferred). Oats help the body absorb tryptophan and produce both serotonin and the sleep-inducing and circadian-cycle-regulating hormone melatonin. What’s more, it is a super-grain, rich in the anti-stress vitamin B6.
- Bananas are the go-to food for potassium and magnesium—both well-known muscle relaxants that work safer, faster and healthier than any medicine. And yes, bananas also boost serotonin levels, thanks to their tryptophan content.
- Chamomile Tea is not only a relaxer that helps lower the brain’s anxiety response, but also a powerful soporific that is more effective, safer and healthier than sleeping pills. Drinking chamomile tea also reduces the pain of shingles, migraines and muscle spasms and especially when combined with ginger, honey and lemon, it is a mighty digestive aid.
The humble beetroot is credited with the double benefit of protecting the brain from dementia by supplying healthy blood flow, while also helping to prevent strokes by lowering blood pressure.
For maximum effect, use the beet greens, too, whenever available.
(See separate post titled “THE MIGHTY BEETROOT,” revealing this remarkable vegetable’s many other qualities.)
Habits That Relieve Depression And Other Mood Problems
News about celebrities who recently took their lives has once again focused public attention on the growing epidemic of depression and other mood disorders.
Since the main purpose of this site is to provide the latest information on illness prevention and healthy living, here are some insights into the causes and remedies of such common mental health problems as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), thyroid function imbalance and depression due to inadequate serotonin production.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in people who are genetically prone to it, include shorter daylight hours, long periods of rainy or overcast weather, working or living in windowless or dark spaces, working night-shifts that disrupt the circadian sleep cycle, spending too much time indoors due to illness, etc.
Remedies for fast relief: SAD-afflicted people can compensate for daylight deprivation and charge up their creative energy, productivity and sense of accomplishment by adopting such blues-busting, spirits-lifting activities as:
- flooding their environment with light (even if it means changing spending priorities for a while);
- wearing special visors studded with small LED bulbs;
- using desk lamps with bright daylight-classified bulbs;
- attending breath-therapy classes;
- practicing meditation, yoga, visualization and aerobic exercises (walking, swimming);
- socializing; and
- limiting TV and other media watching—especially after sundown—to feel-good shows.
See FreeRangeClub article: Foods That Banish The Winter Blues.
Other Calming Brain Foods
Other Calming Brain Foods that provide effective antidotes to depression—i.e. those containing serotonin-building ingredients, Omega-3 fatty acid needed for cognitive functions, B12 vitamin and, of course, the essential amino acid tryptophan—include, in addition to the above-mentioned proteins (poultry, eggs, fish*, some dairy and spirulina), proteins that fit into vegetarian and vegan diets, such as legumes (beans, peas, edamame, tofu, tempeh), seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax, chia) and nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamia and pistachio nuts).
Caveat: Avoid peanuts, which are actually legumes, not nuts, because they tend to trigger serious allergic reactions in most people. Many researchers blame the abundance of certain molds and fungi found in the soils of some peanut-growing areas.
Recent recalls of possibly contaminated cashews and Brazil nuts have also made shoppers reluctant to buy them—unless store staff is well informed and can reassure buyers the nuts are safe to eat.
- Fish, Crustaceans, Seafoods have the dual benefits of fighting depression and improving cognitive functions. Brain researchers recommend eating seaweed (algae, kelp, dulce, hijiki and other marine plants—all excellent sources of minerals and nutrients essential for proper brain and thyroid function, as well as helpful in keeping bones strong, skin clear and supple, metabolism balanced and weight in check.
Also beneficial are wild-caught, bone-in and skin-on sardines, herring, salmon and other oily fish, which are rich in calcium and Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 also protects the brain from inflammation, is an excellent source of EPA and DHA, which fuel brain function, and produces mood-elevating serotonin, precursor of the sleep-regulating hormone, melatonin.
Why are Brain Foods Good For You?
Brain foods are rich in Leptin and Ghrelin, which speed up the reorganization of synaptic terminals in the hypothalamus and hippocampus, promoting synapse formations that accelerate signaling and thought connections, as well as spatial learning and memory retention.
Caveat: Leading brain scientists warn against eating large fish (tuna, shark, etc.) because they tend to accumulate toxic amounts of mercury (known to impair cognitive abilities) in their tissues. Bottom-feeders such as swordfish, are considered even more harmful because in addition to high levels of mercury, their flesh is contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals and many other poisonous substances that have been dumped into the waterways for decades.
Also to be avoided are shellfish harvested from coastal waters polluted with sewage (Thailand, Vietnam, China), nuclear toxins (Japan since the Fukushima disaster), oil and other petrochemicals (brought by currents from US drilling sites), and from net farms anchored in ocean waters—some of which are now dedicated to raising giant, genetically engineered—i.e. Frankenstein—salmons and crustaceans.
- Be prepared to acquire some code-breaking skills to see through the misleading labels in some fishmongers’ display cases that try to mask the difference between safe and toxic seafood.
Cheat labels include ‘wild’ (i.e. net-farmed fish) instead of ‘wild-caught’ (free-swimming ocean catch); and the environmental-sounding ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainably raised’ fish—which are actually farmed in crowded, feces-infected, giant nets anchored in the sea, fed pesticide-laden and GMO foods and dosed with antibiotics to keep them alive and profitable in spite of the unhealthy conditions.
The Gut: Our Second Brain—And How To Feed It
There is undisputed evidence that the brain-gut axis is no metaphor but an accurate description of the biological connection between our cerebellum and this rather large part of our gastrointestinal nervous system. Daily intake of probiotics is an effective way to maintain a healthy balance of friendly flora in the gut, which, in turn helps assure the efficient function of our so-called second brain as an enhancer of memory and clear thinking.
Daily portions of above-mentioned fermented foods replenish friendly flora—which become critically depleted when taking medications—especially antibiotics, which cannot tell the difference between beneficial and illness-producing bacteria and, therefore, kill them all, indiscriminately.
Since dairy must be avoided while taking antibiotics, daily intake of high quality, plant-based (i.e. non-synthetic) and dairy-free probiotic capsules are most efficient in replenishing the gut’s friendly flora.
Among the most effective fresh food probiotics are:
- kefir (preferably made of fermented goat milk) contains multi-billion microscopic benefactors;
- kimchee, the spicy Korean fermented cabbage that has become popular around the world;
- yogurt (preferably the goat milk version);
- soy-based miso, tempeh and kombucha;
- sauerkraut and various other pickled vegetables.
A published report about the results of international studies by brain researchers in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity authored by scientists at Leiden University in The Netherlands, describes the powerful effect of probiotic bacteria in protecting subjects from vulnerability to sad moods, anxiety, social phobia, aggressive thoughts and other emotions that endanger their wellbeing.
What’s more, Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Elie Metchnikov discovered the connection between fermented milk (yogurt, kefir) and longevity more than a century ago. Sadly, these findings were ignored for decades until scientists realized just how important these life-sustaining bacteria were to the body’s immune system and the big part it plays in the communication pathways from gut to brain.
It is, therefore, wise to heed ‘gut feelings’ that override logic, or ‘knots in the stomach’ signaling fear or worry, since these messages come straight from the complex network of neurons, chemical neurotransmitters and hormones carrying signals about digestion, heart rate, breathing, instinct, stress triggers and other information affecting the central nervous system.
Rarely mentioned but also quite important are the pre-biotics, such as onions (rich in inulin), bananas (vitamin B6, potassium, inulin), asparagus (best if lightly steamed, rich in vitamins C and K and fiber), dandelion greens (vitamins, fiber) and Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes (potassium).
Discovery Of Fire Turbocharged Evolution Of Modern Humans’ “Big Brain”
The discovery of fire led to cooking, which helped our cave-dwelling ancestors to access, digest and absorb more nutrients from the foods they hunted and gathered. Better nutrition triggered the evolution of a Big Brain, possibly the world’s most complex organism, that eventually became the engine of a speaking, thinking, modern homo sapiens.
Thousands of years later, Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of modern medicine, was urging his patients to “make food thy medicine.” A well-known advice that has ever since been inspiring generations to equate health and longevity with diet.
While it weighs only about two percent of our total body weight, the Big Brain powerhouse absorbs 20 percent of the nutrients we consume every day, uses more calories than any physical activity (including sports) and according to recent studies by brain science researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School, provides up to 20 percent of the body’s entire use of energy. It is, therefore, quite important to choose wisely what we eat.
Organic Brain Foods – Brain Protectors And Healers
- Quick & Easy Brain-Charger: A study led by Dr. Martha Morris of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, which followed 960 people with an average age of 81 years over a period of 4.7 years, found a rather surprising result: By simply adding at least one daily serving of about 100 grams of a raw mix of dark leafy greens to their daily diet—such as spinach, kale, arugula, collard greens and various types of lettuce—or even a cooked mixture of the above, showed no trace of any progression of dementia or other age-related cognitive decline. Even more encouraging, each study subject’s brain seemed to be rejuvenated to about 11 years younger than it was when the study began.
In short, adding one or more helping(s) of dark leafy vegetables to your daily diet keeps your brain younger and your memory protected.
- Eat Foods From Trusted Producers—preferably located as close to where you live as possible to minimize loss of nutrients and pollution caused during transportation (i.e. carbon footprint). At the very least, it’s best to purchase foods produced in the United States or sourced from strictly supervised organic farms in Mexico and Canada.
- The first line of defense from developing cognitive impairment, brain cancer and other age- and illness-related attacks to our most highly valued organ is to avoid—as much as possible—the pesticides and other toxic agricultural chemicals thatcontaminate foods produced by conventional growers. Because these, along with processed foods loaded with preservatives and flavored with salt, sugar, fat and various indigestible additives interfere with most of the beneficial effects of sound nutrients, consumers are urged to buy organic products for best results.
- Equally important to be avoided are the so-called Frankenstein Foods created in the laboratories of Monsanto, DuPont and other chemical companies. Namely, foods that are genetically engineered (GE) or produced by combining them with genetically modified organisms (GMO). In spite of vehement denials by the companies, there is increasing evidence that these products have carcinogenic properties, as well as being more difficult to digest or assimilate by humans than natural foods.
- In spite of denials by the cattle industry that occasionally some sick (with Mad Cow or other diseases) animals slip into some slaughterhouse’s kill-boxes, there is growing evidence that red meat poses a health hazard. or not there is a link between mad cow and Alzheimer Diseases—both of which share the developmentof abnormal folds of prion proteins that seem to be the cause of brain and spinal cord degeneration in a variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Such a link might change many diagnoses of Alzheimer’s to mad cow—known to be transmitted to humans by eating some parts of a sick animal. This might, at least for now, convince consumers to eliminate red meat (and perhaps even cow dairy) from their diet until mad cow disease no longer poses a risk. (See investigative beef industry exposée: http://www.freerangeclub.com/food-safety/slaughterhouse-blues/
- Superfoods For Body And Brain— Scientists, nutritionists and people focused on healthy eating have elevated blueberries, Brussels sprouts and the dark, crinkle-leafed Dino-kale (Lacinato) to the level of superfoods.
Equally powerful are their extended families, which include most berries, cruciferous anti-cancer warriors such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower and a multitude of deep green leafy vegetables that boast a wide range of benefits—such as iron-rich spinach, vitamin-packed arugula, Swiss chard, collard greens, broccoli rabe, endive and a fragrant collection of salad greens.
- Tea stories begin with the ceremonial green tea served in Japan and continue as variants of this dual herb-spice plant gained gustatory, medicinal and cultural footholds throughout the world. Health aficionados stick to organically cultivated teas and take along green tea capsules sold as nutritional supplements when traveling.
A popular staple with a wide range of flavors and potencies, teas are sold loose or in tea-bags; drunk hot or cold; sweetened, flavored, milk-infused or pristine; naturally caffeinated, decaffeinated or offered as caffeine-free drinks derived from herbs, fruits, nuts or other foods.
Most teas have antioxidant properties, are rich in plant polyphenols (a source flavonoids), catechins and other phytochemicals beneficial for cognitive health, as well as caffeine, famous for boosting mental alertness. Researchers at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, have found that daily tea drinking cut in half the risk of dementia among its 957 Chinese males and females over 55 years old who had signed up for the survey.
According to renowned author and health guru, Dr. Andrew Weil, “research also suggests that regularly drinking coffee appears to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.” Although not all research bears this out.
- Caffeine has become the central debate about the health-value and safety of not just tea but cocoa, chocolate and of course, coffee. Although the caffeine controversy continues to pit scientists and nutritionists against each other, the FreeRangeClub.com’s ‘deep-diving’ researchers have added their investigative reporting techniques and came up with what we think is the safest, commonsense-based advice:
**If you’ve ever experienced atrial fibrillation (A-Fib), hypertension, precarious cardiovascular condition or caffeine allergy, avoid caffeine altogether in all its forms—yes, even the otherwise healthy dark chocolate; a craving for which, however, can be satisfied with delicious carob, another plant-based but caffeine-free product that tastes, looks and smells like chocolate
.***Healthy individuals may also want to err on the side of caution by limiting their daily caffeine intake to one or two cups of coffee or black tea and two or three squares of dark chocolate.