Did you know that our brains orchestrate life-sustaining activities every hour of the day, even when we sleep?
Our brain is the most complex organ in our bodies. The brain’s primary functions include controlling involuntary and voluntary activities and producing and conducting neurotransmitters. More importantly, a brain-healthy diet is required for our brains to perform these functions at optimal levels.
At the bare minimum, our brain manages involuntary activities like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, sexual arousal, and digestion happen without any instruction or direction. Moreover, voluntary activities require us to choose actions like sustained attention, problem-solving, reading, creativity, and movement. At the same time, the brain is working on the production and conduction of neurotransmitters (NTs).
NTs are specialized chemicals the brain uses to excite or inhibit actions within the body. For instance, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in memory, learning, attention, arousal, and involuntary muscle movement. Then there is Dopamine, a neurotransmitter and a hormone that plays a role in movement, memory, and pleasurable reward and motivation. Next, Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting, and sexual desire. Lastly, GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that slows down your brain by blocking specific signals in your central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). The production of NTs requires holistic nutrition from clean edible plants and responsibly sourced fatty fish.
In concert with NTs, our brains communicate with other systems in our bodies, like the endocannabinoid system and the gut, to optimize the utilization of nutrients we eat.
The Brain-Endocannabinoid System-Gut Connection
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex network of cannabinoid receptors, enzymes, and endocannabinoid molecules that play a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis and promoting overall health and wellness in the body. More specifically, the ECS plays a vital role in regulating the brain-gut connection, which is responsible for communication between the brain and our gut.
Inside our bodies, cannabinoid receptors are present in both the brain and the gut. Additionally, our bodies produce compounds called endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids act like NTs and are structurally similar to phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD in the cannabis plant. Furthermore, research has shown many foods for brain health also contain compounds (cannabimimetic) that stimulate cannabinoid receptors in the gut. Together the ECS receptors, cannabinoids, and the foods for brain health influence gut motility, intestinal secretions, inflammation, mood, motivation, and other processes that affect digestive health.
So how does healthy brain food get from our stomach to our brain?
Anatomically, our digestive system begins in our mouth, travels down our esophagus, into the stomach, then onto our small intestines, followed by our large intestines from there waste is excreted when we use the restroom. Physiologically, when we eat, the chewing and our saliva begin the initial process of breaking down our food into small molecules. Once in the stomach, gastric secretions continue the digestive process of breaking these small molecules into even smaller molecules that our small intestines can absorb as nutrients that can power the brain.
The small intestines contain a mucosal layer containing thousands of life-sustaining bacteria, fungi, and other microbes, known as the gut microbiome. Want to know more about the gut microbiome? Click here for a video to learn why a healthy gut microbiome is important. A healthy gut microbiome functions to improve digestion, aids in nutrient absorption and metabolism, promotes efficient detoxification, regulates hormone production, balances immunity by preventing foreign invaders, and acts as a structural defense against the following harmful substances:
- Food allergies and sensitivities
- Heavy metals and environmental toxins
- Toxins from sanitation chemicals used to treat drinking water
- Certain medications, such as antibiotics
- Artificial sweeteners and high-sugar intake
- Chemotherapy and radiation
- High-intensity exercise
Given this information, we must reduce harmful substances and nourish our gut microbiome with high-quality brain-healthy foods that support the brain’s energy requirements.
Brain Caloric Requirements
Interestingly, in 2002 two scientists, Raichle & Gusnard, concluded that our brain represents about 2% of our body weight but accounts for about 20% of the calories consumed by the body. While glucose or simple sugar is the brain’s preferred energy source, it can also use ketone bodies which are produced in the liver when glucose is not readily available, like when a person follows a ketogenic diet. It is worth noting that a calorie is not just a calorie. High-quality calories support high-quality energy output. In fact, intentional calorie restriction is related to life longevity and balanced physiological processes.
8 Brain-Healthy Foods
At Sage Integrative Wellness (SIW), we promote a functional approach to holistic healing and nutrition therapy where food supports us on our holistic healing journey. Here are eight nutrient-dense functional foods that support brain health:
Oatmeal is a nutritious whole-grain food containing beta-glucans, a soluble fiber type. Studies have shown that consuming beta-glucans from oatmeal may benefit brain health by improving cognitive function, preventing the development of diabetes, lowering blood cholesterol levels, and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Additionally, a cup of oatmeal contains tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into the NT serotonin – our feel-good brain hormone that supports our mood and sleep.
Berries of all kinds are not only delicious but are also packed with flavonols which help to reduce and repair cell damage. Notably, anthocyanins, a flavonoid found in red, blue, and purple edible plants, exhibit neuroprotective properties that protect against our normal aging process, may prevent dementia, and improve our memory. Another study found a diet high in anthocyanins supports good mental health through improved sleep, lower perceived stress, and decreased depressive symptoms.
Wild-Caught Salmon is a rich source of omega-3s which supports optimal cognition, such as memory and learning. Realistically, more than two-thirds of the brain’s fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in oily fish like wild-caught salmon. However, some vegetarian sources exist as well such as seaweed, walnuts, hemp and chia seeds, and kidney beans. Also, wild-caught salmon is low in mercury. Research has shown that a high level of mercury in the blood is a neurotoxin that leads to long-term brain damage. In 2014, the American Journal for Preventive Medicine published a study that revealed people who ate baked fish at least once per week for ten years had increased grey matter in the hippocampus, posterior cingulate, and orbital frontal cortex. They performed better on tests. They had a 5x decreased risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment.
Sweet Potatoes, both the commonly known orange and lesser known purple, are anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, heart healthy, and improve our brain and memory capacity. Purple sweet potatoes are high in anthocyanins which help protect the brain by reducing inflammation. Orange sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A, which is key in maintaining the gut’s mucosal lining and reduces inflammation. In addition to reducing inflammation, sweet potatoes are packed with Vitamin B6, which is used to produce serotonin which boosts mood stability, stress tolerance, and sleep regulation.
Cruciferous vegetables like spinach, kale, mustard and collard greens, arugula, broccoli, and cauliflower contain a glucosinolate called sulforaphane, which protects the brain from being overloaded with cellular waste. On top of that, these detoxifying greens are low-calorie and rich in folate, vitamins C, E, and K, which are essential for optimal brain function and slowing cognitive decline. If more evidence is needed to put these brain-healthy beauties on your plate, Dr. Amen, one of America’s leading brain health experts, teaches patients and practitioners that cruciferous vegetables regulate pain and pleasure and support the emotional centers of the brain.
Nuts, like almonds and walnuts, are healthy unsaturated fats that balance cholesterol levels and improve blood vessel health. These fats balance metabolic function, regulate prostaglandin production, and lower cholesterol levels. Optimal prostaglandin levels regulate the dilation of our blood vessels during inflammation. In 2020, the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities published a study that reported the beneficial effects of a diet with walnuts on memory, learning, motor coordination, anxiety, and locomotor activity.
Seeds, like Hemp and Chia, are brain-nutrient powerhouses packed full of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats and help to balance dopamine, a neurotransmitter, levels in the brain. Hemp seeds contain vitamin B6, tyrosine, magnesium, and omega-3s which are the building blocks for many NTs. Chia seeds are one of the plant sources of omega-3 and have been shown to increase intelligence and protect brain tissue. Lastly, regular consumption of these seeds helps balance dopamine levels in the brain, which may be helpful for those with depression, ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, and Restless Leg Syndrome.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and Spices, like turmeric, rosemary, basil, lavender, black pepper, and cannabis, offer a variety of brain-healthy benefits and contain terpenes that enhance endocannabinoid communication within the body. Terpenes are chemicals that give herbs and spices their unique smell and taste. Here are a few common terpenes:
- Beta-caryophyllene is found in black pepper, clove, and rosemary and may help relieve inflammation, anxiety, and depression symptoms.
- Beta-pinene is found in parsley, dill, basil, and rosemary and potentially has anti-depressant and anti-cancer properties.
- Humulene is found in ginseng, black pepper, sage, and basil and has long been used in folk medicine for energizing effects.
- Limonene is found in orange, lemon, and grapefruit peels and may have anti-cancer and anti-anxiety properties.
- Linalool is found in spearmints, coriander, thyme, and lavender which may help alleviate stress.
- Myrcene is found in lemongrass, cardamon, and mangoes and has exhibited antifungal and antibacterial properties and has sedating effects.
- Curcumin is found in turmeric and is anti-inflammatory and when paired with black pepper the bioavailability of curcumin is increased.
Support Resources and Awareness
Since the advent of the internet and social media, nutrition guidance can be confusing. Below are a few organizations that offer sound research, education, and guidance for your holistic nutritional journey.
Nutrition Specific Resources
The American Society For Nutrition offers online education courses for anyone wanting to learn Nutrition Essentials and graduate-level courses for healthcare professionals and coaches. Next, the Journal of Nutrition offers peer-reviewed scientific research on various topics related to overall nutrition.
Nutritional needs are an integral part of holistic nursing. American Holistic Nurses Association educates holistic nurses to nurture wholeness, peace, and healing by valuing each person’s physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental strengths and challenges and honoring each person’s values, health beliefs, and health experience.
For traumatic brain injury survivors, the Brain Injury Association of America offers education, community, and brain injury experts who can help survivors answer questions regarding recovery, nutrition, and how to be #MoreThanMyBrainInjury.
Sage Integrative Wellness Offerings
Knowledge is power, but wisdom is applied knowledge. If you are ready to turn today’s nutritional knowledge into tomorrow’s wisdom, Sage Integrative Wellness can assist you on your functional and holistic nutrition journey; click here to book a free consultation.
At Sage Integrative Wellness, we have an Amen Clinics Certified Brain Health Coach and Nurse Coach Professional ready to assist you on your healing journey; click here to book a free consultation.
A person’s brain represents about 2% of their body weight but accounts for about 20% of the calories consumed by the body. The brain is responsible for managing both involuntary and voluntary activities and producing and conducting neurotransmitters, which are specialized chemicals that the brain uses to excite or inhibit actions within the body. The brain requires a healthy diet of clean edible plants and responsibly sourced fatty fish to perform these functions optimally. The endocannabinoid system is vital in regulating the brain-gut connection, which is responsible for communication between the brain and our gut. The gut microbiome is essential for digestive health and balances immunity by preventing foreign invaders, among other benefits. Finally, eight nutrient-dense functional foods that support brain health and enhance communication between the brain-ECS-gut connection include oatmeal, berries, wild-caught salmon, sweet potatoes, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds, and herbs and spices.
Nurse Author Dominique Fontaine, BSN, RN, HNB-BC, HWNC-BC is a double board certified holistic nurse, Amen Clinics certified professional brain health coach, holistic medical content writer, and medical content reviewer for Sage Integrative Wellness, LLC and various national and international wellness companies and media companies. Dominique offers holistic nurse consulting for businesses, media companies, and organizations in holistic medical content writing and medical content reviewing upon request. She’s a passionate neurodiverse nurse advocate striving to transform healthcare and culture through awareness, holistic education and research, and integrative brain health nurse coaching