Eating To Optimize Brain Performance

Where’s The Meal Plan For My Brain?

Brain fog, lack of drive, difficulty concentrating and restlessness. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

These are definitely things that I used to feel. The problem is, it’s hard to find out exactly what aspects of diet affect your mental performance.

If you look at the one-size-fits-all approach that mainstream dietary advice provides, it’s clear that this approach completely neglects proper brain function. Although this advice may work to help build muscle or lose fat, it does not consider individual variability and how that can affect your health.

Intolerances & Toxins

Intolerances may be one of the most frustrating areas of nutrition. Most people go through their day-to-day routine mentally bogged down by intolerances and don’t even realize it!

Toxins are a little easier to eliminate. Understanding where you find pesticides and herbicides can be difficult but eliminating the majority of your prime sources of these toxins can help immensely. Our liver is very effective at detoxifying small amounts of toxins.

Fruits and vegetables are usually prime suspects and require your investigation into how you can find cleaner sources. Many other crops can also be sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. A herbicide to watch out for is glyphosate. Glyphosate (aka Roundup) is very common and can even end up on crops that it wasn’t intended for.

Intolerances are more confusing. Intolerances are hard to identify. The best way to find out what you are intolerant to is to try an elimination diet.

An elimination diet is a diet that eliminates all of the foods that could be causing trouble and re-introducing them one-by-one in order to identify which ones cause problems.

The reason for this is that if you are consuming problem foods daily without realizing it, you will not consider them to be a problem. Getting an inflammatory response to specific foods may be your normal state, even though you think you’re fine!

Individualized research is key and can make all of the difference when trying to accomplish a higher mental state.

Reactions to food intolerances can vary from increases in heart rate to flare ups in symptoms of asthma. Paying close attention to individual food groups and how you react is the only way to determine your intolerances, unless you acquire a IgE and IgG food allergy test (which doesn’t actually cover all intolerance reactions).

What’s really interesting is that many people believe that they are gluten intolerant when they are really just experiencing a reaction to glyphosate. Glyphosate is a herbicide typically found with many foods that contain gluten. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in the weed killer “Round Up”.

Finding and eliminating both toxins and intolerances will reduce overall inflammation and improve blood sugar regulation in your body, among other things. This will leave your brain with more fuel and the proper hormonal state to have you feeling focused and energized.

Fuel Partitioning

We are surrounded by so many unhealthy food options. This can be a good thing if you know what foods your body reacts best to. Understanding how to manipulate your physiological response to food can help you to design a tailored diet approach that works best for you and your mental performance.

In almost every article that i’ve written, I’ve mentioned insulin in one way or another. It is seemingly involved in everything. That’s because it is. Have you ever had a meal that had you feeling like taking a nap one hour later?

What’s happening there is that your blood sugar is rising and falling. Your brain uses primarily sugar (glucose) or ketones (water soluble fat molecules; used when glucose isn’t available).

Every carbohydrate that you consume is broken down into simple sugar molecules (glucose and fructose) which enter your bloodstream. The glucose that enters your bloodstream causes your blood sugar to increase.

As a result, the beta cells within your pancreas will react by sending insulin into your blood. Insulin’s main role is to deliver this sugar into your body’s cells in order to bring blood sugar levels back to nominal levels.

The cells will use the sugar for fuel. If it doesn’t need the fuel, it will store the sugar in its storage form (glycogen) within the cell. Any sugar that is still available in the bloodstream is stored as body fat by the insulin that is still around.

Everyone handles blood sugar differently. Some people have large rises in blood sugar after a certain food while others have a modest response to the same food. It all depends on genetics among other environmental factors. [1] That’s part of the reason why some people can seemingly eat anything, sustain their energy and never get fat.

Consistently requiring insulin to be released has a major drawback. The cells in your body begin to develop a resistance to the function of insulin (ie. the cells require more insulin to do the same job). Eventually the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to keep up with this resistance. This is type 2 diabetes.

When someone has an even mild level of insulin resistance, they will have wide swings of blood sugar. A meal will seemingly provide some energy only to cause an energy crash a little later on. Contrast this with someone who has a healthy insulin response, the energy will be sustained.

Individual variability is very prevalent across society when it comes to insulin response/blood sugar regulation. Some people require a low carb diet to function effectively while others require complex (slow digesting) carbohydrates (such as sweet potato, rice, quinoa, etc. which reduce the exaggerated insulin response)

Another important aspect of good health is fiber! Fiber is important for encouraging the growth and sustainability of a healthy colony of bacteria in your gut. Fiber cannot be broken down by our bodies. It is instead passed along to the gut bacteria for digestion. Happy bacteria means happy brain. The gut is becoming more linked to mental well-being than ever before! [2] However, improper amounts of fiber can cause a change in the microbial colony.

Did you know that of all of the trillions of cells within us, only 10% of them are human cells. The rest are bacterial or microbial cells. We are only 10% human!

However having the wrong strains of bacteria occupying your gut can result in gastrointestinal distress, inflammation and mental fog. A diversity of dietary fiber can help to sustain healthy bacteria (through fermentation in the gut) whereas refined sugar and unhealthy fats can destroy good bacteria.

One type of fiber is resistant starch (found in green bananas or potato starch). This type of starch is loved by the good bacteria in your large intestine. The bacteria that digest this form of fiber output short chain fatty acids such as butyrate which help us to feel fuller and more energetic. Butyrate also encourages a healthy intestinal lining, proper digestion and can be found in grass-fed butter!

Ensure that when you decide to make dietary changes that you worry less about your calorie intake, and more about the quality of food you’re eating.

The Antioxidant Balancing Act

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

When talking about antioxidants, most people believe that more is usually better. However, it is important to understand what antioxidants really do for us.

Within regular metabolism (energy creation) the body creates what are called free radicals (most common ones being reactive oxygen species or ROS). This is primarily what drives aging. Every breath you take, you are creating free radicals.

Free radicals are any atoms or a group of atoms with an odd number of unpaired electrons. This causes cascading issues by stealing electrons from processes that need it within regular metabolism.

Other causes of free radicals are radiation and toxins which rob processes of electrons (oxidation). For this reason, it is important that we counteract the effect of free radicals with antioxidants. Antioxidants sacrifice electrons to nullify the potential dangers of free radicals and oxidants.

However, oxidation, is a natural and necessary part of healthy metabolism. It is only when we introduce multiple different external stresses that we run into problems.

Oxidative stress can create inflammation. [3] Inflammation is an immune response that when regulated is actually very healthy. It fights infection and prevents the spread of invading bodies. Once inflammatory responses become over-exaggerated, your mental performance suffers.

Unfortunately, when you start exposing yourself to dangerous amounts of external factors such as toxins, foods you’re intolerant to or free radicals, your body creates an over-exaggerated immune response.

Too heavy of an immune response can sap your energy and have you feeling groggy. This can also become your norm as you lower your standard of living.

However, taking too many antioxidants can also be detrimental. [4] It’s all about a proper balance between oxidation and reduction. It’s very hard to determine where the upper limit should be but you can assume that if you are exposed to many different stresses (smoking, life stress, UV light, etc.) you may want to increase your antioxidant load. The only way to know if you got it right is to find the balance that makes you feel your best.

Phytonutrients, Vitamins, Minerals & Hydration

Phytonutrients are compounds found in plants. Phytonutrients protect plants from damaging environments such as those that are high in UV radiation. Luckily for us, eating these nutrients affords us benefits as well.

Taking in phytonutrients helps to reduce inflammation, it provides antioxidants and improves liver function. These nutrients are essential to vibrant health and mental clarity.

Vitamins have a vast arsenal of benefits. They are organic compounds that serve many functions and cannot be created in the body. This means that all of your vitamins must be taken in through your diet. Some vitamins are fat soluble and some are water soluble. In order for fat soluble vitamins to be absorbed effectively, you need an appropriate amount of dietary fat. [5]

Today’s society is overfed yet undernourished. This may partially have to do with the fact that we are generally told to avoid dietary fat. This can cause problems with absorption of these essential fat soluble vitamins.

Minerals are inorganic compounds that also serve many important functions. A vast majority of metabolic enzymes require certain minerals in order to function properly. Just as important is the fact that you need minerals in order to establish an electrolyte balance. Minerals work in concert with water to establish your level of hydration. Finding and maintaining this balance is important for the constant flow of energy to your brain.

Minerals come from well nourished soil. The plants (vegetables and fruits) that we eat absorb many of these minerals. Even if the animals that we eat, consume well nourished plants, we in-turn absorb the vitamins and minerals from the original soil. YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT, ATE.

Problems begin to arise when soil becomes depleted. This causes plants to lack in their essential nutrients. [6]

What’s important here is that:

  • You eat a large amount of healthy plant foods for phytonutrients
  • You eat a sufficient amount of dietary fat
  • You ensure that you are consuming a diverse and sufficient amount of vitamins and minerals from plant foods, organ meats, regular meats, nuts, seeds, fats and healthy oils
  • You find out what you are deficient in (if anything) and supplement accordingly

Conclusion

I have covered a lot here. What I have outlined here is the basis of optimal brain performance as I understand it today.

To break it down into implementable steps for you, I would say that you should:

  • Eliminate all toxic foods which contain pesticides, herbicides, etc.
  • Figure out which food groups you are intolerant to
  • Get in control of your carbohydrate intake
  • Incorporate a diverse set of dietary fiber from veggies
  • Consume an amount of antioxidants that is appropriate for the stress in your life
  • Intake a large amount of leafy green veggies for phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals
  • Balance your electrolytes with minerals and water
  • Ensure that at least half of your calories come from healthy fat

The above steps are very dependent on the individual but they can provide you with a starting point for what you can play around with.

Start by implementing one step. Once you master that, move on to another. Do not overwhelm yourself with an extreme overhaul. The chances of failure if you opt for an overhaul are vastly greater. Seeing results from one change will also motivate you to keep going!

I was once in a place of despair. Everyday seemed so dark and uninteresting. I constantly found myself falling asleep. I couldn’t focus on topics that required deep concentration.

I now look around and realize that there are a lot of people in the situation that I once was. I feel compelled to relay what I’ve learned in an attempt to save someone from the unnecessary despair. People have disregarded the fact that they can reach a higher state of brain performance.

We shouldn’t come to expect less of ourselves each day. You need to hold on to the hope that you can achieve better and one day you will.

References

[1] Wiley Online Library. “The Glycemic Response is a Personal Attribute”. [Online]. Available: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/iub.365/pdf

[2] Neuroscience Research. “Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression”. [Online]. Available: http://neuroscienceresearch.wustl.edu/userfiles/file/Gut_brain%20axis%20How%20the%20microbiome%20influences%20anxiety%20and%20depression_Tran%20%20%20.pdf

[3] NCBI. “Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health”. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3614697/

[4] Science Daily. “How antioxidants can accelerate cancers, and why they don’t protect against them”. [Online]. Available: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140710094434.htm

[5] Wiley Online Library. “Meal triacylglycerol profile modulates postprandial absorption of carotenoids in humans”. [Online]. Available: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mnfr.201100687/full

[6] California Earth Minerals. “Mineral Nutrient Depletion in US Farm and Range Soils”. [Online] Available: http://www.californiaearthminerals.com/media/mineral-nutrient-depletion-in-us-farm-and-range-soils.pdf

 

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