Maintaining optimal brain function throughout life is essential to overall health and wellness and to enjoy a long health span.
Food is information that directly affects the structure and function of the brain, including mood and memory. It is estimated that 20-30% of the energy from food consumed in a day goes to fueling the brain, and the brain requires nutrients—vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—to function optimally. Experts in the field of nutritional psychiatry understand this important connection, including Dr. Dale Bredesen, a researcher who developed the ReCODE Protocol for neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's. Dr. Bredesen’s work has shown that it is possible to reverse neurodegenerative diseases when intervention occurs early and is centered on lifestyle interventions, including consuming six to nine cups of low glycemic index vegetables daily.
Put Out The Fire
Low-grade chronic inflammation is like a slow-burning fire in the body, causing damage that, over time, can potentially cause chronic health conditions. So, here are ways to put out that fire.
Phytonutrients are compounds found in plants that give them their color, scent, and taste. There are >25,000 different phytonutrients, each with unique functions in the plant and the human body. Generally speaking, phytonutrients have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This is especially important for brain health because brain cells are working hard around the clock, which is why they require a lot of energy.
As the cells in the brain use energy as part of normal cellular metabolism, free radicals are naturally created. However, free radicals can occur because of many other factors, as well, including dietary factors like eating processed foods and those high in added sugar; inflammation; and environmental toxins (including heavy metals, mycotoxins, cigarette smoke, and other chemicals). Antioxidants’ role is to help “put out the fire” by neutralizing the free radicals so that they do not cause damage to the body. If you have more free radicals than the antioxidants, that’s when damage to cells may occur.
Alpha-lipoic acid—found in vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and potatoes—is important for maintaining energy balance in mitochondria (aka the “powerhouse” of the cell). Alpha-lipoic acid was shown to reduce cognitive decline in a small group of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
One of my favorite suggestions when it comes to obtaining a variety of phytonutrients is to “eat the rainbow”—and this means including a diverse mix of vegetables from all of the different colors of the rainbow into your meals. One of the easiest ways to eat the rainbow is with our specially curated box. Plants that are more deeply pigmented (more colorful)—and that smell and taste better—are also likely the highest in phytonutrients! Too often we run into the “healthy” choice that’s not the best looking or tasting option—but this is not the case when it comes to phytonutrients.
Eat Green for Brain Health
Research shows that those who consume leafy greens daily have a slower rate of cognitive decline. Leafy greens are high in folate which, when combined with other B vitamins, helps to reduce homocysteine. High homocysteine levels have been associated with increased levels of inflammation in the body and increased risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke.
Our high nitrate greens (such as red mustard, watercress, Chinese cabbage, and purple radish) may help to increase nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide has been studied for its effect on relaxing blood vessels and improving vascular health, which is essential to brain health. One of the subtypes of cognitive decline identified by Dr. Bredesen is vascular. To help, we have specially curated a High Nitrate Fresh Greens Box, which may benefit cardiovascular as well as brain health.
The brain does not store energy, so it depends upon a constant supply of blood to provide the nutrients it needs to function and to remove waste products that are created by cells in the brain as part of their normal functioning. This includes amyloid-beta, which is beneficial for neuronal growth and repair but harmful when it accumulates, potentially leading to dementia. Small reductions in blood flow (like from very small blood clots, narrowing arteries, etc.) that are not noticeable at the moment can accumulate over time and result in an increased risk of dementia.
It is not recommended to use antiseptic mouthwashes if trying to optimize nitric oxide levels through your food as beneficial bacteria in your mouth convert nitrates found in vegetables into nitric oxide. You may also wish to work with your healthcare team to reduce inflammation levels in the body prior to consuming larger amounts of high nitrate vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables are among the most nutrient-dense vegetables, and they help to support the body's natural detoxification process. To obtain the greatest benefits from glucosinolates, consider consuming them raw and chewing well to make sure to break up the cell walls (which helps activate the glucosinolates). When cooking cruciferous vegetables, it’s best to wait at least ten minutes after chopping before cooking. Cruciferous vegetables are best prepared quickly: blanched, lightly steamed, or sautéed.
To obtain additional brain health benefits and improve fat-soluble vitamin absorption, consider enjoying vegetables lightly cooked (steamed, sautéed, baked) and then finished with a high polyphenol extra virgin olive oil.
Be cautious about the oils you are cooking with, avoiding oils such as corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower in favor of cold-pressed unrefined olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and ghee made from pasture-raised cows.
Make sure that you are using an appropriate oil for the temperature at which you are cooking to avoid creating inflammatory compounds. Also consider avoiding cooking methods that blacken or char foods, such as grilling, as well as frying to avoid creating compounds known to contribute to dementia (Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons).
Omega-3 fatty acids are important to brain health as well as cardiovascular health. A healthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is recommended to help reduce inflammation. The ideal is often suggested as a 2:1 ratio whereas the “Standard American Diet” is estimated to be closer to a 14-20:1 ratio (i.e., containing too much inflammatory omega-6 and not enough anti-inflammatory omega-3). Our favorite plant-based source of alpha-linolenic acid is purslane—often called the “salmon of the plant world”!
The fiber (soluble, including prebiotic fiber and insoluble) found in vegetables helps to nourish beneficial gut microbes and eliminate waste and toxins from the body. The gut-brain connection is powerful and, in order to support brain health, you must also support gut health. Consider increasing fiber intake to a goal of at least 30 grams of fiber daily to support healthy elimination along with staying well hydrated (ideally filtered water and/or organic Japanese green tea, if possible). Learn more about how to support gut health.
Everything comes back to lifestyle! As one of my favorite functional medicine practitioners— Andrea Nakayama—explains, there is a “non-negotiable trifecta” that you must start with as foundational lifestyle changes:
- Sleep (at least seven to eight hours of restful sleep each night)
- Blood sugar balance
- Elimination (i.e., pooping daily)
In addition to the non-negotiable trifecta, you can support brain health by:
- Avoiding toxins (smoke, chemicals, heavy metals)
- Engaging in regular enjoyable movement that gets your blood pumping
- Allowing your digestive system to rest for at least 12 hours overnight
- Managing stress
- Connecting with others regularly
- Continuing to learn new things
The Farmer as Part of the Healthcare Team
Our goal with Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden is for the farmer to become part of the healthcare team, providing you with the most nutrient-dense, flavorful, deeply nourishing foods possible to help support your health and wellness. We are putting “food as medicine” into practice, making it easy to quickly select vegetables to support your needs through our Health and Wellness Collection pages. We hope you will try our regeneratively farmed, harvested to order, farm-fresh vegetables shipped right to your doorstep and we would love for you to join our Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden family on Facebook!