Advancements in healthcare and the gradual decline in infectious diseases has led to an increase in life expectancy for those in the Western World. Compared to our 19th century counterparts, we can expect to live an additional 27 years. Our body may be able to fend off disease longer, but are the extended years given to us quality years? Are they welcomed? The body can keep on going but the brain may be lagging. With Alzheimer’s one of society’s most feared diseases today, and mental health conditions at an all time high, it may be time we have a rethink.
We know that improvements in nutrition and lifestyle can positively impact our physical health, as this advice is regularly documented in guidelines for tackling the likes of obesity and cardiovascular disease, but little is said when it comes to protecting the health of our brain. Fortunately, we are beginning to learn more and more about the link between food and mood, with the emergence of fields like ‘Nutritional Psychiatry’.
The SMILES Trial, conducted by Jacka et al., (2017), was the first randomised control trial which assessed the effect of a nutritional intervention on diagnosed depression. Results were significant: within a 12 week period, 32% of the dietary intervention group achieved remission from clinically diagnosed depression. This compared to 8% in the group who received only counselling. Furthermore, the extent to which the individual complied to dietary changes, correlated with the extent of improvement. Further trials have gone on to support these findings, showing just how instrumental a healthful diet is for our brain health.
Much like a car, your brain can become damaged and refuse to run if you are not consuming the right fuel. Diets which are highly processed and high in refined sugar promote inflammation, contribute to dysregulation in blood glucose levels and create oxidative stress. Just like any other organ, this inflammation can restrict blood flow to the brain, contribute to brain tissue damage and understandably, result in consequences: consequences changes to our mood, cognition and memory.
However, it is not just inflammation that has been identified as a supposed mechanism for deterioration in brain health. Research has highlighted the role of gut microbes in modulation of our mood. Microbes in the gut are involved in many bodily processes, but significantly, are responsible for the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. In fact, 90% of the hormone serotonin is made in the gut. This is the hormone that regulates sleep, mood and inhibits pain. The production of serotonin is depicted by the balance of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ bacteria within the gastrointestinal tract. This balance, is influenced by numerous dietary and lifestyle factors, with a diet high in refined sugar, processed food and low in diversity negatively impacting the balance. A healthy balance of bacteria is key for synthesising hormones, absorbing nutrients, acting as a barrier for invading pathogens and toxins, metabolising food and liming inflammation. Therefore, disruption to the balance not only impacts serotonin production, it also exacerbates inflammation which is a further factor implicated in mood disorders and in Alzheimer’s progression.
There is a substantial link between the worsening of our diets and the increase in brain related conditions. For as long as our food industry continues to produce highly refined and processed foods, our brain health is only going to diminish. We cannot wait to the point of diagnosis to act.
So, what can we do?
Increase oily fish consumption to 2-3 times week
Why? Our brain is made up of omega-3 fatty acids that we can get from these types of fish.
In this country the level of omega-3 consumed is insufficient to protect our brain.
How? Use the ‘SMASH’ acronym – Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Salmon, Herring.
For those who are plant based – Increase omega 3 fatty acid consumption from foods such as nuts, seeds, algae, seaweed, avocado.
Increase fibre in the diet
Why? Fibre is critical for feeding our gut bacteria and it is the quickest and simplest way to positively manipulate the composition of our gut.
How? Choose wholegrains (wholegrain rice, bulgur, non-gluten oats) add legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans, peas, nuts).
Increase diversity of diet
Why? Imagine each microbe wanting something different to eat. Therefore, in order to create a balanced microbiome we need to feed the gut with a variety of different foods.
How? Challenge yourself to mix up the vegetables on your plate each evening. Look at eating in line with the season and exploring new fruits and vegetables.
Choose dark berries for your fruit portion
Why? A good source of polyphenols which help combat oxidative stress and brain inflammation.
How? Add blueberries, blackberries, raspberries or strawberries to your morning porridge or yoghurt.
Avoid processed foods
Why? These foods contribute to inflammation, disrupt microbiome balance and inhibit brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to generate new neurons)
How? Limit/avoid top culprits such as ice cream, fast food, pastries, white bread, processed meats, margarine, sugary cereals
About the author
Melanie is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, Neuroscientist (MSc) and Sport Scientist (BSc) who has a particular interest in the links between nutrition and the brain. Find out more at: www.melaniewilkinsonnutrition.com
The Meal planner
Tyson & Blake group company The Meal Planner creates FoodHealth solutions to actively engage customers in their health through nutrition.
The Company has invested over 2 million EUR into research & technologies to create the best combination of digital dieting solutions, digital patient journey and behaviour changing tools. The main products focus on App solutions & digital platforms for content creators, HORECA, FMCG, Retail, Health insurances, Pharma & Medical service providers.
The Meal Planner itself incubates its own spin offs in different patient segments & B2B fields. The actual spin offs are: MIRA Health- focusing on insulin resistance patients. MyNutriPro – a client management platform for nutritionists, AthlEats – an App for athletes & sport clubs. RestoGuide- a nutrition analyser tool for HORECA.