Memory and brain function
What if you could eat yourself smart? Whilst there are other factors than food influencing our memory and brain function, the food choices we make can indeed have a significant impact on our brain health. There are three main ways in which our food choices can influence memory and cognitive functions.
The extensive work in the field of sleep science shows that the quality and quantity of our sleep affects the ability of our brain to function at its highest level. Of course, we have all experienced it at some point or another in our lives that lack of sleep stops us from being able to focus and retain information. The ability to focus is, for example, needed to drive a car, and it can be heavily impacted by sleep deprivation. High quality and optimal quantity of sleep have also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia.
The human body carries over 100 trillion bacteria in the gut. These bacteria work synergistically with the body's systems and contribute to the synthesis of vitamins and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and also help with food digestion. The gut also hosts harmful bacteria but in smaller amounts. These opportunistic species thrive on sugars, which can lead to overgrowth and create an imbalance in the microbiome. The connection between the brain and gut is bidirectional. Research has shown that an imbalance in the gut microbiome can lead to changes in mood, contribute to cognitive decline, negatively affect learning and memory function, and may also cause brain inflammation.
Recent research has shown a correlation between chronic inflammation and the development of Alzheimer's disease. Scientists have also noted a direct correlation between foods and the ingredients they contain and chronic inflammation. They have found that some foods contain ingredients that increase chronic inflammation while other food components decrease inflammation. These so-called anti-inflammatory foods are highly beneficial and antioxidants, which act like scavengers eliminating the detrimental effects of chronic inflammation.
Our knowledge about the connection between dietary choices and brain function is ever-growing, evolving, and changing. What we have learned so far, is that certain foods can be detrimental and even damaging for our brain function – either directly or indirectly. On the upside, we are also learning about the myriad of ways in how our diet can boost our memory skills and brain function.
Foods That Threaten Your Brain Health
Whilst our brain uses glucose (a simple sugar) for its function, the consumption of foods high in sugar such as lollies, ice cream, chocolate bars, store-bought tomato sauce, as well as sugary drinks, such as artificial fruit juices, soft drinks, fizzy drinks, etc., causes a spike in our blood sugar levels. This increase in blood sugar levels leads to a perceived increase in brain function for about 30-60 minutes after we consume the sugary food or beverage. We feel full of energy and perhaps very productive, but it can also lead to restlessness and nervousness. Shortly after the sugar spike, a drop in blood sugar levels will occur, and we will suddenly feel low in energy, be unable to focus, and perhaps even suffer a brain fog.
Reaching out for another sugary snack or beverage will restart the cycle and ultimately not only cause a rollercoaster for our brain but play havoc on our overall health by increasing our risk for type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome in turn can lead to high levels of inflammation in our body. Finally, consuming foods or beverages containing refined sugar in the evening has a negative impact on the quality and quantity of our sleep and should therefore be avoided.
Processed foods, such as white bread, cakes, biscuits, microwave-ready meals, white rice, fast food and the like, often are known to contain high amounts of salt and sugar or artificial sweeteners. They also often contain hydrogenated vegetable oils, artificial flavors, and colorants. These ingredients have been associated with chronic inflammation if processed foods are consumed regularly. In addition, ingredients such as artificial sweeteners have been shown to damage our gut bacteria, which in turn negatively affects our brain function due to the disturbed communication between our gut and our brain.
Alcohol is known to be a stimulant even though most people report sleeping better after enjoying an alcoholic beverage or two in the evening. Studies have found, however, that the stimulatory effect of alcohol negatively affects our sleep. Sleep disturbance, poor quality of sleep, and lack of sleep have all been tightly linked to memory loss and a significant reduction in brain cells.
Recognising that not everyone is willing to abstain from alcohol, a way to reduce the detrimental effects of alcohol on our sleep would be to enjoy our drink during the day rather than in the evening. This would allow our body to break down the alcohol and excrete the toxic break-down products sufficiently to reduce their negative effects on our sleep. It comes without saying that consumption of alcohol regularly and in moderate to high amounts is not only detrimental to our memory and brain function but our overall health. Further, we also know that even small amounts of alcohol are damaging to the developing brain, and this is an important message to consider when engaging and communicating with children and young adults.
Whilst studies have shown that caffeine has many brain benefits, over-consumption of caffeinated drinks, especially energy drinks, will negatively affect our brain. Regular consumption of caffeinated drinks will lead to desensitisation of our body to its effects, and we often end up simply drinking a coffee to “get started in the morning” or to avoid the withdrawal headache. In some instances, the reliance on caffeine can indeed lead to some sort of dependency to “get through our day”. Whilst there is nothing wrong with a cup of coffee or tea in the morning, consuming caffeinated drinks throughout the day can negatively impact our brain function the next day by disturbing our sleep. This can lead to a vicious circle, where we drink more coffee to overcome the lack of sleep, which will then be followed by another poor night's sleep, and the vicious circle continues. Ultimately, this kind of scenario not only affects our brain function and memory but also our overall health and wellbeing.
Healthy Brain Foods
Once we manage to reduce or eliminate the foods mentioned above, we will likely feel an improvement in memory and brain function. If you want to ensure that your brain function and memory are at their best, then you should consider the following brain-boosting foods to boost your memory and brain function.
Our hydration levels play a critical role in our health and wellbeing. You have probably heard it before that our body consists of 60-70% of water. The water is stored in every single cell of our body and is vital for the endless processes in these cells, including the neurons in our brain. Optimal hydration ensures that vital nutrients can get transported to your brain and breakdown products or toxins will be removed. Thus leading to a clear and sharp mind and improving focus and memory. For adults, it is generally recommended to drink 1.5-2 litres of water per day but more when exercising or if air temperatures are high.
Apart from removing food from our diet that contributes to increased chronic inflammation in our body, we can further reduce the effects of chronic pro-inflammatory substances in our body by eating foods that are known to contain substances that work as scavengers. These foods include blueberries, pomegranate, strawberries, grapes, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and turmeric. One of the active ingredients of turmeric is called curcumin. It has received increasing attention over the last decade, and scientific research is focusing on understanding how we can utilize its properties to heal and prevent diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Healthy gut food
It is known that the gut and the brain are closely connected, it is, therefore, essential to support the good bacteria in our gut. The first step is to eliminate foods that can damage the balance between good and bad bacteria in our gut. The second step is to add probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods to your diet, which are known to support your good bacteria and therewith your gut health. Probiotic-rich foods often have a slightly tangy taste and they include yogurt, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut (truly fermented cabbage). You can also supplement with probiotic supplements should these foods not agree with you or not be available to you. Prebiotics are food for your gut bacteria and are just as important for gut health as are probiotics. Ensure to include some of the following prebiotic foods in your diet: apples, onions, slightly unripe bananas, nectarines, grapefruit, garlic, green peas, Jerusalem artichoke, leek, asparagus, barley, rye, and oats.
Fat is essential for our body and our brain. Hence, no-fat or very low-fat diets can be detrimental to our brain health and overall wellbeing. The human brain is made up of approximately 60 percent of fat. Fats are needed for a myriad of processes in our body supporting our brain function. The best foods high in healthy fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, are oily fish (Atlantic salmon, eel, mackerel, tuna, trout, snapper), avocado, nuts, and seeds. One of the best oils to use is cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. However, there are fats, which are harmful to our brain and body, and these include canola, corn, soybean, grapeseed, safflower, peanut oil, palm, cottonseed, and vegetable oils. These oils should all be avoided as they are highly processed and contribute to inflammation in the body.
Foods low in refined sugar and high in fibre are excellent to set you up for a good night's sleep. We also need to ensure to include adequate sources of protein in our diet throughout the day as protein provides sustained satiety. Leaving 1-2 hours between our last meal and before we go to bed is not only an excellent strategy to promote optimal digestion but it also prevents us from not being able to fall asleep because we are too full. Finally, herbal teas that are calming to the nervous system are ideal to consume in the evening before bedtime. These can include camomile, lemon balm, passionflower, valerian, and hop flowers.
Lion's mane mushrooms
Lion's mane mushrooms are gaining more and more interest for their supplementary rather than their culinary use. However, as it is an actual edible mushroom, which has been shown to protect our brain, it is well worth mentioning it here. Traditionally, lion's mane mushroom has been a mainstay in Chinese medicine for promoting healthy digestion and liver function. Recent studies have shown that supplementation with lion's mane mushroom can halt cognitive decline. It is therefore understood that these mushrooms have brain-protective effects. Lion's mane mushroom can be found in your health food store in capsules or as a powder.
Q: Will decaffeinated coffee disturb my sleep?
A: Decaffeinated (decaf) coffee indeed contains a very small amount of caffeine. However, unless you are sensitive to caffeine or any stimulating substance, the small amount would not affect the sleep of the majority of people. By saying that, it is important to listen to your own body and opt for other beverages than decaf coffee if you feel that it affects your sleep and your wellbeing.
Q: Can you share more information about lion's mane mushrooms? Are they safe?
A: Research on lion's mane mushrooms is constantly growing and evolving. Lion's mane mushrooms have been used for centuries as a food source and herbal medicine in several Asian countries. Hence, it can be inferred that they have a high safety profile. As with any other new food or any supplement, first, test your response to it by consuming half the recommended dose and pay attention to any unexpected effects. Supplementation with lion's mane mushrooms might be slightly stimulating. I hence recommend using it in the morning.
Q: Which cooking oils are the best in terms of brain function and overall health?
A: Olive oil can be used for cooking at very low heats. For cooking at higher temperatures, it is important to choose oils with a high smoke point. These oils include avocado oil, ghee, and coconut oil. All three oils not only benefit your brain function but also your overall health and well-being if used in moderation.
Our food choices either directly or indirectly influence our memory and brain function. It is not just about giving our brain enough fuel to function but it is also about what we eat. We have the opportunity to affect our memory, brain function, and susceptibility to age-related dementia by making simple but smart food choices. Need support on the steps to take to improve memory and brain function through nutrition? Get in touch with a nutritionist in your area through the Natural Therapy Pages.