The Brain Benefits of Superfoods and Stomach Acid
If you suffer from bloating, belching, heartburn, flatulence, or discomfort after eating, it could be due to low levels of stomach acid. As we age, a natural reduction of stomach acid is a common experience, and low levels are associated with a wide range of health concerns including digestive problems, cognitive issues, and even depression.
Acid blocking drugs (PPIs like Nexium and Prilosec, or H2 blockers like Zantac) are frequently prescribed to alleviate acid reflux. These drugs block the production of stomach acid that is crucial for digesting food, breaking down protein, and the assimilation of minerals and micronutrients. Not only do these drugs interfere with nutrient absorption, but they are also linked to increased risk of fractures, pneumonia, and infection.
Stomach acid levels control the lower esophageal sphincter muscle. If you have low stomach acid, the sphincter muscle may stay open, allowing food back up the esophagus (reflux). Betaine hydrochloride and pepsin capsules increase stomach acid, which may prevent reflux while improving your health and digestion. With healthy levels of stomach acid, you're able to better absorb nutrients and get the most out of foods and supplements.
B-Vitamins, Homocysteine, and Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Homocysteine is an amino acid produced through the metabolism of protein. A two year study at the University of Oxford showed that high levels of homocysteine were tied to the development of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Vitamins B6, B12, and folate can help reduce homocysteine levels in the blood, reducing brain shrinkage by up to 90%.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is also highly associated with dementia, with symptoms that include low energy, memory loss, balance problems, anemia, and bone loss. Levels of intrinsic factor, a glycoprotein produced in the stomach required to properly absorb B12 drop naturally as we age. In addition, the use of certain antibiotics, antacids, seizure, and diabetes medications can contribute further to low intrinsic factor levels. Symptoms of B12 deficiency can be so strong that some may believe they are developing serious cognition problems, when simply adding a quality daily vitamin B12 supplement may provide quick and often astonishing relief.
Brain Boosting Nutrients and Superfoods
Folate: A Korean study found that low levels of folate related to a 3.5 times higher risk of dementia, probably due to lower homocysteine levels. Excellent sources of folate include asparagus, sprouted beans, lentils, green leafy vegetables, beet greens, and spinach.
Omega-3: Fatty fish is the best source of the brain omega-3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. I recommend eating wild salmon and/or sardines at least four times each week. Flax, chia, and hemp seeds are vegetarian sources of omega-3. While the vegetarian form of omega-3 (ALA) is poorly converted to the forms the body can best use (EPA and DHA), there are still nutritional benefits from ALA. Choose sprouted flax, which tastes better, has much higher levels of vitamins and minerals, and is easier for the body to absorb.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E is critical for the metabolism of the omega-3 DHA. To reach the 2000 IU level that was successful in a large recent study, a nutritional supplement would be required. Two of the best natural sources include almonds and sunflower seeds.
Higher Cholesterol and Saturated Fat: Our brains are composed of fat and cholesterol, and the predominant brain fat is saturated. Research confirms that higher cholesterol levels are associated with improved cognition, and protective against cognitive decline. One recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that those who eat more saturated fat had a substantially lower risk of developing dementia than those who consumed diets high in carbohydrates. Good sources of healthy saturated fat and cholesterol include red meat, liver, butter, eggs, coconut oil, and red palm oil.
Coffee: According to research published in the journal Psychopharmacology, coffee has cholinergic cognition-enhancing properties, and may help to improve both short and long term memory. As with cocoa and green tea, it's best to drink coffee black to maximize the health benefits.
Walnuts: The healthiest nut, walnuts were shown in recent research to have a major impact on the prevention of dementia, while reducing the risk, slowing the progression, and delaying or preventing Alzheimer's disease. I recommend eating a handful every day.
Red Meat, Liver, and Clams: Great sources of vitamin B6, B12, folate, cholesterol, and saturated fat. Choose grass-fed meats that are produced without hormones or antibiotics. Best prepared using the low temperature sous vide method of cooking.
Turmeric: The yellow-coloured spice used in Indian cooking, turmeric contains the antioxidant curcumin, possibly the most powerful anti-inflammatory natural medicinal compound. Curcumin is proven to help prevent the amyloid plaque protein associated with dementia. In India, the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is low. Curcumin represents about 2% of the turmeric spice, but I still recommend using this spice for cooking. Always combine it with a fat to increase absorption. I recommend curcumin supplements that use formulas shown to boost absorption including CurQfen and Longvida.
Cinnamon: Cinnamaldehyde and epicatechin are important components found in cinnamon that may help prevent the buildup of tau, a protein some believe can damage brain tissue. Choose Ceylon, or true cinnamon, as cassia, the most popular variety, is high in coumarins and can be toxic to the liver and kidneys.
Cocoa and Dark Chocolate: In a recent study, after consuming a high-flavonol drink made from cocoa beans for three months, participants gauged to have the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, had the memory skills of a 30-40 year-old. In addition, insulin resistance and blood pressure decreased. For best results choose a 70%-86% cocoa mass organic dark chocolate, raw cacao powder, or nibs.
Blueberries, Cherries, Raspberries, and Strawberries: A 2010 study showed that daily consumption of wild blueberry juice improved memory and learning in older adults over twelve weeks. A little known fact is that the important antioxidant compounds in blueberries are more absorbable when cooked. The anthocyanins in cherries, strawberries, and raspberries also have significant anti-inflammatory benefits.
Green Tea: A Japanese study found that drinking 1-6 cups per week of green tea (I recommend matcha) was correlated with improved cognition. Don't opt for the latte, dairy has been shown to blunt the brain and immune system benefits of the antioxidants in green tea.
Apples, Parsley, Capers, Onion, Peppers: Nature's richest sources of quercetin, high levels of quercetin have been shown to protect the brain from developing dementia.
Nitric Oxide: Nitric oxide (NO) is the miracle molecule that relaxes and dilates blood vessels, resulting in improved circulation to every part of the body. Raw cacao nibs, dark chocolate, red beets, kale, spinach, and arugula are great sources of nitric oxide. Make sure you chew these foods well; NO production starts in the mouth as nitrates in the food interact with oral bacteria.
Choline: An important nutrient for proper mental function, choline stimulates the production of acetylcholine, a brain chemical that is critical for memory, mental focus, and clarity of mind. Good sources are eggs and cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Fasting: Research has found that intermittent fasting, where you fast for one or two non-consecutive days per week, stimulates brain cell growth. Some researchers compare fasting to exercise — as exercise stimulates muscle cells, fasting stimulates brain cells.
Ensuring you have sufficient stomach acid will help with digestion and absorption of nutrients. By incorporating these superfoods into your diet, you may be able to boost brain function, reduce your risk of cognitive disease, and improve your overall health.
First published in January 2016, latest revision in June 2020.