Brain Food: Help Reduce Inflammation and Boost Brain Function
Last month’s entry in this series outlined the brain health benefits of controlling the hormones insulin, ghrelin, and leptin by increasing fibre, reducing carbohydrates, and avoiding sweeteners. There are many other factors that contribute to keeping our brains healthy, including making dietary choices that provide key micronutrients, balance essential fatty acids, and reduce inflammation.
Inflammation is associated with natural biological processes that can be beneficial or detrimental to our health. The body’s response to inflammation is critical to our survival, and can be triggered by tissue damage caused by infection, injury, toxins, or trauma. When exposed to acute inflammation, mast cells stimulate the release of histamine, serotonin, and prostaglandins, which help the body to heal.
Chronic, low grade inflammation often goes unnoticed, but can result from our reaction to inflammatory components in foods, high blood sugar, and oral infections. The term ‘inflammaging’ refers to our decreased ability to fight chronic, low grade inflammation as we age. Our body’s natural response to infections or pathogens in the body, inflammation can lower energy levels and depress the immune response, resulting in a higher incidence of colds and flu, and increasing the risk of heart disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Balancing Omega-6 and Omega-3
Omega-6 and omega-3 essential fats, also called polyunsaturated fatty acids, play a critical role in helping to control inflammation. These fats are considered essential because the body cannot make them. We must get these important fats from food or supplements. Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory, while omega-6 is pro-inflammatory.
Research indicates that our paleolithic ancestors consumed a more balanced 1-1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. The introduction of agriculture increased our consumption of seed oils and grains that are high in omega-6. As a result, the ratio of omega-6 to 3 has soared to between 15-1 and 25-1. This imbalanced level of pro-inflammatory omega-6 contributes to inflammation. When omega-3 and omega-6 are in balance they bring health benefits by regulating inflammatory processes in the body.
Our brain is composed of about 60% fat. Balanced essential fatty acids are not only anti-inflammatory, they are also critical for brain development, and for helping us focus, control, and calm brain activity. The most important essential fatty acids for the brain include omega-3 (DHA and EPA), and the omega-6 fats (linoleic acid and GLA). Research indicates that DHA may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease by reducing plaque in the brain, but all forms of omega-3 including EPA, DHA, and ALA have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Linoleic acid is the form of omega-6 found in most grains, seeds, and vegetable oils. Our body can convert LA into the anti-inflammatory form of omega-6, GLA (gamma linolenic acid), but the conversion requires key micronutrients that are often missing from the diet, and the consumption of trans fats further inhibits this process. As only some of the linoleic acid can be converted to GLA, what LA remains can contribute to increased inflammation.
GLA occurs naturally in borage, evening primrose, and black currant seed oils, so conversion from LA to GLA is not required. Including these oils in the diet is highly recommended. Higher levels of GLA provide anti-inflammatory benefits for the brain and body, and are associated with improvements in rheumatoid arthritis, dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis.
I recommend choosing oils that are high in omega-3 (flax, camelina), monosaturated fats (olive, macadamia, avocado), and medium chain triglycerides (coconut, red palm, MCT). Avoid vegetable oils that are high in omega-6 fats including soybean, rice bran, sunflower, safflower, grape seed, corn, and canola oils. While hemp seed oil does contain omega-3, it is also high in omega-6, so I recommend blending hemp seed oil with equal quantities of camelina or flax oil to balance the ratio.
Trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated) are linked to inflammation, and prevent the important conversion of linoleic acid to gamma linolenic acid. Avoid fried foods and commercial salad dressings, as they almost always contain inexpensive omega-6 oils.
The conversion of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids into the anti-inflammatory compounds called prostaglandins requires delta-6 desaturase. This enzyme requires magnesium, zinc, and vitamin C, B3, B6 and B12 as cofactors. A deficiency in any of these micronutrients can prevent this important conversion. According to Dr. Bruce Ames, over 60% of North Americans are deficient in magnesium, a mineral that is a cofactor in over 360 biochemical reactions in the body. Quality multivitamin supplements provide the critical micronutrients required to lower homocysteine levels.
Brain Boosting Dietary Recommendations
Cold Water Fish: Eat cold water oily fish at least four times per week. Some of the best sources of omega-3 include sardines (packed in water), salmon (wild is best), anchovies, mackerel, and herring. In addition to the brain building benefits of omega-3, fish is an excellent source of complete protein.
Eggs: I recommend a minimum of one egg per day, preferably free range. The best way to prepare is by poaching. Eggs are a great source of lecithin, which helps the body metabolize and absorb healthy fats.
Nuts and Seeds: I recommend eating two to four tablespoons of nuts and seeds daily. Choose from chia, flax (sprouted is best), pumpkin, hemp, sunflower and sesame seeds. The healthiest nuts are walnuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and cashews.
Lentils, Beans, and Asparagus: A 2008 Korean study found that low levels of folate were associated with a 3.5 times higher risk of dementia. Lentils, garbanzo beans, pinto beans and asparagus are rich sources of folate. Other high folate containing foods are cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, and cabbage. Green leafy vegetables are great to include as well, especially turnip greens, mustard greens, beet greens, and spinach.
Clams: A fantastic source of vitamin B-12, a key nutrient that can help lower homocysteine levels. Other excellent dietary sources of vitamin B-12 include liver (beef, chicken or pork), mussels, oysters, shrimp, and scallops. Low B-12 levels can lead to depression, short term memory loss, paranoia and behavioural problems.
Nitric Oxide Boosting Foods: Vegetables that are high in nitrates convert to nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule that helps dilate blood vessels, improving circulation to every part of the body including the brain. Low levels of nitric oxide are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Vegetables highest in nitrates include kale, spinach, bok choy, beets, Swiss chard, and arugula.
Whole Grains: Include whole grains, particularly ancient and sprouted grains when possible. Instead of wheat, look for spelt, kamut, einkorn, Red Fife, emmer (farro), or other ancient forms of wheat. Other healthful grains and seeds include sprouted short grain brown rice, quinoa, millet, sprouted flax seed, hemp seed, steel cut oats, rye, and whole-hulled barley.
Legumes, Beans, and Peas: Resistant starch and fructooligosaccharides, also known as prebiotics, feed the good bacteria in the large intestine, helping the body produce health promoting probiotics and short chain fatty acids. The resistant starch in legumes, beans, and peas helps to control appetite and increase satiety. I recommend lentils, black beans, black eyed peas, garbanzo beans, pinto beans, fava beans, lima beans, and edamame.
By reducing our consumption of inflammatory foods, and eating more healthy anti-inflammatory foods, we can help to lower the stress of chronic inflammation, improve energy levels, and boost brain health.