Words Dr Shavit Sachs
Throughout our childhood, there has been a big emphasis on ensuring our physical health is up to scratch. Physical education at school, sports, dance class, gym – they all played a big role.
But what about our brain?
When I was a student, I’d often feel like my brain was sore and I’d be annoyed that, suddenly, I was hungry, two hours into an intense four hour lecture. Until it was pointed out to me that the brain needs fuel and energy to work, food is not just physical fuel but mental fuel too! So how do we fuel our brain and take care of it as much as we do our physical bodies?
Food as medicine
As a naturopath, the most important thing is to nourish your brain with the correct foods! The brain is made mainly of fat – include healthy fats into your daily meals – olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, eggs, butter, dairy, fatty fish, meat, poultry. These will aid the brain in keeping strong as well as ensure correct functioning. It is also important to decrease processed, refined foods as these cause free radicals and inflammation in the body and brain. By eating whole foods, variety of vegetables and giving your body the correct nourishment, antioxidants will aid neutralising of the free radicals. Handy tip for students, start taking an omega-3 supplement 2-3 months before your learning year starts to ensure optimal brain functioning from the start!
Protein and amino acids are very important for neurotransmitters in your brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers which connect the brain and the body to send signals and messages. This is the way the brain sends messages. These neurotransmitters need amino acids to function adequately.
Ensure you eat sufficient (well-sourced) meat, chicken and fish, and vary your diet with vegetarian protein complementing! Eat your legumes with grains (my personal favourite are lentils and rice with a chopped salad!), or grains with dairy, or even legumes with dairy.
Alcohol and poor sleep will deplete the brain of its pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine. Ideally, sleep better and drink less alcohol… How can we effectively apply this to real life? Always eat nourishing foods! Especially when you are tired. Bananas are my all-time favourite dopamine-rich fruit. Consider snacking on one after a bad night’s sleep or after a glass of wine.
Screen time is a big factor for mental health, mood and general brain stimulation. Be sure to take regular breaks from screens and get your body moving. Download a red light for your cell phone and computer. The normal blue light mimics sunlight and stimulates the brain, causing an inhibition of melatonin secretion. Red light, however, suppresses melatonin less than blue light which allows for better sleep.
Both mental and physical exercise is super important for brain health. Mental exercises will help keep your brain sharp and will allow more pathways and connections to be made! Learn a new language, do more puzzles, Sudoku, crosswords, and my personal best (I’m the all-time winner in my family) the memory game. Physical exercise is important to help increase oxygenated blood flow to your brain. Physical exercise will help strengthen postural muscles. A good posture helps reduce brain fog, fatigue and allows for better focus, concentration and memory. Not only that, good posture allows for better digestion!
Gut health and Mood
The gut is considered the second brain. There has been lots of research to show the strong connection between the gut and the (first) brain. Aside from the obvious, the gut and the microbiome is responsible for making different neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which supports mood, energy and stability in the (first) brain. Which means if we make poor food choices, have bad eating habits and don’t nourish the gut with gut-loving foods, we can cause mood instabilities, fatigue, leaky gut and more. The beneficial bacteria in our gut is responsible for many digestive processes and diffusion of nutrients across the intestinal walls into the bloodstream requires a healthy gut. This diffusion is vital for making brain hormones and for ensuring a healthy immune system!.