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Includes Delicious Super-fast
Recipes for Brain Health!

Delia McCabe

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‘I have had the great pleasure of hearing Delia McCabe speak on numerous occasions. Her extensive knowledge of the importance of feeding and nourishing the brain is not only inspiring, but has taught me so much about taking care of my own health. The information Delia shares is fuelled by her passion for healthy living and backed with solid research and facts. This book is a must read for anyone serious about taking care of their health!’

Jane Kerr

‘I’m the lowest weight I’ve been in twenty years and it’s been so easy. I eat more and enjoy food more, and never count calories because I know that feeding my brain has helped my body become balanced! And I have no cravings! My brain is more focused and sharp, and my memory — which was always good — is now super sharp! I’ve got loads of energy again and even my sleep has improved. Every day I’m grateful for what Delia has taught me — it has transformed my life!’

Rae Antony

‘Delia’s warm approach and clear communication skills have left guests mesmerized by her knowledge and ability to convert solid science into practical day-to-day advice. To see her healthy glow is a testament and a reflection of all the sayings — “Practice what you preach”, “You are what you eat” — Delia “talks the talk and walks the walk”! It shows in every facet of her being. She is truly captivating! A highly intelligent, motivated woman, Delia’s approach is simple: keep it real and apply knowledge in practical ways.’

Gregg Cave, Director and General Manager, Gaia Retreat and Spa

‘Learning from Delia is a true privilege. By applying what I learned from Delia my thinking is sharper, I am more focused, creative and enthusiastic, and my emotions are far more stable than ever before … it is TRULY amazing! For the first time in a long time, I have more control over how I feel — both physically and emotionally — and that, on its own, has been powerful as I live a super-busy life filled with continual challenges.’

Emily Gowor, author, speaker and entrepreneur

‘Watching my mother deteriorate after a diagnosis of Early Onset Dementia has motivated me to engage in healthier lifestyle choices as a means of prolonging onset (or better still) PREVENTING the development of Dementia in the future. I therefore felt privileged to be able to attend Delia’s “Feed Your Brain” Workshop with an aim of nurturing my brain with more valuable (and scientifically driven) knowledge of brain health. Delia’s focus is centred on proactive (preventable) actions rather than medically driven reactive solutions to chronic illness and disease. I am not a scientist, doctor, researcher or academic but I now feel like

I have the understanding and skills to further my knowledge of brain health and to use a holistic approach to preventative health that my family and I deserve.’

Jennifer Chastre

‘Delia’s insight into what the brain needs to be fed — and what it’s not getting anymore — explains the energy, weight, fatigue and memory woes that are plaguing the modern brain! Using a unique mix of psychology and neurology, Delia’s genius around the stressed brain, sugar addictions, caffeine cravings and the ever-expanding muffin-top waistline, are unsurpassed! Delia provides hope, answers and solutions!’

Tanya Targett

‘I will always remember the first day I saw Delia speak. I felt she was speaking directly to me and I had quiet tears rolling down my face as I realized there may be help for the way I was feeling. I can’t imagine what my health would be like now if I hadn’t heard Delia speak and subsequently made the changes that she recommended. Delia summarizes complex science beautifully, and enabled me to implement changes at home which resulted in positive outcomes for us all, including my young son whose concentration and approach to school work has improved.’

K. Guthrie

‘Delia’s extensive knowledge and research, which covers a range of complementary topics related to brain health — including fats and oils — is delivered with an authentic passion and personal humility that always makes her listeners want to learn more! Delia has mastered her delivery of scientific and sometimes complicated brain-focused content, so that it’s easily understood and appreciated, and can be applied to our daily lives. Delia is one of the most trusted health advocates I know. I am always inspired to follow her guidance after watching her speak. Always!’

Jenni Madison, Coconut Magic

‘Delia has an insatiable knowledge of the relationship between food, mental health and exercise. Working as a dentist, in community health, I am aware of the complex issues surrounding mental health, but it has been Delia who has been an important reference for information about the impact of food on the mind and the body with the necessary focus on prevention.’

Dr Susan Stagg BDSC

‘Attending a talk given by Delia, I was completely amazed at her knowledge and insight. I’m not sure how she crammed so much amazing and thought-provoking information into that hour and a half — it must have taken years of research to condense and present the life-changing information Delia shared in such a concise and simple way! I wanted more at the end, as did everyone else in the audience!’

Robyn Rubenstein, psychologist

 

 

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Delia McCabe has a Master’s degree in Psychology but lost her enthusiasm for the ‘talking cure’ when she discovered that what you eat affects your brain function directly, and that until the brain is properly nourished, no amount of talking will get it working optimally. Instead, Delia decided to devote her time to extensively researching what the brain needs to function at its highest potential. The result is her unique seven-step plan that helps people to modify their eating habits without adding stress to their lives. She has seen time and again that the right diet can have a dramatic influence on one’s memory, mood, ability to focus and stress levels. Apart from presenting workshops and conducting seminars, Delia is also presently completing her PhD, focused on the effects that specific nutrients have on female stress levels. Find out more about Delia and her work at www.lighterbrighteryou.life.

 

 

 

 

 

To my husband — my best friend — and my children, who have patiently listened to my excited explanations of why feeding the brain is so important, and encouraged me to share this message with others who want to feel the fabulous benefits too.

contents

Preface

Introduction

PART 1 BRAIN BASICS

Chapter 1

SWEAT, SLEEP, SEX AND STRESS — WHAT THEY MEAN TO YOUR BRAIN

Chapter 2

WHAT FOOD INTOLERANCES DO TO YOUR BRAIN

Chapter 3

WHY FOOD ADDITIVES ARE BAD FOR YOUR BRAIN

Chapter 4

THE VITAMINS AND MINERALS YOUR BRAIN NEEDS

Chapter 5

PROTEIN AND COMMUNICATION IN YOUR BRAIN

Chapter 6

STABLE ENERGY FOR YOUR BRAIN

Chapter 7

THE FOUNDATION FATS FOR YOUR BRAIN

Chapter 8

A LIGHTER, BRIGHTER YOU — PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER IN 7 STEPS

PART 2 BASIC RECIPES FOR BRAIN HEALTH

Introduction

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

CONDIMENTS

SALADS AND VEGETABLES

MAIN MEALS

DESSERTS

BASICS


Glossary

Resources

Acknowledgements

References

General Index

Recipe Index

 

Preface

‘If I could just follow one thought about a task that needs doing, and get that task done, I’d be fine,’ Mary* confided in me. She had been under a lot of stress lately and was battling to complete tasks efficiently. ‘It’s as if I start a task and another thought gets in the way, and then I start that task and another jumps out at me. I really don’t know what to do about it!’ She mentioned that if she carried on like this her family would think she was losing her mind. I could see she was anxious and distressed, scared that her thoughts were too scattered for her to be able to function effectively.

‘I just can’t seem to think straight anymore,’ Tom* said to me. He had explained that he was feeling quite down, and was lacking energy. He had tried a detox diet and it had only left him feeling worse. He told me that he felt he was losing his edge. ‘The younger guys in the office are gaining on me, and if I don’t get my act together, I’m sure I’ll end up losing my job!’ As he shakily reached for another swallow of his large cup of coffee, I knew he was feeling pretty desperate.

‘Ever since I came down with the flu, I’ve felt really depressed. Although I’m well now, I just can’t seem to shake this blue feeling. I was already feeling overwhelmed at work, and with my teenage sons, but now I feel much worse. I always used to have so much energy and could just keep going, but that’s also changed. And I’m putting on weight!’ Kathy* spoke quickly, and laughed, trying to make light of how she felt, and I could see that she was feeling guilty about what she saw as complaining.

More alarmingly, a young teenage girl, overhearing my discussion with a family member, said that she also needed some ‘brain food’! She said she felt as if her memory was failing her and worried about whether it was going to get worse. She thought she was too young to be experiencing memory challenges, but felt that her memory had been better when she was younger.

When I asked each of these people whether they thought food could help them feel better, they looked at me in astonishment. ‘How can food help me think sharper?’ ‘Keep my thoughts in order?’ ‘And not be depressed?’, they all asked individually. Countless others have replied in a similar way to the same question.

Fortunately for them (and for you), I’ve been thinking about and researching those exact questions for many years, and wrote this book to show you how food can help your brain (and the rest of you) stay happy, healthy and young for as long as possible. You see, this book will show you that when you feed your brain, you can change your life.

These people’s challenges are examples of the many experiences I regularly hear about. Unfortunately, many people also contact me online and discuss their emotional distress with me, citing anxiety and depression as the two biggest burdens that they bear, day in and day out. They fear they are alone with these challenges, not realizing that there are millions of people who feel the same way, and who are suffering real distress because they can’t find relief in anything but a tablet, which is short-lived anyway, and which comes with horrid side effects.

When you give your brain the nutrients it needs to function optimally, you naturally improve your mood, your weight stabilizes and you start losing weight if you need to. Your brain works more efficiently, improving learning potential, focus and memory and you become lighter in mood and weight, and brighter in outlook and cognitive capacity. Due to the brain being the ‘greediest’ organ in the body, when it is satisfied it sets off a wonderful ‘domino effect’ or cascade of improved health on every level.

* Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identity.

Introduction

A real interest in and fascination with the brain has been growing rapidly in recent decades, parallel to the astonishing advances science has made in looking inside our living brains. ‘Seeing’ inside a living brain gives us a glimpse of this magnificent organ in action. We now understand that, like the body, the brain is made up of flesh and blood and can be influenced by the same things that affect our body.

Using sophisticated technology, we can now see where activity is taking place in the brain and how much energy is being used in those specific areas. We can even get a very good idea of the health of the brain by using specific imaging techniques that tell us where damage has occurred and where tumours are hiding.

Without these forms of technology, the brain would have remained a mystery to us, just as it was up until the early twentieth century. Prior to these advancements, the only way people could study the brain was to look at it after death had arrived.

The first technique used in 1918 to investigate the brain was dangerous and painful. A technique called pneumoencephalography, pioneered by American neurosurgeon Dr Walter Dandy, drained cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from around the brain and replaced it with air, enabling the subsequent change in the density of the brain relative to its surroundings to provide clear x-ray images of the organ. This was obviously a risky undertaking, with bleeding and infection as possible outcomes, but it was also dangerous because it increased the pressure inside the brain and was intensely painful! However, it allowed us to see both the surface of the brain and its ventricles, which was a huge breakthrough. The development of painless scanning techniques took us out of the dark ages and into a new world of possibilities, although it was only in 1977 that we actually got to see what the brain had been hiding with the development of human magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Since then, the technology that is allowing us to investigate the last frontier of human anatomy has been growing in leaps and bounds. We can now produce images of neural pathways using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which shows us where connections between neurons exist and how they communicate with each other. Having gained knowledge of the actual brain structures, this new technology allows us to look at how neurons function and, ultimately, how the billions of neurons within the magnificent brain work together so beautifully.

Although we have uncovered many of its mysteries to date, there is still so much more to discover about the brain. Apart from being an organ made of flesh and blood, and being such a fascinating area of science to investigate, the brain has a deeper, more personal meaning to us. It is the seat of our entire being: it underpins how we love, how we hate, how we grieve and the way we think, plan, imagine, consider, dream and learn. It also co-ordinates our emotions and desires with our body so we laugh, feel fear or experience anticipation. How we move and play is according to its directives and the interactions that take place within its soft and spongy universe.

The brain itself is a physical organ held in place by the hard bones of our skull, but what is more fascinating is the mind that it holds within — something which is unique to each of us. Without the brain, there would be no mind and there would be no you! Your mind is forever changing and growing as you add to your experiences of life, so it is an evolving and deeply personal part of you.

There is nothing more central to a fulfilling life than an optimally functioning brain. If you want to preserve your mind and who you are in essence, you have to focus on preserving your brain. Because thinking is a pattern of cellular activity that occurs across a vast network of cells, chemicals, membranes and molecules, it is possible to influence the brain’s functioning in the same way that we influence our body’s functioning.

With a worldwide ageing population and cases of dementia, as well as severe depression and anxiety, alarmingly on the rise, the need to look after your brain optimally has never been more important. Cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s disorder, autism and severely challenging learning disorders are also on the rise among our youth.

Data collected from 187 countries, reported in the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study, highlighted that mental disorders and substance abuse combined were the leading cause of non-fatal illness, contributing to nearly 23 per cent of the total global disease burden. Another alarming statistic is that 11 per cent of the US population over the age of twelve is using antidepressant medication. Americans alone spent more than US$11 billion on antidepressants in 2010.

Almost half of the Australian population will experience a mental illness in their lifetime and between 2008 and 2009, AU$743 million was spent on mental health medications in this country. The cost of mental illness in the UK is £77 billion, greater than heart disease and cancer combined. These are alarming figures, even more so when you consider that it is not just middle-aged patients who are visiting their doctor to get prescriptions filled for mind-altering medications.

Millions of children are also being diagnosed with mental health challenges too, often starting with ADHD medication and then moving on to other varieties of potent pharmaceuticals. In fact, there is startling research that reveals that people who are treated for an initial mental illness episode are significantly more susceptible to increased episodes of more severe mental challenges. So the child treated for ADHD with Ritalin is more likely to experience more severe psychological distress over time than the child who was not treated with any type of medication at all. Millions of children are also being treated with antidepressants, something that was quite unheard of a few decades ago.

It would be a very naive and simplistic explanation to suggest that the dramatic change in diet over the past few decades is the only reason people are suffering from increased mental health challenges. There are, of course, a multitude of converging reasons for a mental health problem to occur. The environment, which includes the toxins we are exposed to, as well as the stress that we experience, and our genetic predisposition, all influence mental health. However, the brain, being made from the same flesh and blood as the rest of the body, requires specific nutrients to operate optimally. It will become less capable of managing effectively in the overwhelming world we find ourselves in today if it is not nourished properly. This book is an explanation of the basic nutritional principles (and some extra non-nutritional ones) the brain needs to operate optimally. These principles should form the foundation of your wellbeing so you can cope more efficiently and even thrive in the complex world we live in today. You will learn how to create a lighter, brighter you by supplying your brain with what it needs for optimum functioning.

Your brain and food

Fortunately, there is scientific proof to support the fact that what you eat can and does directly influence your mood, behaviour, concentration, learning and memory. You can literally feed your brain to be happy or sad and help it to learn and remember things much more efficiently, simply by changing the type of foods you eat.

Every meal and snack you consume, or feed your family, is either supporting healthy brain function or undermining it. Thankfully, you do not need to swallow horrid concoctions or eat boring, bland food to support your brain’s glowing health. When you keep in mind that the best food is unprocessed and natural, and you learn how to make it tasty and enticing with the right fats, herbs and spices, you will enjoy supporting your brain, which is also your hungriest organ. And you will naturally find yourself feeling lighter and brighter!

My academic background is in psychology, not nutrition. But after twenty years of research into how nutrition influences brain function, I’ve had to learn a lot about food and what it does for the brain.

I came to study food and how it influences brain function when I realized that being a talking therapist was not for me. In fact, I felt that I would be dishonest if I tried to talk someone ‘better’, especially as I’d already discovered that many people who feel bad psychologically eat poorly. It happened like this.

While completing my Master of Psychology degree, I was working with a group of very smart adolescents. Although they were all capable of achieving well at school, many were, in fact, doing very poorly. I had a bit of extra space on one of the questionnaires I’d asked them to complete, so I threw in a few questions about what their favourite foods were. All the adolescents who were battling at school loved junk food, whereas the control group, the group who were smart and doing well, didn’t! When I discovered this, I made a decision to investigate why this should be the case and in so doing, made the decision that being a therapist wasn’t going to work for me. So you could call me a disillusioned or cynical would-be psychologist!

Many years later I have found that most people do not associate what they eat with how their brain is functioning. If they are forgetful, or moody, or battling to learn something new, they often look for other reasons to explain why they are feeling that way. What they eat never seems to come up for discussion. In addition, they reach for another coffee, or a chocolate bar, hoping that the energy-high won’t wear off as quickly as it did the last time.

So I decided to write a book to explain why certain foods are great for maintaining great mental health, stable moods, improved focus and concentration, as well as enhanced memory capacity. Feeding your brain what it needs is a natural way to feel happier and enjoy more stable moods. As a result, you will also lose weight and improve your cognitive ability — leading to a lighter and brighter you!

If you know what various nutrients do in your brain and why they are critically important for optimal brain function, you’ll be better equipped to choose your foods appropriately. Food is actually information and it can lead to optimal brain functioning, or dysfunction. We live in a super sophisticated and complex world. Navigating this world and thriving within its complexity produces levels of stress that we have not encountered as a species before. A stressed brain uses up more nutrients than a calm, relaxed brain, and also produces many more damaging cells called free radicals. This is one of the primary reasons why eating the right kinds of foods to support brain health is a real priority today, if you want to keep your cognitive edge. As an added bonus, there are no negative side effects from feeding your brain optimally! Extra energy, glowing skin, weight loss and improved moods are great side effects and no one is ever going to complain about that!

Fortunately, my psychology training did come in handy at various points during this journey of discovery, especially in how I share this knowledge because I understand why most people don’t make positive changes in their life. Too much information presented too quickly and in too much detail may lead to interest initially, especially if it offers long-term solutions to unpleasant problems; however, eventually it will be discarded because no one can make a lot of changes in a short time. New habits take time to become part of a person’s daily routine because new neural pathways have to be established and this doesn’t happen overnight.

This book is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter contains information about a different topic, directly related to brain function. The aim is to incorporate each of the seven steps into your life so that your brain becomes well nourished and can serve you in the best way possible. Each chapter is made up of small sections, each with a heading that relates to what the section is about. If you simply want to scan the headings and read what is interesting to you first, then go ahead. If you want more in-depth knowledge, then you should read each chapter in its entirety, as well as the information boxes. At the end of each chapter I have provided you with an action plan to give you an idea of how to implement that chapter’s information into your life.

Although the book starts with a ‘non-food’ chapter, it is an introduction into how you can start nourishing your brain in ways that you may not have considered before. From Chapter 2 onwards, the discussion on the role of food in brain health will unfold, revealing how you can transform your life by feeding your brain. In addition, I’ve provided the basic nutritional science of what your brain likes and needs, what it doesn’t like and what damages it. If you want to find out more about the research, the reference list at the end of the book is a good place to start.

Some important brain facts

Concentration, focus, memory and mood all occur across an enormous network of sophisticated, interconnecting brain cells, called neurons. Each of these specialized cells depends on an optimal supply of nutrients from the food we eat, in order to work smoothly and efficiently. Without the right nutrients your brain is incapable of working effectively. In addition, simply adding a multi-nutrient, like a vitamin tablet or a green drink, to a poor diet isn’t going to do the trick either.

Let’s have a look at a few of the wondrous things most people don’t know about the brain:

The brain weighs between 1.3 to 1.4 kg (2.9 to 3.1 lbs) and is only about 2 per cent of your body weight.

It uses 25 per cent of the oxygen that you breathe, which is every fourth breath, to put it into context.

It uses up to half of the glucose that your body produces from carbohydrates for its energy requirements.

Each unit of brain tissue needs 22 times the amount of metabolic energy compared to the same amount of muscle tissue.

The brain uses 20 per cent of the heart’s output of blood (i.e. 25 times more blood than the equivalent weight of resting tissue).

One-fifth of the heart’s activity is in the service of the brain.

At any given moment in time, your brain is receiving and processing approximately 100 million pieces of information.

You will lose consciousness in about 8 to 10 seconds, if the blood supply to your brain is cut off.

There are anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 synapses (links between brain cells) for each neuron.

There are 160,000 kilometres (100,000 miles) of blood vessels in the brain — the distance it would take you to go around the world approximately four times.

In response to mental activity, the brain continues to grow new neurons.

Information can travel between neurons as slowly as 0.5 metres (1.6 feet) per second, or as fast as 120 metres (390 feet) per second, which is about 430 kilometres (268 miles) per hour.

It is a myth that humans only use 10 per cent of their brain. All the parts of the brain are used; however, some people use their brains more efficiently than others.

Every time you blink (20,000 times per day) the brain steps in and keeps the world illuminated for your neurons so that everything doesn’t go black.

Three concepts to grasp about brain function

We can break down the approach to brain function into three very broad concepts. The first area assesses what the actual hardware of the brain needs to perform optimally. So, looking at the cells (neurons) and their supporting cells (the glia) in specific areas of the brain, as well as the various specialized chemicals and electrical impulses that move around in the brain, we get a good idea of what they all require to perform their duties effectively. The second area involves examining the feelings or emotions that you experience, such as love, frustration, devotion, irritability and compassion. Memory, learning and focus also fall into this domain, although they are not feelings but cognitive states of mind and mental capacities. It’s a private and personal area. No one can see these feelings or mental states, yet they are real. The aim is to increase the amount of feelings that you enjoy experiencing, and improve cognitive functioning in a simple and direct way by feeding your brain optimally. The third area is the result of these two areas interacting. The external manifestation of what is going on inside your head is your behaviour, which can include your facial expressions, your actions and movements, and the words you utter. When something goes wrong in the flesh of your brain, the hardware, your emotions and cognitive capacity will be influenced, and then as a consequence, your behaviour. This is why it’s easier to first work on what is going wrong in your brain before we try to change your feelings and behaviour. This is why the ‘talking cure’ can be very frustrating for both the therapist and the client when the client’s brain is malnourished.

Lifestyle choices and cognitive wellbeing

Lifestyle choices will influence both physical wellbeing and mental health. Research shows this clearly today. Research also shows clearly that cognitive decline isn’t inevitable with age and that there are, in fact, specific things you can do and others you can avoid that may prevent your cognitive decline. And having genes that may predispose you to poor mental health is not your destiny. After all, only one-third of the way you age is determined by your genetic make-up, the other two-thirds are under your control.

How the brain changes due to experience and learning is a physical occurrence in the brain’s ‘hardware’, with psychological and behavioural results. The technical name for this ability is ‘neuroplasticity’. The brain’s grey matter is made up of millions of neurons which can stay robust or shrink in size, and the connections between these neurons can be strengthened or weakened, or new ones can be created. This is where new skills and abilities are first created, and then we can act them out because our brain has a new neural pathway. These changes on the physical terrain of the brain give new instructions to the body, which manifest as new abilities and skills. When you forget someone’s name or why you walked into a room, this is a sign of weakening connections to that memory. So you can focus on keeping the connections strong and robust and forging new ones, or you can allow your brain to shrink and therefore become diminished as a person in the process. If you have read this far, you aren’t going to let that happen.

In one research study led by Dr Sabia, over 5000 men and women were followed for a period of seventeen years, with the aim of looking at what their lifestyles were like and how they aged cognitively. The results were fascinating and showed how much control we have over how our brain ages, as the number of unhealthy behaviours (smoking, low physical activity, low fresh produce consumption), and the duration of these behaviours were associated with cognitive decline in later life.

Another recent study led by Dr Tasnime Akbaraly examined the impact of diet on overall health in older people and found that a high intake of fried and sweet foods, as well as processed foods, red meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products led to less healthy outcomes than a diet focused on whole foods, such as wholegrains, polyunsaturated fats, nuts and fruit and vegetables. In addition, they found that mental and cognitive function was influenced negatively by poor food choices. These studies are robust in that they examine the person and their food choices over a long period of time.

So, the current research into the brain indicates very clearly that cognitive decline is not inevitable with ageing. We can take very practical and simple steps to maintain our cognitive health throughout our lives due to neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to create new pathways. As individuals, we have to take responsibility for our own cognitive health, in an ever-ageing population.

Another large research study led by Dr Martin Loef looked at factors that led to good health. They summed up their findings and declared that there are five primary areas that we need to keep in mind when we look at how we feel, how we are ageing and what our health status is:

 

1. never smoking

2. having a body mass index (BMI) lower than 30

3. being physically active for 3.5 hours per week

4. following healthy dietary guidelines, such as a high intake of fruits and vegetables, wholegrain bread and low meat consumption, and

5. consuming a moderate amount of alcohol.

 

A magic potion …?

Although there are many marketing strategies advising which specific nutrient or compound will ensure a healthy brain that doesn’t age, these are simply marketing strategies to sell you the item. This is not to say there aren’t particular supplements that can help you maintain your brain, it’s just that this is not the only solution to a well-maintained brain.

Secondly, all the research points to prevention being better than cure. This is not a new refrain. If you want a brain that’s going to work well into old age, you need to start thinking about its welfare before you suffer from any mental complaint. It’s much harder to get yourself well than it is to keep yourself well. If you keep these two points in mind, this book will be valuable for you. If you want to throw your money at the latest ‘brain’ fad, you are welcome to do so. But, you will find yourself back here, reading these words, when the ‘magic bullet’ didn’t deliver all it promised.

Why is your diet the simplest way to influence your brain?

We eat a number of times every day. While eating provides nourishment to fuel our brain and body, it is also a great source of pleasure and provides an opportunity to interact with our loved ones and friends. Using food to keep your brain working well, once you know which are the best brain-supportive foods, is the simplest way to stay sharp. Because nutrients go to work very quickly to either support great mental function or to undermine it, you can quickly see a cognitive ‘result’ after eating. Although coffee can give you a very quick energy ‘hit’, a snack that provides good fats, protein and unrefined carbohydrates, like a handful of almonds or goji berries or sun-dried tomatoes, will provide an energy boost that won’t drop off quickly because it helps keep blood glucose levels stable.

Eating well to support your brain is also really simple once you know how. After all, it’s a lot simpler than following complex computer games, doing Sudoku and crossword puzzles, and learning a new language, although these activities also improve cognitive function. But you can’t really do them as regularly as eating!

Maybe you’re curious about how food can improve your brain? The simple answer is that food can help to:

 

improve your clarity of mind

increase your speed of thinking or cognitive processing

enhance your ability to pay attention

lengthen the amount of time you can concentrate for

improve your memory and learning capacity, and

improve and sustain your positive mood.

 

Today we often eat more because of the pleasure of eating, rather than because we are driven from an internal desire to satisfy true hunger. The natural environment that surrounded us during early human existence didn’t always provide us with a reliable and regular food supply. We had to adjust to this variability in food supply, and our adaptive mechanisms for handling this situation involved our consumption of large quantities of foods when it was available, enabling temporary fat storage, and coping with meagre supplies when that was the situation.

We developed flexibility in relation to our appetite and satiety mechanisms. An obese person would have been at a disadvantage when having to flee a predator, and a very thin person with no energy reserves would have been in a similarly disadvantaged position.

However, we have vast quantities of food at our disposal today, and it may be that some people react to this constant supply in a way that would resemble their ancestors’ response — they ‘stock’ up for times of famine. This is one of the many reasons why people are getting more and more overweight — it’s very hard to have self-restraint in a society where there is so much delicious food available 24/7. This has, unfortunately, led to a new phenomenon called ‘affluent malnutrition’ or the undernourishment of essential nutrients. Today, people are eating food that is high in energy value or calories, but very low in nutrients. In the past, we suffered from diseases that were often caused from a lack of food, such as a lack of citrus foods causing scurvy. Today, in the western world, we have access to too much food, and too many of the wrong ones, which are causing many diseases. Malnutrition is caused through a lack of the correct nutrients, an imbalance of nutrients, or an excess of the wrong kind of nutrients.

The other interesting aspect to this process of eating is that we have an innate preference for foods that have sweet, salty or fatty tastes. This ensured that we searched for and consumed a range of foods, which would improve our chances of getting a variety of necessary nutrients. We have an evolutionary desire for sweetness, due to the ability of dense carbohydrates to give us a quick energy boost — which is very helpful when you’re starving, but not much good when you live in the land of refined, processed and sugar-laden carbohydrates, as we do now.

Our internal mechanisms to control appetite and satiation haven’t evolved to take this into account. It is therefore very easy to overeat, usually on the very foods that do not sustain optimal cognitive function.

Choices

This book is about choices supported by science: choices for people who may believe that they have no control over how their brain works and ages; choices for people who fear that their genes are their destiny and that the statistics of mental illness, brain disease and disability are inevitable for them. When you focus on ill health and disease, you will see nothing but hopelessness and despair. When you focus on all the wonderful new research that we have at our disposal, you will see that you have choices and will understand that statistics are not destiny, and that knowledge gives you power.

Combining the right choices from each of the chapters, coupled with my advice, will enable you to nourish your brain and in so doing become lighter and brighter naturally. Following these steps is not complicated and doesn’t require a huge financial investment. By simply making different choices, you can experience profound change, both mentally and physically.

 

 

 

 

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part 1

 

brain

basics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

Sweat, sleep, sex and stress — what they mean to your brain

Although sweating more, improving sleep, making great sex a priority and reducing stress are not food-related ways to improve brain function, they are all activities that nourish the brain. Research into these four activities is growing, especially on why we should be doing more of the first three and getting rid of the last one.

The aims of this chapter are to give you a very clear explanation of why getting your body and brain to sweat is good for your thinking processes, as well as for mood and memory. It will also explain the importance of sex and sleep, what sleep does to your brain and why stress is damaging to your brain.

Sweating for your brain

There is a vast array of research indicating that exercise is good for you, with most studies focusing on heart health. But what is also known is that what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Why? The first artery, the carotid artery, which comes out of the heart carrying freshly oxygenated blood, goes to the brain. This means that your brain immediately gets the first flush of fresh oxygen and nutrients to sustain its health when you exercise. Exercise also increases the growth of specific neuronal cells, called astrocytes, which support neurons in their highly specialized activities, and less inflammation occurs in the brain due to this increased blood flow. In addition, specific neurotransmitters are increased after exercising, which will give you a feeling of being calm, yet focused and less impulsive. You also reduce the risk of getting Type 2 diabetes when you exercise regularly, a risk factor for developing anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

Interestingly, exercise that increases your heart rate also increases your ability to pay attention, which in turn increases the chances of you being able to recall what you are learning. Your learning ability is enhanced immediately after exercising, so that what you learn will be retained and can be retrieved later on. There are some progressive schools that are capitalizing on this phenomenon to ensure that their students’ brains are receptive to what they learn just after an aerobic workout.

Other positive benefits of exercise include the possible potential to restore some of the cognitive functions that have been lost due to normal ageing; and to enhance some cognitive functions in the brain, especially in the hippocampus (one of the main memory centres in the brain) and in the frontal cortex (the management centre that oversees decision making, rational thinking and long-term thought processes). Exercise also helps your brain to produce energy more efficiently, which means that it’s easier for it to work well.

Fertilizer for your brain

The next reason why exercise benefits your brain starts deep within your muscles. Chemicals are sent from your working muscles into your bloodstream, which then cross the blood-brain barrier into your brain. These chemicals then start increasing the production of another very important chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which acts like fertilizer for your neurons, encouraging them to stay healthy and keep growing, even helping to grow new neurons.

When you exercise regularly, your brain builds up reserves of BDNF and your neurons start to branch out, joining together and forming new connections. This is what underlies new learning — every new connection made between your neurons is a sign of a new skill or fact or name that you have learnt, and that you are putting into storage for future use. So, brains with more BDNF have a greater capacity for learning new things.

Now, the opposite holds true too — a brain that has no or very low supplies of BDNF is a brain that switches off to new knowledge, and has trouble recalling already stored information. As we age, our levels of BDNF fall, but researchers have found that exercise induces their production and can therefore help to maintain levels.

But that’s not the whole story because science has revealed that BDNF is also responsible for the growth of new neurons called neurogenesis, which was believed to be impossible up until a few years ago. When researchers looked at where these new neurons were growing, they discovered that it was primarily in the hippocampus, the area of your brain responsible for learning and memory. When you can’t match a face to a name, this is the area of your brain that is battling to retrieve the information.

The good news is that exercise can help the BDNF to restore those neurons to a healthier state, and also reverse some of the damage that has already occurred. There is even more good news. Your frontal lobes, which oversee and dictate decision making and planning, as well as pattern detection and self-discipline, can get bigger if you exercise regularly. Having optimally functioning frontal lobes increases your enjoyment of life because you will make better decisions, be more goal-orientated and enjoy a better, more positive outlook on life. You will naturally feel ‘brighter’ about your life because your goals, aspirations and capabilities will be clearer.

The blood–brain barrier

The blood-brain barrier is a specialized system of sophisticated cells that form a barrier against toxic and harmful compounds entering the brain. The brain receives the same blood that flows through the body, so this system works to keep out compounds that could harm sensitive brain tissue. Some parts of the brain never develop a barrier at all, such as the hypothalamus and the pineal gland, both critically important for normal brain (and body) function. The cells in the blood-brain barrier can be compromised in their protective function during certain infectious states, from head injury and degenerative conditions. Certain viral and bacterial infections of the brain and spinal cord will also cause barrier ineffectiveness, as will hypertension and exposure to some heavy metals such as tin and lead. An elevated core body temperature, which occurs during heat stroke, can do the same thing, as can severe hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Ageing is also thought to lead to less effective barrier protection, making the ageing brain especially vulnerable to toxins that can cause harm. In addition, this barrier becomes temporarily ineffective or less effective during strokes (even small or ‘silent’ ones), which results in brain swelling.

Exercise and mitochondria

In Chapter 6 you will learn about carbohydrates and how your cells produce energy in tiny little factories called mitochondria. Without these tiny structures, our cells would be unable to produce the energy we need to function. Currently, they are being studied in great detail because they may hold the key to managing disease and ageing, including brain ageing.

One of the most interesting findings is that when you do aerobic exercise, you actually increase the number of mitochondria present in your muscle cells by 40 to 50 per cent in about six weeks. The outcome of this is less fatigue, less exertion required when exercising and greater endurance. This is because your mitochondria are burning fat more efficiently, rather than carbohydrate, for energy.

To get this benefit you need to walk briskly, cycle, swim, run or do other heart rateraising exercises for at least 15 to 20 minutes a day, three to four times a week. To maintain this new level of increased mitochondria, you will have to keep exercising regularly.

As you age, your mitochondria work less efficiently, which is why the focus is on keeping them healthy, and exercise is another way of doing this very effectively. It looks as if exercise helps to slow down the mitochondria ageing process. This phenomenon is not limited to the muscles of the body — the mitochondria in the brain, specifically in the hippocampus, become more efficient at producing energy and this in turn also influences the ability of neurons to grow, adapt and change.

Sweat and toxins

Many of the toxins that are present in our foods and the environment find their way into our fat cells and the membranes of our cells and stay there. Unfortunately, they also find their way into our very fatty brains. The fastest and most efficient way to get rid of these toxins is to sweat them out — being fat-soluble they work their way out of our fatty pores through perspiration.

As Chapter 7 will reveal, consuming the right fats is an integral part of brain health, and fortunately the bad fats get replaced with the good ones when you provide them. So, sweating through exercise allows the body to get rid of the bad fats, where the toxins are lodged, and replace them with the good ones that you will start eating. This process will occur naturally in your brain too, when you start consuming the right fats.

Stimulate your senses