by Dr Ryan Hislop
The brain: it’s one of the most energy and nutrient-hungry organs in your entire body, and diet has a huge effect on how well it works. Diet has an indirect effect on brain health via inflammation, gut health, and blood sugar control: all of those have serious consequences for your grey matter (brain cells).
We’re going to dive deep here on brain health and diet, but in summary, a healthy diet allows for a healthier brain.
Diet and Brain Health: The Inflammation Connection
The first way that diet affects your brain is through inflammation. Diet can turn inflammation up or down, and that has a huge effect on mental health. Inflammation is a normal physiological response to injury or stress, but if it does on too long, it can start being a problem. It’s normal for your finger to get inflamed and red and painful after you get a splinter, but if you were constantly sticking splinters in your finger and your finger was constantly inflamed and red and painful, that would probably prevent you from holding a pen properly or doing other things that you need to do. It’s the same thing going on inside your body: inflammation starts the process of healing, but it can become a problem if it becomes chronic.
Diet can cause (or calm) inflammation.
- Inflammatory foods: sugar, seed oils and processed foods.
- Anti-inflammatory foods: vegetables, fresh fruits, fish
The Paleo diet aims to provide a basis for anti-inflammatory foods, thus calming inflammatory tendencies in the brain and body.
An increase in inflammation is associated with measurable differences in brain function, reducing the production of new neurons for example. Studies have shown when healthy volunteers were injected with inflammatory substances, their mood worsened causing them to feel socially isolated and depressed. Inflammation is also important for serious mental illnesses. Just to cite a few studies…
- According to the journal of Neuroscience and Behavioural Reviews, a study in 2016 found excess inflammation was found to be involved in difficulties feeling pleasure and major depressive disorders.
- In 2015, the European journal for Neuropsychopharmacology found that inflammation may be one reason why some people don’t respond to treatment for depression.
- A systematic review in 2016 from the Journal of Psychopharmacology concluded that
inflammation caused by extreme psychological stressors may be the link between psychological stress and mental illness.
The Gut and the Brain
The gut is another huge regulator for overall inflammation, and a gut-friendly diet protects your brain by reducing overall inflammation.
A paleo diet allows for a diverse gut microbiome – that’s the community of friendly bacteria that live in your gut. The gut microbiome also assists in regulating mood and neurological function. Diets that increase gut bacterial diversity are associated with better mental health and cognitive function.
The short story: mental health starts in the gut. Keep your gut and your brain happy with healthy foods. Such as these:
Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and important for brain health, especially at the beginning and end of life. Food sources include: fish, seafood, walnuts and flax.
B vitamins include choline, B1, B6, B9 (folate), and B12. Folate/B9 is particularly important for pregnant women since it helps the baby’s brain and spinal cord develop. B12 is particularly important for brain function in aging.
Food sources include: basically any kind of meat or animal food, especially organ meat.
Iron, selenium, and magnesium are three important minerals for brain health.
- Iron deficiency is one major cause of fatigue and “Brain fog”
- Magnesium is important for managing stress and improved sleep.
- Selenium is an antioxidant mineral that helps reduce oxidative stress and may be protective against inflammatory brain disorders.
Food sources include: Iron: red meat, Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish and seafood, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus. Magnesium: almonds, spinach, other nuts, avocado.
Fat & Cholesterol
These two go together because they’ve both been unfairly demonized for the past few decades, and they’re typically found in the same foods. Fat is important for regulating mood and helping your brain respond to stress.
Cholesterol is important for making connections between brain cells – this helps you preserve brain function as you get older. It’s also critical for memory formation and learning.
Food sources include: meat, especially red meat and organ meat, and egg yolks.
In summary The main point is that Paleo hits all the brain-health bases almost automatically. By default, it’s an anti-inflammatory diet that also supports gut healing, the gut microbiome and helps regulate blood sugar. If you can stay away from processed foods and eat fresh and paleo, you get to focus on eating delicious foods (and then getting on with the rest of your life).
All the other stuff can happen behind the scenes without you having to spend time and energy thinking about it, and you get to enjoy the results of a brain which is working the way it was always designed to.