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Neuro-Nutrition for a Healthier Brain

People routinely go on diets to lose weight, build muscle or feel more energetic but few think of nutrition for a healthier and fitter brain despite the fact that the brain is the most important organ in the human body. Here’s some good news: a healthy neuro-nutritional diet is good for your mind and your body. With good neuro-nutrition, which is based on a holistic and healthy common sense diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts and seeds and spices and herbs--nature’s basket of flavours, colours and textures--you can improve your moods and cognitive function, help reduce the risks of cognitive decline due to ageing and provide healthy nutrients to the rest of your body. Healthy neuro-nutrition can help improve your brain’s neuroplasticity (its ability to change) as well as neurogenesis (its ability to create new neurons.)

The most critical nutrient to fuel a healthy mind is glucose. “The brain uses glucose as its primary source of fuel, more so than other tissues in the body. Glucose is the preferred source of fuel for the brain in any state except for starvation, when it is forced to burn fat for fuel,” says Lisa Powell, MS, RD, Director of Nutrition at Canyon Ranch, a multi-award-winning health resort, renowned for its innovative approach to health, wellness and holistic and integrative care.

And what is the healthiest source of glucose? Complex carbohydrates, which are found in unprocessed foods that come from plants. “Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose,” says Powell. “The closer the carbohydrate is to its natural form, the better. So that means a wide variety of veggies and fruit and beans and nuts and seeds and whole grain products.”

But the brain doesn’t just need a good supply of glucose. It needs a steady, balanced supply. This is critical not just for brain function, but also for appetite and mood regulation. Without enough glucose, the brain’s ability to produce neurotransmitters is hampered and that can lead to mood swings--which is why people often get very irritable when they are hungry. Conversely, rapid spikes of glucose to the brain also lead to mood swings.

“Anything that stabilizes blood sugar tends to help balance moods,” says Powell. “If your blood sugar spikes and drops, your mood will tend to do the same. But if your blood sugar is balanced by having meals spaced fairly evenly, and eating every three to four hours, choosing unrefined carbs and balancing those meals with protein and fat, which are great balancers as they help delay the absorption of the glucose into the bloodstream, then you can help that keep your blood sugar level even for both mood stability and appetite control.”

Bleached grains contribute to blood sugar spikes and drops because, says Powell, for all practical purposes much of the “digestion” has already taken place in the manufacturing plant. “All that is left for your body to do is the final breakdown, so the glucose is absorbed quickly, your blood sugar spikes quickly, and you’re off on that rollercoaster pattern with the blood sugar,” says Powell.  “With whole grains, your body has to accomplish the breakdown and digestion before you can absorb that glucose so it slows down the absorption and balances it out.”

Healthy neuro-nutrition also helps to balance inflammation, which some researchers have linked to depression. “The brain is such an active organ, there is glucose flowing, a lot of oxygen flowing, it’s a tissue that is hard working. Like any tissue in the body, the brain can be potentially inflamed,” says Powell. “It’s not that you don’t want any inflammation, that’s how your body defends itself from things such as viruses, but you want to balance the inflammation. Western diets lean towards foods that are pro-inflammatory.”

Animal meats, hydrogenated oils, and many of the chemical and preservatives in processed foods all have inflammatory qualities. In fact, most people in western societies consume up to 20 times more pro-inflammatory omega-6 fat than anti-inflammatory omega-3. “To create a balance, you can shift towards more anti-inflammatory foods, such as omega 3-rich fish three times a week, flax seed, sour cherries and berries, apples, pear, pomegranate, use extra-virgin olive oil for salads and cooking and anti-inflammatory spices such as ginger, rosemary, turmeric, oregano, curry, cinnamon,  and eat probiotics, which are found in yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut, as well as supplements,” says Powell.

The best thing about healthy neuro-nutrition is that it is rich with wholesome, natural and varied foods and when combined with relaxation and exercise, it leads to a fitter body as well as mind. It’s about enjoying different flavours and textures, absorbing its nutrients and enjoying life more fully with a clear and energized mind.