Understanding brain health and cognition can be a complex matter, especially when it comes to the grey and white kind! Words like oxidative stress, inflammation, neurodegeneration and beta amyloids which are commonly referred to when speaking about the welfare of our noodle can leave you feeling dizzy.
So what are the most important factors in brain health and why does it matter?
Your brain is important for your sensory perceptions and your motor functions, it dictates your mood and stores those cherished memories that you rely on so much in everyday life to walk, talk and reminisce. The brain undoubtedly has some very important functions in the body as well as your beating heart, so it deserves undivided attention, especially when it comes to nutrition and wellbeing.
There are two main concerns in brain health, both of which lead to the damage and death of neurons – a nerve cell which has the specialised function of sending messages around your body.
The first, oxidative stress, can lead to inflammation in the brain which has been shown to have many causes including eating a western diet, obesity, lack of oxygen to the brain and nutrient deficiencies.
Secondly, the build-up of the beta-amyloid protein in the brain which is most known for its association to Alzheimer’s disease, but they have also been shown to accumulate in the aging brain of otherwise healthy people.
Bearing this in mind, how can you make sure that you are eating to switch on the ignition for cognition? Eating ‘brain food’ might not only prevent your brain from being damaged but may also allow the secret genius you never knew you had to surface from within you.
The blubber-like brain tissue compromises 60% fat, so it makes sense that the choices you make when it comes to eating fat is important. Studies have shown that polyunsaturated fats, often coined PUFAs, are the best in class when it comes to fat for the brain. A large percentage of brain fat consists of a type of omega 3 PUFA called Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) which is found mainly in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. Try to eat 3 portions a week of these sea-living wonders to really see results.
As oxidative stress and inflammation is a major cause of mental decline, eating foods which appease this assault may lessen the damage. These include foods that contain anti-oxidants which have long been associated with brain health and cognitive function. The best way to include these in the diet is eating a plate of food that includes the colours of the rainbow so that you get a diverse range of these beneficial nutrients. Berries, beetroot, leafy greens, mushrooms, onions and carrots are all great choices with their distinctive tones.
Another major player emerging in this field is brain–derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF, which is a protein produced inside a nerve cell – often described as a fertiliser for our nerve cells as it promotes their survival by supporting growth, maturation and maintenance of these cells. This may be an important factor in protection from beta-amyloid proteins mounting up in the brain and decrease the risk of degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. Recent research has shown that BDNF’s proliferation can be encouraged by the polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil, so why not fill two needs with one deed, and drizzle leafy greens in a delicious olive oil and anchovy salad dressing to create a side dish fit for a mastermind.
Intermittent fasting and exercise such as running have also been shown to champion the production of BDNF so it’s worth considering whether these lifestyle factors are worth the adaptation for a shot of shrewdness.
Eating for optimum brain health is surely common sense, but it is easy to succumb to unhelpful food choices when you are dealing with the stresses of every day life. Brain fog, memory loss and low mood are all symptoms of a poorly functioning brain and they can have such an impact on your wellbeing – so why not make some positive changes to your lifestyle and ensure you stay on the ball!
How nourishing your mitochondria might be fundamental to staying healthy this winter
You may have come across the word ‘mitochondria’ recently or perhaps you recall it from a school biology lesson and know that its associated with your cells and energy production in the body. It’s a new area of focus in human health and not without due cause.
A human cell is made up of many functions and organelles, which are enclosed within a strong cell wall. The mitochondria are an integral part of your cells which have many complex roles. Recent research is now suggesting that the mitochondria is the back bone of your immune system and without it functioning correctly we either have an increased susceptibility of getting sick or we are more at risk of chronic illnesses such as autoimmune diseases.
Here I will discuss the role of mitochondria in your immune system and how nourishing your mitochondria might be more effective at improving your immune health than targeting it directly with conventional treatments such as immune boosters like Echinacea or anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
The “powerhouse” of your cells
Mitochondrion is a small organelle within your cells which has long been understood for its ability to turn sugars into the energy ATP which our bodies then use for biological processes. It provides essential energy to organs such as the heart, brain and muscles. Much like an engine in a car that burns fuel to power a car to drive, your mitochondria provide the energy in your cells to help them work optimally. This mighty organelle in your cells, which may have originated from bacteria and has its own separate DNA from the 23 chromosomes found in the human genome is passed down through the mother’s genes, so any genetic inheritance is on the mother’s side only.
And there’s more…, emerging evidence is suggesting mitochondria has a role in recruiting essential immune cells in your first line of defence against bacteria and viruses. Mitochondria may also be responsible for activating ‘cell suicide’ which ensures that any cells which are not working properly such as those associated with cancer and autoimmune disease are destroyed.
Your immune army
The immune system is a complex arrangement of immune cells which all have a specialised function, like the duties of an army, whereby some cells attack, others recruit more immune cells and some cells specialise in memorising the enemy, so they are well prepared for any further conflicts with the same opponent. All these cells require energy from ATP to do their jobs properly so any deficit in energy because of mitochondrial dysfunction can lead to either a lethargic immune response to the enemy resulting in infection or defective military tactics on the battlefield. This can lead to inflammation and autoimmune conditions.
It is now understood that mitochondria also have a role to play in the conscription of immune cells to sites of infection and injury to provide protection and promote healing. In mitochondrial dysfunction when the immune cells are not monitored properly, they can cause damage to healthy tissue by targeting our own cells. It is therefore essential that mitochondria are nourished with the right nutrients so that they can act properly when we need them to protect us from bugs without causing damage to your own body.
Help your mitochondria to thrive
Mitochondria rely on a vast supply of nutrients to work effectively and are dependent on complexes being broken down correctly to provide the right fuel to perform their tasks. As such, both impaired genetics, malnourishment and toxic load can cause these go-getters to fall flat – but there are ways to bio-hack your body, so that any challenge that your mitochondria face can be attuned.
Antioxidants such as quercetin and resveratrol help to protect and restore mitochondria which promotes energy production in the cells. These can be found in red and purple coloured fruits and vegetables, and fresh leafy greens. Green tea is also important for mitochondria so when you need an energy boost, a green brew may be more advantageous for energy purposes than a cup of coffee. More specialised nutrients such as glucosamine, n-acetyl cysteine and coenzyme Q10 have been shown in studies to promote mitochondrial health and should be considered for people suffering with mitochondrial fatigue – symptoms for which can present themselves in various ways such as chronic fatigue, brain fog and aching muscles and joints
A new approach to fighting disease?
Perhaps we have been missing a trick all along in our quest for health and understanding the intricacies of our cells could be more important than our knowledge of distinct organ functions. Our cells make up every part of our body so if we target one function in the cell it could impact our health in totality rather than just perfecting one area. Given the immune systems relies on its vast army of cells to perform its tasks, improving the health of these cells could be fundamental in the betterment of our immune health.
Where it all began
In the early years of mankind, we had evolved such remarkable characteristics, especially our large thoughtful brains, that we were able to outcompete much physically stronger species such as Neanderthals due our abstract thinking skills of making tools and finding edible food sources through cooking techniques. We used our environment to our advantage in a world flourishing with potential fuel sources that only we understood how to use.
40,000 years on, human beings are being left behind in the technological age that they created, but how did we all become so out of sync with our environments – and with one of the major consequences of this being that we are becoming increasingly malnourished as a population?
From king of the jungle to lost in space
The human brain is a phenomenal machine which has created scientific developments in industrial methods and technological advancements. These have propelled society forwards even more so than imagined in 1960s sci-fi films.
One primary focus in these developments has been the way in which we produce food, with food producers preferring quantity over quality in the crops that are grown and the animals that are reared, as well as using genetic modification to enable the cultivation of inorganic food without the complexities of growing food naturally. Technology has allowed food production on a mass scale, increasing population sizes who require more food – it becomes a viscous cycle, difficult to maintain.
Here I will consider what these evolutions mean for humanity, and how we can make meaningful changes to our diet and wellbeing to survive in this modernistic world.
When did food lose its meaning?
If you look up the definition of the word ‘food’, it refers to a nutritious substance that we can eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth. But how much of the food that we eat today can we truly say should be classified as “food” based on this definition? The food that the majority of us eat nowadays has a high glycaemic load, is low in omega 3 fats and doesn’t contain adequate amounts of minerals and nutrients to justly nourish us anymore, so everyone is getting sick. Depression, heart disease, cancers and autoimmune diseases have all be linked to mineral and nutrient deficiencies, so we need to take action now, so our caveman-like bodies can survive in this futuristic reality.
The nutritional transition
An interesting illustration of the effects of the western lifestyle on human health is in “nutritional transition” whereby healthy populations in Africa become modernised, eat a more western style diet and then start to develop nutrition-related diseases. Although further research needs to be conducted, it provides some noteworthy evidence that our diets and environments have a fundamental impact on our wellbeing, and our current approach to diet is not fit for purpose in the western lifestyle and needs to be revaluated.
The “Paleo” movement has provided some awareness of the mismatch between the diet that humans thrived on as part of the Palaeolithic heritage vs. the low-nutrient dense foods that people consume today. However, the practicalities of eating like a hunter gatherer, as well as the ethical and environmental considerations, are not always suitable in the busy urban lives in which most of us exist – there needs to be an alternative that complements our means, rather than trying to eat like our ancestors who lived in a very different world.
Functional foods of the future
Fortified foods enriched with vitamins and nutrients which are also low in sugar and saturated fats, are potential solutions to bridge the gap between our humanly requirements and the nutritional limitations of this new age. A new functional food revolution is emerging, whereby innovative convenient nutrient dense foods are being created to ensure your survival in these new metropolises that we set to conquer.
Japan is ahead of the curve in this game, with its “FOSHU” (food for specified health use) categorised foods which propose a new purposeful way of consuming food. Eating with purpose might not only be the trend of the future, but also an evolutionary advantage in the survival of mankind. Do you want to be left behind?
Many foods in themselves are already “functional” in nature including dark chocolate, blueberries, and green tea. Various new products are appearing on the market including drinks, snacks and even wine, which are aligning to this functional concept, so you can now make considered choices in the shopping aisle to optimise your wellbeing in this ever-evolving world.
A new human strategy
Strategic living and life enhancing approaches to the way we eat and live seems the most intelligent response to the disparity between the human body and these new-fangled surroundings that we find ourselves in. Our food needs to rightly support us to achieve a unity.
By bringing food back to its initial purpose in our lives: for nourishment and nutrition rather than eating “empty calorie” foods that have no sustenance, we can change our health and wellbeing, the way we feel and the impact we have on other people.
Here is one for you to ponder as you move through your daily lives: food with nutritional benefit is really just food; anything else you eat is essentially a fraud – at least in terms of health and wellbeing.
Sleep is the new black
Sleep is the current health trend which costs you nothing but can have more of an impact on your health than any super-powder, green juice or bone broth. Far from the ‘work hard, play hard’ vibe of the 90’s, it is now obvious to most, that if you want to live a fulfilling, happy and productive life you need to prioritise sleep.
But is it as simple as just making sure that you go to bed earlier or set your alarm clock an hour later? Unfortunately, not. Sleep is a complex science which is dependent on numerous biological factors that need to be balanced to ensure you get that restful and restorative sleep that your body craves.
An important factor in this web of intricacy is the neurotransmitter melatonin. Sometimes coined the ‘sleep hormone’, the amount of melatonin in your blood at night can be a key indicator of how easy sleep comes to you when your head hits the pillow and how impactful and regenerative your sleep really is.
Here I will explore ways that you can increase melatonin production in your body so that you fully reap the benefits of those additional hours of ZZZ’s.
See the stars and sleep
The production of melatonin is largely linked to the internal circadian rhythm and light (or lack of it) is one of the most important factors in its production, with the melatonin manufacturing plant in your brain peaking in activity in the early hours between 2am and 4am. However, those cells involved in the construction of melatonin have vampire like qualities and can be extremely sensitive to light, so make sure you sleep in a pitch-black room and if this is not possible, buy an eye mask to sleep in. Also, go tech-free at least a couple of hours before bed, as the light exposure from a laptop or mobile phone can halt production of this sleeping beauty causing disruptive and fruitless-feeling sleep.
Boosting melatonin with food
Melatonin is synthesised from the essential amino acid tryptophan which is found in foods such as turkey, lentils and nuts, and a deficiency in this nutrient may lead to a decrease in melatonin production. In the western world, deficiency in tryptophan is not common but if you eat a fairly low protein diet it might be worth considering adding these foods to your diet if you have trouble travelling to the land of nod on an evening.
In addition, some foods contain high amounts of melatonin which have been shown to increase levels of nocturnal melatonin including walnuts, olive oil, rice and tomatos. If you struggle with sleep, factor these in when you are choosing a bed time snack.
The vineyards of zen
Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that most alcohol causes the amount of melatonin made by the body to decrease, triggering troublesome sleep. However, as wine and beer naturally contain a very high amount of melatonin, the negative effects of alcohol may be counteracted when consuming these types of alcohol and they may even have a beneficial impact on our sleeping abilities.
Still, not all wine is made equal, Nebbiolo and Croatina have been shown to have very high levels of melatonin whereas the amounts in Cabernet are negligible. Choose wisely when you are pairing your wine with sleep.
Sleep well, eating the rainbow
Other potential nutrients which may contribute to improved sleep include increasing essential fatty acids in the diet, and eating foods rich in B vitamins, magnesium and zinc which have influential roles in melatonin synthesis. Eating colourful and varied food is vital to ensure that you have all the nutrients necessary to enable your body to reach sleep the right way.
New evidence is suggesting that the presence of melatonin is not only central to proper sleep function but it also has anti-oxidative activity and helps to modulate the immune system which is important in autoimmune diseases. Melatonin may also have a protective role against cancer and cardiovascular disease. With more of its charmed properties likely to be unveiled as the research develops, it would be unwise to ignore sleep issues which may be linked to inadequate melatonin levels in the body.
3-steps to sleep
If you are finding that you regularly have disruptive sleep or that you are habitually awake until the early hours, consider whether you need to make changes to your lifestyle to encourage more melatonin production in your body. Start by blocking light exposure on a night time, then resolve any nutritional deficiencies in the diet, and finish with melatonin boosting foods. This is the 3-step plan to the most unwittingly followed health fads going: sleep.
Should you be considering other dietary changes when going ‘gluten-free’?
A gluten-free approach to eating is more than just the latest food fad, it can save lives. However, should we be more conscious of the reasons for our food choices, rather than following the most recent trend? People who suffer with coeliac disease, where eating gluten can cause serious damage to the digestive system and cause a severe inflammatory response in the body, have an obvious reason for excluding gluten from their diet, but those of us who opt for a gluten-free diet for a healthier lifestyle should consider all of the facts before embarking on grain-free living. Here I will consider the pros and cons of going “gluten-free”, and what other dietary changes we should consider when going against the gluten-containing grains.
Wholegrains for a Healthy Heart
Some scientists have long considered that eating gluten was associated with an increased risk of heart disease. As the theory went, gluten was likely to cause an inflammatory response in the body which caused damage to the blood vessels leading to cardiac risks. However, a landmark study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 concluded that gluten consumption was not linked to increased risk in heart disease, and moreover, avoidance of gluten in the diet may actually increase the risk of cardiac disease.
The findings of the study suggested that as those following a gluten-free diet had less wholegrains in their diets (which are a key source of dietary fibre and promote heart health), their cardiac risk increased rather than declined when cutting out the grains.
It is therefore important to ensure that additional dietary fibre is added to the diet when considering a gluten-free lifestyle. Good gluten-free grains which contain a high amount of fibre include quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice and millet. Berries, almonds, flaxseeds, peas and beans are also good grain-free high fibre foods.
Nutrient Deficiencies when Narrowing the Diet
Another factor to consider when restricting your diet to gluten-free is the potential nutrient deficiencies which might occur as a consequence. Although in those with coeliac disease gluten containing foods may actually cause anaemia, there is a risk for those without gluten-related intolerances that they may become deficient in iron and folic acid due to the decrease in wholegrains in the diet. Again, adding foods such as quinoa, pumpkin seeds, beans and lentils to a gluten-free diet ensure these vital nutrients are not missed.
Substitute with Variety
Often those who opt for a gluten-free lifestyle turn to brown rice as an easy and readily available alternative grain. However, as with most things in life, moderation is key to maintaining a healthy equilibrium, as some studies have associated brown rice with heavy metal toxicity which can cause issues such as nausea, abdominal pain and problems with the nervous system.
So, if brown rice is your favoured substitute to gluten-containing foods try to minimise your servings to twice a week and get inventive with a variety of other foods such as sweet potato, aubergine, parsnips, sorghum and green split peas which make a satisfying alternative accompaniment with your meals. Cauliflower rice is also a popular substitute.
Is Gluten-free Best for Me?
As well as coeliac disease, recent research proposes that some people have a condition referred to as ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ where they have an adverse reaction to gluten without the auto-antibodies present which are associated with coeliac disease. As there is no specific presentation of this disease and no current test to confirm its existence it is hard to identify how many people might be affected by this syndrome. However, if you do feel like you have an adverse reaction when eating certain foods it is recommended to exclude these from you diet for 3 months, and then try to reintroduce them and see if the symptoms reoccur – if that is the case, it is usually worth excluding these from your diet long-term.
In addition, some studies have shown a link between gluten and intestinal permeability, due to gluten’s effect on the wall of the digestive tract. Intestinal permeability (also known as ‘leaky gut’) is now considered one of three crucial aspects in the onset of autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis where the body attacks the thyroid gland. So, should you have a susceptibility to autoimmune disease, going gluten-free may be a wise option for you.
Now Informed, You Choose
Lifestyle choices are for you to decide, and whatever your health status, we all have the right to choose what diet suits us best, as long as we are properly informed in making that decision.
If you do decide to go gluten-free, always consider the fibre levels in your diet to make sure you are getting the recommended daily dose, avoid gluten-free processed foods and eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to ensure that you are consuming a variety of vitamins and minerals every day.
Going against the grain in life should be liberating not restricting, so rather than considering only what foods you have to cut out of your diet as part of going gluten-free, remember to also focus on the abundance of wholefoods that you can bring into your diet to keep you flourishing no matter what you’ve lost!
Lucuma is a SUPA-fruit full of wondrous treasures – it is a rich source of anti-oxidants, iron, niacin and fibre. The perfect addition to a healthy lifestyle to find a sense of revival in your everyday.
The lucuma fruit was a symbol of longevity and fertility for Peruvian people for the wealth of health benefits the fruit provided, the so called ‘Gold of the Incas’. Recent research has supported this theory, suggesting that lucuma encourages wound healing and promoting skin regeneration, repairing our bodies from inside out from the wear and tear of daily life.
Lucuma has also been shown to enhance digestion so it is perfect to mix with a digestif after a heavy meal or overindulgence, or just when you need that extra digestive support.
Due to Lucuma’s antioxidant content it is also linked to improvements in various other conditions including heart health and diabetes, so a daily dose of this gleaming gold beauty is worth a try to see whether you can find harmonisation of your ailments to reboot you back to your beginnings and make you feel alive again.
It’s hard to believe Lucuma’s array of health properties when you taste its caramelly, sweet and fragrant flavour. It tastes great added to smoothies and juices, and recently it has been used in ice creams, complimenting the creamy consistency rather delightfully.
As much as Lucuma acts as a great sweetener it is actually low on the glycaemic index scale, so it helps balance blood sugar, rather than causing the blood sugar swings which affect our mood which is encountered with insulin stimulating foods that contain sugar, and that even includes natural sugars! Lucuma will keep you balanced and replenished and make you feel set to conquer the world!
Lucuma’s nourishment, delicious taste and grand history certainly proves it really is worth its weight in gold.
Try incorporating it in your every day regime to bounce back to life and set the world ALIVE!
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Finding Answers for the Autoimmune
Health, Nutrition & Humanity