We hear about “brain food” all the time, but do any of us actually know what those foods are doing to help our most valuable organ? In the modern world, our brains are under a lot of pressure to cope with stress, process a bombardment of sensory information and analyse streams of data on top of making us breathe, pump blood and digest food. It’s no wonder a lot of us experience “brain drain.”
Brain drain is a phrase used by psychotherapist and author Dr. Mike Dow to describe when “your stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are going up and your feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid] are going down.” Basically, it’s when you get so stressed out that you’re unable to find a balance.
Dow wrote a whole book on it, but a big takeaway is the affect food has on the chemicals in your brain. Not only are there certain foods you can eat to increase levels of the “good stuff” (serotonin and GABA), but there are things we’re consuming that can lead to even more production of stress hormones.
Stress is shrinking your brain
Yes, literally. A 2015 study by Yale University found that “cumulative adversity (a combination of recent stressful events and the lifetime total of stressful events) was associated with a smaller volume in medial prefrontal cortex, insular cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate regions.” In short: stress shrinks your brain. So while you may think that you’re great at coping with stress – you very well might be – all those stress hormones could actually be wearing down your ability to cope by damaging your brain.
According to Dow, the most important nutrients for serotonin and GABA production and cortisol (stress hormone) suppression are omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C. Vitamin C is fairly easy to come by in common foods. The most well-known source is citrus fruit, but you can find it in even higher concentration in kiwi, green and red peppers and guava. Other good sources are strawberries, Brussel sprouts and broccoli.
Omega-3s are a little harder to come by. They are an “essential fatty acid,” which means your body doesn’t produce them and they need to be obtained through your diet. Seafood, salmon in particular, is a great source of omega-3 but there are non-seafood and vegetarian options too. Flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soy beans as well as eggs and other meats contain the essential nutrient too.
A dangerous cycle
If we’re already stressed, we’re often inclined to reach for processed, sugary or salty foods for ease or comfort. That’s actually hurting you too. Processed carbs and sugars are linked to reduced activity in your hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates emotions. That reduced functioning makes you even less able to cope with your heightened stress levels.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
You may have heard of probiotics – that stuff Activia claims will make you feel like a hula dancer – but you might be less familiar with prebiotics. Probiotics are good for gut health and have also been linked to better serotonin and GABA production but they don’t work alone. Those little guys need food in the form of prebiotics. You can get your probiotics from yogurt and other fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and kefir. Prebiotics are found in foods like onions, garlic and raw asparagus.