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Build a better brain
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What did you have for breakfast yesterday? What about dinner last Thursday? Is it easy to remember?
Can you simply sit down and focus on a piece of work, or are you constantly distracted?
And what were you doing right before you started reading this? Did you open your inbox for something else… and now here we are?
In this age of distraction, most of us would like to improve our memory, focus and concentration. So brain health has become big business. There’s a world of nootropics and adaptogen supplements out there, promising to give your brain a boost. But don’t be dazzled by sciencey words - most of us already have a nootropic every day with our morning coffee, because caffeine is one of them.
I personally have a keen interest in this because, since chemo frazzled every cell in my body and brought on early menopause, my brain doesn’t seem to have recovered. I’m told that my forgetfulness, scattershot thoughts and concentration of a four-year-old (symptoms collectively known as ‘brain fog’) are very common after cancer treatment. But hope is not lost, because there is a lot that we can do about it.
Dr Thomas Gurry is a biologist and microbiome scientist with degrees from Cambridge and MIT. During his PhD, he studied the proteins that aggregate in our brains to cause neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. He discovered that these aggregation processes can begin in the gut, and that dietary compounds can have a significant impact on their progression. This sparked a fascination with how nutrition can be used to prevent and reverse brain conditions.
He tells me that the gut plays a role in everything to do with the brain, not least because a healthy gut reduces inflammation. Now, inflammation is not always a bad thing. Acute inflammation is necessary for healing. ‘It’s known to induce what's called sickness behaviour, which is there to protect us,’ says Dr Gurry. ‘When we get an infection or are inflamed for some reason, then our brain depresses us deliberately. That's why you feel so rotten when you’re sick. It’s not just a byproduct. It's actually an active process driven by inflammation, where your body is basically telling you to rest.’
The thing we don’t want is chronic inflammation, which is caused by all manner of modern factors, such as poor diet, a sedentary job, insufficient sleep and relentless low-level stress.
Dr Gurry’s work around neurodegenerative disease is so important because anyone with experience of any form of dementia knows that losing control of your cognitive function is extremely distressing and heartbreaking. Of course, no one thinks that’ll happen to them until it does. Same as no one thinks they’ll get cancer until they do (and I’m here to tell you: don’t wait until you get cancer to try and avoid it).
So how do we protect our brains? First up, eat your veg for those all-important dietary fibres and prebiotics. Dr Gurry is co-founder of Myota, a range of fibre supplements, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that he is evangelical about fibre.
‘High fibre is probably the number one thing that I can vouch for, and not just because it's what we do [at Myota],’ he says, ‘but also because the strongest dietary signal we're getting these days is that high fibre is actually really critical to health.’ The problem, he says, is that too many of us who consider ourselves healthy have our go-to veg that we eat every week, and we’re not getting the variety that’s necessary for an optimally thriving gut microbiome.
‘Green lettuce, for example, is mostly cellulose, which is actually one of the least interesting fibres,’ he explains. ‘It's got its purpose for sure, but it acts more like the broom of the stomach [ie. it cleans up and gets things moving], rather than an active ingredient.’
You might quite reasonably be cynical of the co-founder of a fibre supplement brand saying that we need to improve our fibre intake. But most experts now agree we should aim to eat a diversity of plant fibre - at least 30 different plant foods a week. Supplements like Myota are an insurance policy for those weeks when you don’t quite hit that number.
So if not lettuce, then what foods do contain the active ingredients we need to keep our gut - and therefore our brain - happy and healthy?
‘Oats are a great source of blood sugar-regulating fibres, which are important because we now know that minimising blood sugar spikes is beneficial to clarity of mind.’ he says. ‘And some of the ingredients that contain fermentable fibres and prebiotic fibres include artichoke, asparagus, onion, garlic and apples.’
Certain ingredients have been shown to be particularly beneficial. Dr Gurry tells me curcumin, the active component that gives turmeric its bright colour, ‘has been shown to decrease the aggregation of proteins associated with Parkinson's disease.’
But don’t get hung up on particular ingredients - just aim to eat as wide a variety as possible. And if you’re eating mainly whole foods (veg, fruit, oats, rice, grains, seeds, herbs and spices) then you should be fine. The trouble is, so many people eat a high proportion of artificial ultra processed foods, which have no nutritional value and are packed with thickeners and sweeteners designed to leave you feeling dissatisfied and craving more (Chris Van Tulleken has done excellent work on this, and you can buy his book, Ultra Processed People, now).
Of course, brain health is not only about cognitive function in terms of memory, focus and concentration. Depression, anxiety and mood swings can also be improved through nutrition. This is important because it’s less of an incentive to eat well when the benefits are so far away, such as avoiding age-related neurodegenerative disease. Whereas, if you're feeling anxious right now, then knowing that your diet can actually help with that is more likely to inspire you to make those changes.
‘Stress, anxiety, depression and likely brain fog can come from inflammation too,’ explains Dr Gurry. ‘It’s almost like a scrambler of a signal so, if you have a clean radio signal, inflammation is kind of like noise that disrupts it.’
He is also keen to make it clear that good nutrition can’t work in a vacuum. You have to consider other elements of good health. ‘Exercise is huge,’ he says. ‘It secretes endorphins and regulates stress and your immune system. And sleep is also super critical. In fact,’ he continues, ‘it's my belief that the majority of ailments can be taken care of by good nutrition, sleep and exercise. Yes, it’s easier said than done but, if you do those things right, it will have a huge benefit.’
So please, start taking care of your brain now - I promise that future you will be grateful.
Power-up your brain
Make time for stillness. Whether it’s meditation, yoga, running without headphones, a breathing practice or simply staring into space for a few minutes. Have some time each day where your brain is not being stimulated.
Prioritise sleep. Yes, it’s more important than getting to the end of Beef.
Do one thing at a time. Studies have shown that multitasking decreases productivity by 40%. If you need to focus, leave your phone in another room.
Exercise. You don’t have to plan a punishing gym regime. Just make a simple effort to sit less and move more.
Get your fibre from as wide a variety of plant foods as you can.
Minimise alcohol, particularly if you’re a woman because it messes with your hormones and wreaks havoc with your gut, your brain and your immunity.
Dr Gurry also recommends exposure to hot and cold temperatures, citing the benefits of a cold shower in the morning or a sauna after swimming.
Keep learning. A different language, musical instrument, or even something less challenging (on paper at least) such as pottery has been shown to keep your brain strong and adaptable.
Still not convinced that what you eat can improve your mood? Read about the SMILES trial, which showed how a healthy whole foods diet can have an astonishing impact on symptoms of depression.