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Boost your brain

Nutritionist Christine Bailey highlights some ways to protect your brain health through diet and good nutrition

Are you worried about losing your memory? Do you find it hard to concentrate and focus on tasks? Do you struggle with brain fog, low mood or depression? If so, now is the time to take action. Our modern diet and lifestyle can take its toll on the brain. Poor brain health and a decline in function can affect people even in middle age and begins decades before symptoms become evident.

What we eat matters

Our typical Western diet does not support a healthy brain – in fact, it destroys it. This might sound extreme, but our obsession with processed and convenience foods, grains, carbohydrates and sugar are the exact foods that will accelerate our body’s ageing process – and that includes our brain.

It might surprise you that having type-2 diabetes doubles your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, but the two conditions are connected through their shared problem – a diet high in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, gluten grains and sugar – which can all affect the health of your brain.

One of the reasons a Mediterranean diet appears to be linked to a reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and mild cognitive impairment, is the richness in the range of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods it provides. Similarly, studies show that people who eat more plant foods have a lower risk of many age-related diseases, including high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, weight gain, osteoporosis and some cancers. This is probably due to the antioxidant effects of those foods, but this is not the sole reason.

These bioactive chemicals not only mop up free radicals, preventing or slowing down the damage they cause to cells, but they also have many other benefits. Many of these compounds have the ability to “turn off” certain genes in our cells that promote inflammation, helping to prevent the blood from becoming too sticky (sticky blood is more liable to clot, causing heart attacks and strokes) and affecting blood flow in the brain. The antioxidants also keep the arteries flexible, and support the circulation and detoxification.

Vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, for example, are rich in a range of antioxidant vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C and E, zinc and selenium, as well as a diverse range of plant compounds (called phytonutrients). These include polyphenols such as anthocyanidins catechins, flavonoids and resveratrol, which are now widely studied for their protective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The more colourful your plate, the greater the diversity of these plant compounds you will have in your diet.


Low-grade, systemic, chronic inflammation, not apparent on the outside of the body, insidiously damages the body and brain, and is now thought to be one of the drivers of cognitive decline and mood disorders.

The inflammatory process also appears to play an important role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. When high levels of amyloid-beta accumulate in the brain, they activate the body’s immune response, resulting in inflammation that damages the neurons; however, including anti-inflammatory foods might help to reduce damage and the progression of the condition.

Inflammation and its link to the gut

Research is finding that our microbiome plays an important role in our mental health and the risk of certain neurological disorders; for example, it has been demonstrated that patients with Parkinson’s disease often suffer from leaky gut, and it appears that an increase in gut leakiness enhances inflammation as well as the production of a unique protein, called alpha-synuclein, both of which are characteristic of this disease. Since inflammation is the mechanism that is thought to underlie virtually every degenerative condition, it is becoming clear that the integrity of the lining of the gut, and the balance of bacteria in it, plays a fundamental role in determining the degree of inflammation in the body. One of the most important elements involved in maintaining gut wall integrity is the balance and diversity of the microbes that live within the gut.

Feed the good bacteria
One of the best ways to improve the diversity and balance of our gut flora is to eat fermented foods daily. Naturally fermented foods contain a wide range of beneficial bacteria and yeasts that support a healthy gut flora. Good examples include kimchi, sauerkraut, raw pickles, kefir, kombucha, tempeh, miso and natto (a fermented soy product).

Fermented food is also a potent producer of many B vitamins essential for brain function. Fermented foods are some of the best natural foods to help remove toxins from the body (known as chelators). The beneficial bacteria in these foods are highly potent detoxifiers, capable of drawing out a wide range of toxins and heavy metals as well supporting overall health and function of the gut.

Top anti-inflammatory foods

Anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout. Best wild-caught. (Avoid larger fish such as tuna and swordfish, as these are higher in toxins)

Chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts. Include their oils and butters. Do not heat them.

Avocado oil, olive oil, sesame oil; Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts and pecan nuts

Chilli, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric

HERBS (ideally fresh) Basil, coriander/cilantro, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme.

Especially berries, cherries, citrus fruits (including the zest), dark leafy greens such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, rocket/arugula and watercress, plus beetroot/beet, olives, onions and peppers/bell peppers. In general, the more deeply pigmented the fruit or vegetable, the greater its antioxidant power

Papaya, pineapple core (for example, macerated into a smoothie), sprouted seeds and sprouted beans and pulses

Green tea and matcha green tea powder, black tea, redbush (rooibos) tea

Kefir, kombucha, miso, natto, sauerkraut, tempeh and yogurt

Barley grass, chlorella, spirulina and wheatgrass

Such as arame, kelp, kombu, nori and wakame

Enoki, maitake, oyster and shiitake mushrooms; lion’s mane and other medicinal mushroom powders

Extracted from The Brain Boost Diet Plan by Christine Bailey. Copyright © Watkins Media Limited 2018 Text © Christine Bailey 2018 Photography © Watkins Media Limited 2018

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