Food For Thought: Nutrition and Lifestyle for Brain Health

Your brain is kind of a big deal. As “command centre” for the body, it controls and regulates everything you do – from walking to talking, blinking to thinking, keeping your heart beating and your lungs breathing.

A healthy diet has long been known to help reduce risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but what about the role of diet in keeping our brains healthy?

Let’s take a look at some of the key nutrients that support brain health, and the foods and drinks that can keep your brain working in peak condition.

Water

The human brain is around 75% water, therefore it stands to reason that staying well hydrated is really important. Even mild dehydration can impair brain function, causing difficulties with concentration, memory and fatigue. Unsweetened, non-caffeinated drinks such as water, herbal teas or fruit-infused water are the best choice, but tea and coffee also count towards your daily fluid intake – just make sure you also consume some non-caffeinated drinks too. How much you should drink each day varies from person to person, but around 2 litres is a good rule of thumb.

Healthy Fats

If you were to remove all the water from your brain, the remaining “dry weight” would be about 60% fat. The fats we eat are incorporated into the membranes of the cells that make up our brain and nervous system. But as important as ensuring we include some fats in our diets, is ensuring we choose the right types of fat that support good brain health. Most important is omega-3 which is known as an essential fatty acid because we can only obtain it via food. Many people will know that omega-3 can be found in oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon, but nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are also excellent sources of this essential nutrient. Aim for 1-2 tbsp seeds or a small handful of walnuts each day.

Whole Carbohydrates

Our brains are incredibly energy hungry. Despite only representing 2% of our weight, our brains use an astonishing 20% of our energy. This means we needs to keep our brains well fuelled if we want to avoid low energy and problems with thinking, concentration and memory. Carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred energy source, however not all carbohydrates are created equal. Refined carbohydrates such as those found in white bread, pasta, white rice, breakfast cereals or sugary sweets and treats have been stripped of their fibre and nutrients. This means they digest very quickly, causing a rapid boost in energy followed a while later by an energy slump, hunger, irritability and poor concentration.

Whole carbohydrates contain more fibre and nutrients than refined carbohydrates. This means they digest more slowly and help keep our energy levels steady, helping our brains to function better. Good examples of whole carbohydrates include wholemeal bread, pasta and rice, porridge oats, fruits and vegetables (keep the skins on potatoes!) and beans.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants are molecules which protect cells in the body against damage. They are really important in keeping our bodies, and brains, healthy. The richest source of antioxidants are brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, especially berries and leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Coffee and green tea also contain a high concentration of antioxidants, and you will probably be pleased to hear that dark chocolate contains high levels of flavonoids which have been positively linked to memory. A great reason to treat yourself to a daily square of brain-boosting chocolate!

Exercise

As well eating a balanced diet, staying physically active is one of the best ways we can look after our brain health. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, delivering oxygen and essential nutrients, and stimulating the growth of new brain cells. What type of exercise is best? Well pretty much anything that increases your heart rate, makes you feel slightly out of breath, and that you enjoy! The CSP have some great ideas for incorporating regular activity into your life when you’ve got a long-term health condition.

If you found this article helpful, you might like to join my new Facebook community where I am looking forward to sharing more tips and ideas to help you feel fitter, healthier and reach your recovery goals.

Join Our Community

We have a brand new Facebook Community where you can connect with others and we’d love you to join!

The community is open to anyone with a neurological diagnosis, who wants to:

  • connect with others in a similar position
  • improve their diet and/or achieve a healthier weight
  • find ways to relax, manage their stress and feel more positive
  • feel fitter, more energetic and achieve their health goals!

In this group we believe that simple diet and lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on your confidence, motivation, mobility, stamina, energy levels, your rehab goals and your overall wellbeing.

Our goal in this group is provide you with tips and support to improve your health and wellbeing so you’ll be able to feel fitter, healthier and more confident in your day to day life.

This group is perfect for:

>> Anyone who has experienced a life-changing neurological health event such as a stroke, brain injury or spinal cord injury, or is living with any kind neurological condition.

>> Those looking for practical ideas to increase their activity levels and improve mobility and stamina.

>> Anyone who needs a helping hand to grow their motivation and confidence or to feel more positive.

>> Those who are struggling with low energy which impacts on what they can do in their day-to-day life.

>> Anyone who is looking to eat a healthier diet to reduce risk of stroke, cardiovascular illnesses or type 2 diabetes, or who wants to reach a healthier weight without dieting!

>>Those looking for accountability, regular check-ins and support from a group of like-minded individuals.

You will learn a lot just by hanging out in this space and contributing to the discussion, so come on in… and let’s support you to outshine your health goals!

You can join the community by clicking here.

When you’re struggling with low energy, here’s some tips that can help.

Feeling low in energy is a common symptom experienced by many people living with stroke, traumatic brain injury and other neurological diagnoses. Fatigue can seriously impact on your recovery goals and what you are able to do in your day-to-day life.

Fatigue can have a number of underlying causes. It may be directly related to your neurological condition, or it may be linked to other physical or emotional factors such as unsettled sleep, inactivity and loss of fitness, or low mood.

Feeling constantly tired is very common when you have a neurological illness or injury, but there are some things that you can do to help manage your energy levels.

  1. Keep a diary. This can help you pinpoint which activities reduce your energy levels (e.g. therapy sessions, household chores) and which activities improve your energy levels (e.g. relaxing with music, socialising). Aim to achieve a balance of both within a day. A diary can also help you work out when you have more energy, for example in the morning. 
  1. Make a plan. Once you know how much you can do in a day, and when you feel most energised, you can plan out your day or week. Use a diary or a wall calendar to help you. Aim to spread activity evenly across the week. This might involve breaking larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps (e.g. vacuuming one or two rooms per day rather than tackling the whole house in one go).
  1. Stay active. Regular physical activity can help to improve your energy levels, so try to incorporate some exercise into your day, but don’t overexert yourself. You could try a short walk, a few minutes on an exercise bike or a chair-based workout. We Are Undefeatable has some great ideas to help you find activities that work for you.
  1. Pace yourself. It’s important to balance activities which drain your energy with activities which ‘recharge your batteries’ plus proper breaks. If you feel exhausted, then it’s okay to sit down or to take a short nap of up to 30 minutes; taking longer naps may impact on your sleep at night. This might mean you are not able to do all the things you’d like to, but over time you can build up your stamina.
  1. Eat a balanced diet. The food we eat can either cause our energy levels to peak and dip throughout the day, or keep our energy on a more even keel. Reducing foods high in sugar and refined (white) carbohydrates will help avoid the highs and lows of the ‘energy rollercoaster’, whereas eating a balance of fruits and vegetables, wholegrain carbohydrates, lean protein plus some healthy fats will help to maintain steady energy levels throughout the day.

Seeking support can also help you to manage your fatigue, improve your energy and achieve your recovery goals. Talking to your family and friends can help them try and understand your situation and support you. You could also contact us for a free 15-minute telephone consultation to tell us about your energy levels and see if we can help you find a way forward.