brain-boost­ing recipes

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - Dr Joanna McMIL­LAN

We pretty much all ac­cept what we choose to eat and drink af­fects our health. Much at­ten­tion has been given to the fac­tors that influence heart, gut and liver health. Yet we re­ally don’t talk about how food and life­style choices af­fect brain health.

We’re aware the brain doesn’t al­ways work so well as we get older. In fact, for the over 50s, con­cerns about de­men­tia and “los­ing one’s mar­bles” have now over­taken those of cancer or heart dis­ease. The good news is that while you can’t change the genes in­her­ited from your par­ents, nor many as­pects of the en­vi­ron­ment around you, you can change your diet and your life­style.

The march of time is un­stop­pable and age­ing is in­evitable. Yet some people age more slowly than oth­ers. If we un­der­stand why, we can im­ple­ment the strate­gies that will help us put the brakes on the age­ing process, and that in­cludes the age­ing of the brain.

Sci­en­tific stud­ies have il­lu­mi­nated many fac­tors that count when it comes to look­ing af­ter your brain. Your brain needs the right nu­tri­ents and hy­dra­tion to work at its best. Keep­ing good eat­ing and life­style habits over the years will help slow the age­ing process of the brain, help­ing it work bet­ter as you age.

There are fac­tors we know to be im­por­tant for hu­man health, but what wasn’t ap­pre­ci­ated and un­der­stood un­til rel­a­tively re­cently was the im­pact these things had on the brain. For ex­am­ple, we used to think de­men­tia was just the luck of the draw, but we now know the risk can be sub­stan­tially re­duced through fol­low­ing a healthy eat­ing pat­tern, such as a Mediter­ranean-style diet.

Pay at­ten­tion to these things and you’ll reap the ben­e­fits. Each im­pacts on the oth­ers, so by giv­ing cre­dence to each you im­prove them all – when you ex­er­cise you feel more like eat­ing healthy food; when you’re sleep­ing well you are more in­clined to ex­er­cise. When your stress is at a man­age­able level you’ll find you sleep bet­ter and so on.

The age­ing brain

Age af­fects ev­ery cell in the body. Vis­i­bly, we see the ef­fects on skin, hair and body com­po­si­tion (mus­cle and fat lev­els), but age­ing is also re­spon­si­ble for changes in the brain.

Gen­er­ally with age, most of us find we’re less able to quickly re­trieve in­for­ma­tion, such as re­mem­ber­ing names, and we’re not as adept at learning new things. Oth­ers will suc­cumb to more se­ri­ous and de­bil­i­tat­ing forms of de­men­tia. How­ever, the news isn’t all bad.

Many people in the later decades of their lives can score just as well as younger people on cog­ni­tive tests, even those who are later shown to have the same de­gen­er­a­tive changes to their brain that those with de­men­tia ex­hibit. Such dis­cov­er­ies led to the con­cept of cog­ni­tive re­serve. Cog­ni­tive re­serve is your brain’s abil­ity to adapt and form new ways of work­ing when cer­tain con­nec­tions or parts of the brain be­come dam­aged.

Think of this sce­nario. If you had to drive from A to B and dis­cov­ered that your usual route was closed due to road­works, you would try to find an al­ter­na­tive route. This is es­sen­tially what your brain has the power to do. With the right stim­u­lus and

“You can’t change genes in­her­ited from par­ents, but you can change diet and life­style.”

en­vi­ron­ment it can form new “routes”. The abil­ity to do this is your cog­ni­tive re­serve, and there is much you can do to build and sus­tain it.

Eat­ing more ve­g­ies

This seems to be one of the most pos­i­tive steps you can take to help keep your brain healthy. A re­view of nine dif­fer­ent stud­ies with over 44,000 people found that the more ve­g­ies people ate, the lower their risk of de­men­tia and the slower their rate of cog­ni­tive de­cline. One of those stud­ies found that the strong­est as­so­ci­a­tion was with green leafy veg­eta­bles. Women eat­ing the most leafy greens com­pared to those eat­ing the least had a sig­nif­i­cantly lower de­cline in their cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, equiv­a­lent to mea­sur­ing one to two years younger.

Leafy greens are also some of our best sources of pro­tec­tive an­tiox­i­dants, in­clud­ing carotenoids and flavonoids, as well as vi­ta­min C, which are also re­lated to a lower risk of de­men­tia and cog­ni­tive de­cline. One thing of im­por­tance – carotenoids are fat-sol­u­ble and there­fore to ab­sorb them you must have some fat along with your ve­g­ies. That’s why team­ing ve­g­ies with ex­tra vir­gin olive oil, Mediter­ranean-style, is so good for you, not to men­tion de­li­cious!

Glu­cose, the premium fuel for the brain

The role of car­bo­hy­drates is im­por­tant, they sup­ply the glu­cose (en­ergy) needed by the brain and other or­gans to function prop­erly. The brain is a glu­cose-greedy or­gan, and it’s the or­gan that uses more en­ergy than any other in the body. An adult brain uses on av­er­age around 120g of glu­cose a day, that equates to roughly 20 per cent of the to­tal en­ergy used by the en­tire body.

The brain can­not store glu­cose, so it needs a con­stant sup­ply from the blood­stream, but to main­tain bal­anced blood su­gar lev­els it all comes down to what we eat, when, how much we eat and how we move. Eat­ing too many highly re­fined car­bo­hy­drate-rich foods – ba­si­cally foods made with lots of white flour and/or too much added su­gar in­clud­ing cakes, bis­cuits, lol­lies, pas­tries, su­gar-sweet­ened soft drinks, many baked goods, burger buns and low-fi­bre break­fast ce­re­als – sends blood glu­cose too high and this is not good for your brain or your body.

Are grains bad for your brain?

Grain foods have taken a bit of a bash­ing over the last few years as a re­sult of low-carb and pa­leo di­ets and the idea that gluten is a prob­lem for hu­man health. There are, how­ever, flaws in all these the­o­ries – and they are largely just the­o­ries and not based on sound sci­en­tific ev­i­dence.

The fact that some of the strong­est ev­i­dence re­lat­ing diet to long-term brain health sup­ports the Mediter­ranean diet – a diet that in­cludes whole­grains – is surely tes­ta­ment to the fact that these foods are ben­e­fi­cial. They are, af­ter all, plant foods, just grass seeds, so it seems slightly odd to me that they are sin­gled out, de­spite the pretty unan­i­mous view that we should all eat more plants.

There are clear links be­tween car­dio­vas­cu­lar health and brain health. Many of the risk fac­tors for heart dis­ease also raise the risk of de­men­tia and cog­ni­tive de­cline. It shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing the type of diet good for the heart is also good for the brain. The ev­i­dence is com­pellingly in favour of whole­grains. Large-scale stud­ies have shown that reg­u­larly eat­ing whole­grains (not re­fined grains) sig­nif­i­cantly re­duces the risk of heart dis­ease and stroke.

Why we need MACs

MACs is the hot new acro­nym in the nu­tri­tion world, and we’re not talk­ing about a well-known fast food burger! MACs stands for Mi­cro­biota Ac­ces­si­ble Car­bo­hy­drates. These are car­bo­hy­drates in our food that are not bro­ken down in the small in­tes­tine by our di­ges­tive en­zymes, so they can en­ter the colon. There they are fer­mented by the mi­cro­biota (the mi­cro-or­gan­isms in the gut), which pro­duces a whole host of by-prod­ucts – in­clud­ing short-chain fatty acids – and is

im­por­tant not just for the gut it­self, but also has a knock-on ef­fect through­out the body, in­clud­ing for the brain.

This is be­cause the by-prod­ucts of this fer­men­ta­tion are in­volved in the com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the gut and the brain. Think of them as sig­nalling chem­i­cals, car­ry­ing mes­sages to the brain from the gut. This “gut-brain axis” seems to play a role in reg­u­lat­ing mood, ap­petite and po­ten­tially other as­pects of men­tal health. We have long known that diet in­flu­ences men­tal health, we just didn’t know how. Un­doubt­edly, sup­ply­ing nu­tri­ents is im­por­tant, but this new re­search strongly sup­ports the idea that the mi­cro­biome (the genes of the mi­cro­biota) is also in­volved.

MACs are es­sen­tially fer­mentable fi­bres. These in­clude re­sis­tant starch and most sol­u­ble fi­bres. Re­sis­tant starch is found in firm ba­nanas, legumes (lentils and beans), the CSIRO-de­vel­oped su­per grain, BARLEY­max, and in cooked and cooled pota­toes, pasta and rice. Sol­u­ble fi­bre is found in many fruits, veg­eta­bles, legumes and whole­grains, in­clud­ing oats and bar­ley.

What is in­ter­est­ing is that your own unique mi­cro­biota can also af­fect whether a par­tic­u­lar car­bo­hy­drate is a MAC or not. Not all mi­cro-or­gan­isms can fer­ment all car­bo­hy­drates. The Ja­panese have par­tic­u­lar strains of bac­te­ria that are able to fer­ment an in­di­gestible car­bo­hy­drate found in sea­weed, so this be­comes a MAC to them. How­ever, most people in Aus­tralia, the US and Europe do not have these par­tic­u­lar mi­crobes and, there­fore, the sea­weed car­bo­hy­drate is not a MAC for us, and it passes straight through. This is an ex­am­ple of how we’ve evolved along­side our mi­cro­biota, as it adapts to our di­ets, which helps them and us sur­vive and thrive.

It’s cru­cial to con­sume a broad range of MACs to nour­ish your mi­cro­biota. In ad­di­tion to gut-brain com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the by-prod­ucts of fer­men­ta­tion play an es­sen­tial role in im­mune function, in the health of the gut, and in con­trol­ling blood glu­cose and choles­terol lev­els. So a di­verse diet of MACs sup­ports a di­verse range of mi­cro-or­gan­isms, and that seems to be key for health.

Re­searchers have found there is a loss of di­ver­sity in the mi­cro­biome of those liv­ing a mod­ern ur­ban life­style com­pared to those liv­ing a more tra­di­tional ru­ral life­style. Many fac­tors are thought to be in­volved, but what we eat is key. In­creas­ingly pro­cessed, low-fi­bre di­ets have lit­er­ally led to the ex­tinc­tion of many mi­cro-or­gan­isms.

The full im­pact of this is not yet un­der­stood, but it is thought to play a role in the ris­ing in­ci­dences of gut prob­lems like IBS, auto-im­mune dis­or­ders, al­ler­gies, food in­tol­er­ances and, pos­si­bly, some men­tal health prob­lems.

Low-carb di­ets and those that re­strict whole­grains and legumes are also re­strict­ing MACs. This changes the mi­cro­biota and re­stricts the growth of bac­te­ria known to be as­so­ci­ated with pos­i­tive health out­comes. Stud­ies of tra­di­tional life­styles around the world, ei­ther to­day or in the past, find that most have a high in­take of a di­verse range of plant foods con­tain­ing lots of dif­fer­ent MACs, in com­par­i­son to typ­i­cal West­ern-style di­ets.


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