Food for Thought by Jamie Fellrath


“The bottom line is pretty irrefutable: what is good for the heart is good for the brain.”

-Rudolph Tanzi and Ann Parson,
Decoding Darkness: The Search for the Genetic Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2000                                                                     
                                            
What do you hope to do with your diet?  Most often, the focus of nutrition is weight loss, athletic performance, or personal reasons related to ethics, religious beliefs, or political concerns.  


What if I told you that changing the way you eat could improve the health of the one part of your body that determines success in every other area of your life?  I’m talking about the area between your ears; that mysterious mass of tissue called “the brain.”    

Does this seem too crazy to be true?  According to conventional schools of thought, the function of the brain is determined by genes and is basically set from birth.  By this thinking, if you have a condition like ADHD, you will have ADHD for the rest of your life.  You may learn “coping” strategies, but the fact remains that your brain just doesn’t function “normally”.  


Wrong!  New studies have shown that the way you eat and the way you live your life can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your brain and neurological function.  If you or someone you love has ADHD, Alzheimer's, Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, or other neurological disorders, eating a healthier diet can alleviate many symptoms of, or, in some cases, reverse these conditions.  


Of course, the inverse is also true.  Poor dietary choices can cause otherwise “normal” brains to malfunction.  Over time, eating foods that negatively affect brain health can increase the chances that you will experience the aforementioned maladies.  

For those of you familiar with the concept of the Paleo Diet, you already know that many “modern” foods can wreak havoc on the brain.  Excess carbohydrates in the diet, particularly refined starches and sugars, create huge spikes in blood sugar.  To get blood sugar levels back under control, the body has to produce excessive levels of insulin, the hormone responsible for pulling sugar from the blood and storing it in the body’s tissues.  


Over time, chronically elevated insulin and blood sugar levels create inflammation, produce harmful compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), and stimulate the production of dangerous forms of cholesterol (small dense LDL) which sets the stage for a wide variety problems ranging from weight gain to cardiac issues, cancer, and diabetes.  It's a virtual smorgasbord of maladies that all come from eating poorly.  But, with all the emphasis on weight loss and disease prevention, the ability to think clearly and regulate the chemical balances in the mind are frequently overlooked.  

My personal experience with Paleolithic diets came about when I began reading Mark Sisson’s book The Primal Blueprint.  To be honest, my initial motivation was based on a desire to improve my physical health and performance, but I soon discovered that diet and mental function are intimately linked through the now-off-the-air podcast by Nora Gedgaudas.  

Nora, whose book Primal Body, Primal Mind is a veritable treasure trove of the science related to the gut-brain connection, spoke frequently about the effects of high-carbohydrate diets,  inflammation of the brain and other body tissues and the problems of leaky gut syndrome that arise from the consumption of “new” foods like grains, legumes and dairy.  Listening to this information motivated me to dive deeper into the diet-brain connection and my own personal experience with diseases and disorders of the brain brought the subject close to my heart.

Neurological maladies are very prevalent in my family and I have seen close relatives affected by Alzheimer's, dementia, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and autism.  Personally, I had ADHD symptoms and I make a point to use the word “had” for a very specific reason.  After changing my diet to reflect what I was learning, my mental clarity and function improved dramatically, effectively eliminating my “deficit” of attention.

ADHD and the mental focus issues surrounding it gave me problems throughout high school, college and into my adult life.  Those issues are gone now, and while my own story is purely anecdotal and an N=1 study, it is still a real example of how diet can create powerful changes in the brain.  To me, the study of the diet-brain connection is truly a cause.  It affects me, my family, and most importantly my son who suffers from autism.  I believe that we can make this world a better place, but it's going to take some major changes and calling attention to what those changes need to be is the first step.  

Unfortunately, the message that the typical American diet (high in refined starch, unhealthy vegetable oils, and sugar) is the actual cause of many “diseases” of the brain has not yet reached the general public.  Conflicting information creates confusion leading people to give up entirely.  However, there are many great individuals who are working hard each and every day to get the word out.


Some of these noteworthy Paleo advocates include: the aforementioned Nora Gedgaudas (PrimalBody-PrimalMind.com), Dr. Emily Deans (EvolutionaryPsychiatry.blogspot.com) and the web site PsychologyToday (specifically their area devoted to Evolutionary Psychology), Chris Kresser (The Healthy Skeptic), and of course, Robb Wolf (The Paleo Solution) and Mark Sisson (The Primal Blueprint).

At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to ensure optimum gut-brain health.  By following the basic Paleo-style diet (eliminating grains, legumes, oils high in omega-6 fats and most dairy) you will address many of the problems that arise from consuming the standard American diet (SAD).  There are some foods, however, that offer particular benefits and deserve special attention when the goal is to solve neurological issues and improve gut-brain function.  

First, ensure that you are consuming adequate levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, preferably from a whole-food source such as sardines or other small fish.  Fish oil capsules are fine, but as Chris Kresser pointed out in one of his recent podcasts, the benefits of fish oil supplementation are reduced over time, in relation to the life span of our red blood cells.  Omega-3 fatty acids are also noted in a number of studies as helping to alleviate symptoms of autism and a host of other maladies.

Second, make a point to increase your intake of sea vegetables since brain health depends on sufficient levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.  Sea-vegetables are excellent sources of essential nutrients because our modern land-based food supply is notoriously nutrient deficient due to overfarming and an chronic use of artificial fertilizers.  Regular intake of sea vegetables is a great way to ensure that you're getting a proper amount of all major nutrients from a whole-food source.  Sea vegetables actually contain a similar nutrient makeup as the human bloodstream, and introduce their nutrients into the bloodstream more completely than other foods as a result.  Some widely available examples of sea vegetables include kelp, wakame, nori and dulce.


To find out more about brain foods and the mental side of Paleo, please visit Jamie’s blog, PaleoMental.com, where he explores these subjects in much more detail.  He will also be giving regular updates of his own personal experiences/discoveries, and will also be addressing lifestyle issues such as exercise, sleep, relaxation, and play.  His goal is to create an “all natural” resource for people interested in optimizing their brain, reducing their chances of disease, and learning more about the complex workings of the human mind.


References:

Brain Facts and Figures
http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/facts.html

Nutrition and Brain Function - Food for the Aging Mind
http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/aug07/aging0807.htm

Glucose, Advanced Glycation End Products, and Diabetes Complications: What Is New and What Works
http://clinical.diabetesjournals.org/content/21/4/186.full

Small Dense LDL - An Overview
http://cholesterol.ygoy.com/small-dense-ldl-%E2%80%93-an-overview/

Omega-3 Fatty Acids & ADHD: Promising Evidence for a Nutritional Cure
http://www.healingwithnutrition.com/newsclips/archive/omega3add.html

Omega 3 Fatty Acids
http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm

The Healing Power of Sea Vegetables
http://www.healthyreader.com/the-healing-power-of-sea-vegetables/

Sea Vegetables by Maine Coast Sea Vegetables
http://teamcrown.net/newsiteb/1/Sea%20Vegetables.pdf
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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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