Brain Health

Brain Health: Mystery or Manageable?

Mental health has taken center stage more and more. Brain health is a great foundation for mental health. I give 10 Minute Tips to improve brain health by reducing inflammation, supporting your microbiome, and increasing your vagal tone.  If you wonder what those are, read on!

How we signal our body and brain, with food, thoughts, and actions, can have an as profound long-term impact as the drugs we take.  

I am NOT minimizing the validity of mental health illnesses or discouraging professional care, advice, or medication. I am exploring additional drivers within our control, where we can take small actions today to drive potentially big benefits!

Inflammation, Nutrition and the Brain

What does inflammation of the gut and cardiovascular system have to do with Brain Health?
  1. 95% of serotonin receptors live in the gut. Having an inflamed gut disrupts these neurotransmitters.
  2. Healthy arteries are needed to deliver nutrients and oxygen to the brain across the blood-brain barrier. Chronic high blood sugar leads to hardened, unhealthy arteries less capable of nourishing our brain.
Let’s dive into how our nutrition can cause chronic inflammation:

Inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases. Brain and body inflammation are intrinsically connected through the blood-brain barrier. According to Sartori, et al. in The Impact of Inflammation on Cognitive Function Accumulating evidence has linked inflammation (an immune response to injury, pathogens, irritants, or oxidative stress) to cognitive decline and risk of dementia. Prolonged inflammation can cause tissue damage. Persistently increased levels of inflammation are associated with neurodegeneration, impaired neurogenesis, atherosclerotic processes, and chronic diseases.”

Inflammation is a process by which our body brings its resources to an area to heal. Chronic inflammation can happen with repeated trauma, like if we keep spraining your ankle. Eating poorly, being under constant stress, not moving, isolating, and exposing ourselves to chemicals are all traumatic to our bodies.

We are the only species that manufacture our food. This is a feature and a bug.

Our resilient bodies find a way to digest chemicals in processed food, fast food and sugar (refined sugar is not food).

We digest chemicals in:
  • Fast food (oils + chemicals + sugar)
  • Processed food, sugary food (nearly 85% of packaged food has sugar), and even
  • Wheat (glyphosate, the chemical found in roundup is used to kill weeds AND to dry wheat in the field faster so farmers can harvest and grow another crop in the season).

Our bodies adapt, but only so fast. Our digestive system evolved slowly over 200,000 years of existence, and we have only had formal agriculture for 10,000-20,000 years. Before that we hunted, ate sporadically, and feasted primarily on fat and protein from our kills. Fruits were small, infrequent, and not sweet. The fast-food and processed food movement has existed for less than 100 years, a hot minute in evolutionary time!  

Digesting these chemicals leads to inflammation in our systems, including our digestive system and cardiovascular system. Inflammation of our digestive system can result in a leaky gut. Leaky gut is where individual intestinal wall cells space out, leaving room for toxins to pass into our body instead of leaving our gut via the designed path. 

Sugar: the Special Villain 

Eating sugar can raise your risk of dying of heart disease even if you aren’t overweight, according to a major study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The Cleveland Clinic states: “Numerous studies have shown that chronic high blood sugar levels lead to hardening of the arteries and are associated with heart disease and heart failure.” Each of us is unique and some can handle sugar easier than others.

10 Minute Tips, Nutrition for Reduced Inflammation:

  • Cut back on sugar,processed and fast foods.  If you want to eat wheat, go organic.  
  • Focus on whole foods, in alignment with your culture, taste and history.
  • Healthy foods are naturally tasty.  Prepare simple recipes to reduce stress and time.

Microbiome and Gut Feelings

The normal gut microbiota (bacteria):
  • Metabolizes (digest) food and nutrients,chemicals, and drugs.  
  •  Maintains the structural integrity of the gut mucosal barrier (preventing leaky gut),
  • Drives our immune system and protects against disease.

Taking a prescription to balance the chemicals in the brain is not entirely accurate. Some drugs do cross the blood-brain barrier. However, when you ingest a drug, it goes into your stomach and intestines until it enters your bloodstream. For drugs that “rebalance” your serotonin (satisfaction) to dopamine (happy yet addictive nature) receptor activity, they need to go into your gut. 95% of your serotonin receptors are in the gut, not the brain. This may be why we talk about intuition as a gut feeling, that feeling that something is or is not right might be driven partly by serotonin activity in our gut!

There are also a lot of foreign bacteria, so many that even counting all our red blood cells, we have as many foreign cells as human cells in our bodies. This is our microbiome, made up of many bacteria, together called microbiota. As you can see above, they help us digest and process food and drugs, keep our gut lining healthy and drive our immune system.

For brain health, the importance of the microbiome is multifaceted. A healthy gut is less inflamed, nourishing the brain without stressing it. Supporting a healthy microbiome aids healthy serotonin (satisfaction) receptors and your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system in general. There are several ways to support your microbiome.

10 Minute Tips, Nourish Your Gut, Nourish Your Brain:

  • Avoid stressing your microbiome with chemicals, processed and fast foods, and sugar.
  • Nourish your gut (microbiome) with fermented foods (unsweetened kefir, dill pickles) and probiotics like yogurt.
  • Strengthening your mind-gut connection as improved vagal tone can support your microbiota’s efforts supporting your intestinal health, immunity, and digestion. (see 10 Minute Tips, Vagal Tone below).

Mind-Gut Connection, Vagal Tone, and the Brain:

Beyond nutrition, a healthy mind-gut connection rides on Vagal Tone.

The Vagus Nerve (in yellow) connects the base of the brain interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The parasympathetic nervous system inhibits the body from overworking and restores the body to a calm and composed state. It tries to counter-balance the sympathetic nervous system. After fight or flight, the Vagus Nerve sends signals to slow back down breathing, heart rate, and start back up digestion.

We live in a stressed-out digital world! 

Our sympathetic often overwhelms our parasympathetic…

The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for the “fight or flight” response during any potential danger. In modern times, our sympathetic nervous system is set off in seemingly innocuous but continuous signals like notifications (they look like red berries for a reason), stressors (poor nutrition, isolation, pressures, etc). Chronic overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system drains us of energy via unbalanced hormones, free radical damage, and damaged nerve cells, further disrupting the mind-gut connection.

The Vagus Nerve IS the direct line connection between the mind and gut. It goes from the base of the brain to the gut, bladder, heart, and lungs. We can tap into our Vagal Tone and train our Vagus Nerve to be more effective! We are that resilient! We do this by removing the stressors we can and practicing being able to calm ourselves. A strong (good) Vagal Tone is the ability to calm down quickly after a stressor. Building a strong vagal tone builds our resilience. It is also the way to reduce inflammation through non-nutrition channels.

10 Minute Tips, Vagal Tone:

  • Take back control of your attention via Digital Detox! (reduce screen time, unnecessary apps, and notifications). See Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
  • Exercise: walk outside, be in nature, run off steam, dance, play
  • Mindfulness: Meditate (especially loving-kindness for vagal tone), take deep breaths, stretch, yoga, massage, create art, question stressful thoughts, write in a gratitude journal
  • Connect with others over the phone or in-person (video calls or texting add digital and cognitive stress vs phone or in person)

Summary: ‍Brain Health 10 Minute Tips

Stay sharp and brain healthy with better nutrition, calming activities, and movement support to reduce Inflammation, healthy Microbiome and increased Vagal Tone.

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