No matter our age, our brains can always use a little extra love and attention. While we may think that declining brain health is a normal part of aging and our lapses in memory are simply “senior moments,” I’m here to tell you that changes in brain function are anything but normal. Symptoms like poor cognition, lack of focus, memory loss and “brain fog” are signs of deeper imbalances, which are often restored by dialing in important pieces of the diet and lifestyle.
In my practice, I see patients report declines in brain function in as early as their 20s and 30s. As a functional medicine doctor, it’s my job to understand why. I don’t just identify the symptoms and find a way to mask them; I uncover the root cause of the issue in order to promote healing at a deeper level.
Sometimes a root cause is very clear — e.g. a concussion or traumatic brain injury — but what about for those of us that notice subtle changes in our clarity, focus, and mindset without a single event to attribute it to? What can we do about it?
First, it’s helpful to understand that everything is connected in the body. While we once thought that the brain controls the body from the top down, we now know that it’s a two-way street.
One great example is the gut-brain access. Communication between the brain and the digestive system goes both ways meaning the health of the digestive system, including the gut microbiome, greatly influences brain health. Because of this connection, anything that influences the gut (food, stress, toxins) also impacts the brain. Often, I find that when we restore gut health, brain symptoms diminish.
As we walk through my list of the top 5 ways to improve brain health, keep these connections in mind. It might just give you some clues to your personal root causes and a roadmap to improving your brain health.
Tip #1 – Dial In Your Diet
Your brain requires a lot of energy and nutrition for both basic functioning and higher-level thinking. What you eat and your dietary habits are one profound way that you impact your brain health, not to mention that it greatly (and quickly!) impacts your microbiome. Diet is always at the top of my list for improving cognition, focus, and clarity.
Focus on brain-supportive foods:
- Dark leafy greens – a great source of magnesium, folate, and other micronutrients to support brain health. Try adding greens to your smoothies or to your morning egg scramble.
- Polyphenol-rich foods – Polyphenols found in berries, red grapes, green tea, turmeric, coffee, and even chocolate feed beneficial bacteria and act as antioxidants to offer brain protection.
- Fermented foods – Sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir aren’t just for digestive issues, they support the gut-brain axis and help promote a balanced brain.
- Coldwater fish – These hold the best source of anti-inflammatory and brain supportive omega-3 DHA fats.
In general, strive for a diet rich in colorful organic produce, high-quality protein, and healthy fats while limiting processed and packaged foods and added sweeteners. I often recommend starting with a Paleo template and personalizing from there. The benefits are a reduction in neuroinflammation and an improved nutrient status.
Tip #2 – Get Rid of Bad Habits
Are you addicted to or reliant upon tobacco, soda, sugar, alcohol or other coping tools? These aren’t doing your brain any favors. In fact, they can be quite problematic. For example, sugar increases inflammation and oxidative stress, which leads to imbalances in blood sugar, insulin resistance, and brain symptoms such as decreased clarity and focus. Interestingly, both diabetes and dementia have a connection to blood sugar dysregulation.
While you focus on adding in the good foods listed above, take a good look at what needs to go. If you feel resistance to a change, you just might have found a piece of your healing puzzle. Often moving away from these bad habits requires developing new tools for reducing stress.
Tip #3 – Adopt a Happy and Healthy Lifestyle
Speaking of stress management, Tip #3 is all about cultivating those tools for self-care that ground you, center you, and keep your nervous system more relaxed. This translates to better brain health. Here are just some of the good habits to work on implementing:
- Sleep – Of course sleep is important for repair and recovery from exercise, detoxification, and other important cellular processes. When it comes to brain health, this is prime time for the glymph. Your glymphatic system is similar to your lymphatic system but is brain-specific. This is how you clear toxins from the brain. It’s no wonder that sleep helps to improve memory!
- Exercise – Since you’re reading Austin Fit, you are likely already working on this piece and deserve a pat on your back. It’s easy to see the physical benefits of exercise, but exercise also has many brain benefits. Exercise delivers more oxygen to tissues, including the brain, and has been shown to improve and preserve cognitive function and support mental health.
- Meditation – When it comes to brain health, meditation has proven to improve memory, slow cognitive decline, increase mental awareness, and improve quality of life. New to meditation? I recommend the Ziva meditation training, a Muse device, or apps such as Calm or Headspace.
- Nature – Spending time in nature is well known to reduce stress and anxiety, which lends itself to many brain benefits. Interestingly, similar benefits have been shown by spending time in green urban spaces and gardening.
If all of this feels like another list of daily to-dos, don’t forget to prioritize those activities and environments that bring you joy and to have some fun each day. These are good for the brain too!
Tip #4 – Minimize Toxin Exposures
We live in a time where our bodies are exposed to more toxins than ever before. These toxins contribute to a body burden that accumulates in cells and organs, including the brain. This wreaks havoc on our hormones and detoxification systems while also leading to issues with memory, thinking, and behavior. Toxins also often play a role in mental health disorders and chronic disease.
Since it’s much easier to prevent exposure to toxins than to clean up their aftermath, I recommend you:
- Use safe, natural cleaning and personal care products
- Eat organic food to avoid pesticide and herbicide exposures
- Avoid aluminum in deodorant, cans, and cookware
- Cook with stainless steel or ceramic cookware
- Filter drinking water and indoor air
If you’re just getting started on these projects and want to learn more, ewg.org is a great resource. Of course, we will never completely avoid all toxins, but we can mitigate the effects by supporting the body’s detoxification pathways.
Tip #5 – Use Brain-Boosting Supplements
Often referred to as nootropics, supplements that boost brain function and cognitive performance may be helpful in the prevention and treatment of declining brain health. Supplements offer a bridge and support while putting the diet and lifestyle pieces in place, because it’s all-important.
- Magnesium – Magnesium deficiency is one of the most common mineral deficiencies I see in my practice and restoring magnesium status helps with so many parts of physiology, including memory and learning.
- B vitamins – B vitamins support energy metabolism in the brain, methylation, support a healthy stress response and improve cognitive function.
- Mitochondrial support (l-carnitine, coenzyme Q10, NAD+) – Supporting mitochondria in the brain, the tiny cellular organelles that transform energy in food into energy in our bodies, positively influences brain function. These nutrients also offer important antioxidant protection for brain cells.
- Phosphatidylcholine – is a specialized fat that is important for building the membranes of cells, and as a supplement, helps to support the structure of the brain and communication between cells.
Want more specifics? I’ve put together a Brain Kit and Protocol to get you started.
If you haven’t been feeling your best, as so many of us have during this time, it may be impacting your brain health which can lead to symptoms of memory loss, fogginess, and poor focus. Eating a colorful, nutrient-dense diet, replacing bad habits with good self-care, reducing toxins, and adding in some key supplemental support may have you feeling calmer and experiencing greater clarity in no time. These lifestyle habits build a foundation of health that allows you to move toward a goal of “getting better with age” and preventing chronic conditions that, although common, don’t have to be the norm for you.