Support the Brain
The Metabolic Matrix: Re-engineering ultraprocessed foods to feed the gut, protect the liver, and support the brain.
The Metabolic Matrix methods article (Harlan et al., 2023) proposes three key pillars – Protect the Liver, Feed the Gut and Support the Brain and serves as a novel guide to reengineering ultraprocessed foods in favor of improving metabolic health. The component Support the Brain is detailed in our recently published methods paper and focused on 5 elements related to metabolic health namely by providing: (i) nutrient dense foods (ii) healthy brain-essential fats, (iii) healthy proteins and sufficient amino acids, and (v) brain-selective nutrients which help facilitate neurotransmitter function.
This section aims to address questions concerning why our scientific team specifically selected the concept of protecting the liver. Other sections of the website address the other two elements of the triage, Protect the Liver and Feed the Gut.
The brain is an organ whose function is substantially influenced by biochemical factors which in turn are governed by food. In other words, the food that we eat influences how the brain functions on an everyday basis. There are specific nutrients, often referred to as “brain-selective” which contribute to managing our mood, and chemical messaging (i.e., cell signalling) across our brain’s networks and cognition. Research has long recognised that diet plays a critical role in the emergence of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as in conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Gow et al., 2021). In fact, several epidemiological studies have reported relationships between dietary patterns and brain health (/mental-health) (Chen et al., 2019; Corley et al., 2020; Jia et al., 2022; Townsend et al., 2022). In addition, relationships are reported between those following unhealthy dietary patterns e.g., the consumption of ultraprocessed foods and a diagnosis of ADHD (Howard et al., 2011; Millichap & Yee, 2012; Rojo-Marticella et al., 2022). One highly replicated finding is that lower amounts of brain-essential omega-3 fatty acids are reported, cross-culturally, in children/adolescents and individuals diagnosed with ADHD (Gow et al., 2021; Gow & Hibbeln, 2014; Hawkey & Nigg, 2014; Parletta et al., 2016), and that there are clear indications of nutritional influences on behaviour, learning and sleep (Huss et al., 2010; Montgomery et al., 2014; Richardson & Montgomery, 2005; Sinn, 2008).
Nutrient Dense Foods
Nutrient dense foods are foods which are low in calorie and rich in nutrients. Nutrient dense foods provide a wide-range of vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and healthy fats. Some examples of nutrient dense foods include fruits and vegetables which are packed full of vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, fiber and contain antioxidants properties. Proteins may include lean meats including poultry and fish and seafood. These also contain other essential B vitamins, minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc as well as healthy omega-3 fats. Some nutrient dense foods with positive health effects include:
- Avocados (Dreher & Davenport, 2013; Fulgoni et al., 2013). Avocados are a nutrient dense fruit which provide around 20 vitamins and minerals. They are low in calories (64 per fruit), contain approximately 3 grams of fibre and a great source of magnesium, potassium, beta-carotene, folate, Vitamins C, E, K and B6. Avocados also provide phytochemicals: lutein and zeaxanthin which have antioxidant protection.
- Wild Alaskan salmon which is rich in healthy and essential omega-3 fatty acids (Jiang et al., 2022; Kalmijn et al., 2004; Wang et al., 2006)
- Kale contains various bioactive compounds including isothiocyanates and indole-3-carbinol (Clarke et al., 2008; Nakamura et al., 2009) which may contain a protective role against the development of cancer. Kale also has high levels of Vitamin C, A, B6 and K1 and sizeable amounts of potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper and manganese.
- Blueberries (and other berries e.g., strawberries and raspberries) are naturally juicy and sweet. They are low in calories with 1 cup (approximately 148 g) and nutrient loaded providing 3.6 grams of fiber and 3.6 grams of vitamin C! Blueberries also contain Vitamin K, manganese and are loaded with powerful antioxidants such as anthocyanins and other plant-based compounds. Anthocyanins may reduce oxidative stress, and in turn, help lower the risk of heart disease. Blueberries are thought to contain protective properties at cellular levels. Several studies have reported improvements in memory in older adults (Krikorian et al., 2010) and that they may be beneficial in lowering blood pressure and assisting therapeutically with metabolic syndrome (Basu et al., 2010).
- Raspberries also contain antioxidant polyphenols called ellagitannins, which can help reduce oxidative stress. Strawberries are rich in Vitamin C, and contain manganese, folate (vitamin B9) and potassium. Collectively berries are considered heart healthy, can help keep you mentally sharp, may prevent diabetes and lower high blood pressure as well as improve skin.
- Egg yolks are rich in high quality protein, fats, vitamins, minerals. Free-range, organic eggs arguably contain a healthier nutritional profile. They have not been exposed to growth-fattening hormones and receive more natural sunlight increasing the Vitamin D content of their eggs by up to six times. Free-range eggs contain around 6 grams of protein, high levels of eye-healthy lutein and zeaxanthin, choline which supports memory and nerve function, 70 mg of omega-3 fats as well as Vitamins A & D.
- Dark chocolate (cocoa) contains plant-based chemicals called phytonutrients such as flavonoids (Wickramasuriya & Dunwell, 2018) which have antioxidant effects and play a protective role against the development of several diseases. In fact, cocoa contains more antioxidants than most foods! (Katz et al., 2011). Several studies have found that dark chocolate enhances cognitive functioning (Calabrò et al., 2019; Zeli et al., 2022) and increases blood flow to the brain (Martín et al., 2020). Cocoa has historically been consumed for its healing properties (Katz et al., 2011). Furthermore, it activates the pleasure and reward system in our brains activating both serotonin and dopamine release which in turn decreases stress and improves mood (Montagna et al., 2019).
- Seaweed such as Nori, Kombu and Wakame contain essential trace minerals such as iodine, magnesium, manganese, calcium and iron, vitamins A, E and B (folate), omega-3, polyphenols and is a great source of fiber and protein. Seaweed also contains an amino acid called tyrosine which is essential for healthy thyroid function. Seaweed contains a variety of antioxidants that protect cells from environmental damage. In particular, brown algae such as wakame contains a specific carotenoid called fucoxanthin which contains 13.5 times the antioxidants capability of Vitamin E (Mikami & Hosokawa, 2013). Seaweed contains proteins such as spirulina and chlorella which contain essential amino acids (Bito et al., 2020; Wong & Cheung, 2000).
- Garlic is another nutrient-dense ingredient which contains high amounts of vitamins C, B1, B6, selenium, calcium, potassium, copper, and manganese. It also contains a beneficial sulfur compound called allicin which is thought to be protective against several diseases (Omar & Al-Wabel, 2010). Garlic is thought to play a beneficial role in health and several studies have suggested its use can help lower blood pressure and may be protective against heart disease (Ried et al., 2010, 2013; Sobenin et al., 2008; Zeng et al., 2012).
The brain is the fattiest organ in the body which contains bioactive compounds that are critical for human health and the function, structure and activity of the brain. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are one of the healthiest types of fat which the body and brain cannot survive without. They play a role in many complex and varied chemical functions including cell signaling, that is our chemical messaging system in the brain (also known as neurotransmission) which operates across our brains vast networks in milliseconds and is integral to our everyday thoughts, behaviour, mood, cognition, and action. Around 25% of our neuronal cell membranes are made of an omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acid (HUFA) called docosahexaenoic acid or DHA (Gow et al., 2021).
In summary, omega-3 HUFAs, can positively influence the brain, retinal function and central nervous system throughout the lifespan. The other key omega-3 HUFA is eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. Direct sources of EPA and DHA include various oily fish and seafood, including wild-caught salmon, fresh tuna (not canned), mackerel, herring, anchovies, sardines, shrimp, crab, lobster, oysters, mussels, clams, fish roe and cod liver oil. Supplementation via a high quality, omega-3 brand containing EPA and DHA is a great way of ensuring you consume adequate amounts of omega-3 daily. Adults should be eating at least 2 portions of oily fish daily. However, certain individuals i.e., those with depression or ADHD may take higher doses, and efficacy for reducing clinical symptoms has been demonstrated across several clinical trials and meta-analyses in patients taking at least 1 gram per day (Bloch & Qawasmi, 2011; Gow et al., 2021; Hallahan et al., 2016; Hawkey & Nigg, 2014).
Alpha-linolenic acid (also known as ALA) is head of the omega-3 family and is plant-based. ALA is not considered a sufficient substitute for DHA, because it is not easily converted into the HUFAs, EPA and DHA, which the brain requires for optimal function. ALA is, however, readily available in cooking oils such as flaxseed oil, and certain nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.
There are different sources of healthy protein including both animal and plant sources both of which contain amino acids. There are 20 amino acids but only 9 of these are considered essential. Specifically, these include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine which are not made by the human body so must be sourced via the diet. Amino acids are organic compounds comprised of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Tryptophan is just one amino acid which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter, serotonin which is required for feelings of wellbeing and contentment. Tryptophan follows the serotonin pathway and assists in the production of serotonin as a neurotransmitter and melatonin (which is critical for sleep) as a neuromodulator (Davidson et al., 2022). Low serotonin is linked to depression, anxiety, low mood and sleep disturbances and tryptophan supplements may help improve symptoms (Jenkins et al., 2016; Kikuchi et al., 2021; Martínez-Rodríguez et al., 2020; Yurcheshen et al., 2015).
Healthy food sources of protein include lean meats and poultry (e.g., turkey breast and chicken), fish and seafood (e.g., shrimp, scallops, oysters and clams), dairy (e.g., milk, cottage cheese and Greek yoghurt), eggs (ideally organic, pasture-raised), nuts (e.g., almonds and peanuts), legumes (e.g., chickpeas and lentils), seeds (such as quinoa and pumpkin seeds) and some grains (such as couscous, wild rice, millet, and buckwheat. Edamame is a popular snack among vegans and vegetarians and 1 cup (155 grams) provides almost 19 grams of protein. Edamame also contains all 9 essential amino acids and is considered a complete form of protein. Protein is essential for the support and structure of human cells and are critical for movement, chemical reactions, immune system functioning, regulating hormones and more. Protein is made up of minute building blocks called amino acids and the amount of protein consumed daily varies of several factors including age, physical activity levels, body size and pregnancy status. The recommended, minimum, daily allowance is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight (0.8 grams per kg). Physically active people require higher amounts of protein per pound of body weight, e.g., 1.2-2 grams per kg) per day.
When eating a meal, many nutritionists will advise eating the source of protein on the plate first, especially ahead of any starchy food. Protein reduces the amount of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, increasing your metabolic rate and stabilising blood sugar and insulin levels (Shukla et al., 2015). Following a high protein diet is thought to have significant benefits for weight loss and metabolic health (Moon & Koh, 2020; Noakes et al., 2005; Westerterp-Plantenga, 2008).
The biological and chemical role of nutrients in brain function and activity has advanced in research and attention, arguably due to the emergence of a recent discipline called Nutritional Psychiatry or Nutritional Neuroscience several decades ago. Furthermore, the relationship between nutrition and brain (/mental) health has been growing rapidly ever since (Logan & Jacka, 2014). There is no doubt the nutrition is embedded in societal, cultural, economic, behavioural and environmental patterns and the field of epidemiology has rigorously investigated specific dietary patterns which may be beneficial and protective versus those which may be harmful and disease-provoking. There is no doubt that specific lifestyle and dietary habits such as a lack of exercise, smoking, excess alcohol and the habitual consumption of ultraprocessed foods increase risk for poor metabolic health, other non-communicable diseases (NCD) and all-cause mortality. In fact, poor physical health conditions including NCD are robustly correlated with poor mental health (hence the term, dis-ease of the mind is synonymous with disease of the body). The interesting part of all of this is that most NCDs are by and large utterly preventable, and arguably the single easiest modifiable risk factor is diet.
The health of the brain as an organ has arguably been somewhat overlooked. Much focus has been on the role of food to the human body in terms of obesity, preventing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. However, increasing attention is now turning to nutrition and its role in brain health, mental wellness, cognition and mood (Gow et al., 2021). There is a range of brain-selective nutrients supported by clinical research which facilitates neurotransmitter function at molecular and cellular levels and deserve careful attention (Gow et al., 2021). Some of these brain-beneficial nutrients include vitamins: B complex, folate, D, C, E, trace elements: iron, iodine, zinc, magnesium, selenium, high quality protein containing amino acids including tryptophan, complex carbohydrates including carotenoids, antioxidant-rich, phytochemicals such as flavonoids and of course, omega-3 HUFAs, EPA and DHA. More on brain-selective nutrients are their crucial role in brain health and specifically neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD, Autism and Dyslexia, and comorbid conditions such as Depression and Anxiety can be found in Dr. Gow’s book, Smart Foods for ADHD and Brain Health.
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