Eat Your Way to a Healthy Brain: Improve Memory, Mood & Focus

healthy brain

The time change brings with it darker evenings and a gloomy overcast interspersed with a rare but sorely needed sunny day. It feels like bedtime by 7 pm yet there is work still to be done around the house. The U.S. election contributes to a feeling of heaviness but then again, this time of year always feels a little heavy. Both parents left in November – my mom on my little brother’s birthday. And every year as this time rolls around, we practice the letting go.

It is good to sit with the pain and sorrow for a time. To rest here, unrushed, and give thanks for the gift of relationship in the middle of the pain of separation. I’d always choose love again; wouldn’t you? It is perfectly acceptable to release tears, even 14 years later, and permit the anger to surface. Because the alternative is to suppress and numb out and what good is that? So you sit and feel and then give thanks. T’is the season for giving thanks. Hopefully, you give thanks because life is intertwined with pain but also incredible, heart-stopping beauty.

So I count my blessings, too: all the hugs, the green farm delivered pumpkins that I was privileged to watch ripen, the blue jays that visit my yard and call me to slow down and notice. The woolly scarves and lattés, the warm nourishing soups ladled out in a laughter filled kitchen. The dark chocolate, the ladies group, the stack of books recommended by online friends; they invite me to step into other times and places – to step into someone else’s hard story for a time and they remind me that my life is full and good.

There are days I feel broken and others I feel strong and hopeful – but always I remind myself that I am someone who must walk with care. I cannot permit myself too much freedom to wander from the tested self-care path that keeps me steady. I tip too far,  too easily,  into that place of despair. There is a clear reason for me to live with fairly strict, self-imposed ‘rules’ around my nutrition and lifestyle habits. I know who I am and what I need. I respect myself and my family enough to do the work required to stay healthy. Physically, emotionally, spiritually healthy.

Last week’s post touched on the epidemic in our society of stress-related illness and disease. It spoke of learning to rest as one means of combatting stress. And as a follow-up I want to offer some basic nutrition tips that can support us in building a healthy brain – and in living with greater calm. Every day we have multiple opportunities to love ourselves well simply by choosing what we eat. And if our kids are struggling with behavior or concentration at school, we consider their sleep and stress and if they are being afforded time to play in fresh air. But we also consider, seriously, the food they are eating.

The beauty of food as medicine is that the choice to heal and promote health can begin as soon as the next meal.   ~Dr. Deanna Minich

What we eat has tremendous potential to move us closer to or further away from optimal health and joy.

Download your eat-your-way-to-a-healthy-brain-handout here. The 2 page healthy brain handout, which includes a list of snack ideas and some recipes, will be useful for people of all ages but was created for a youth workshop – put it on the fridge and discuss with your kids! I have added a few extra notes below.

Eight Life Hacks to a Better Brain

  1. Hydrate Well. Drink plenty of filtered water (check out the Berkey water filter on my sidebar) – about half your weight in ounces (ex. 116lbs/2 = 58 oz or about 7 cups). Try homemade herbal tea (iced or hot) or water infused with citrus or berries. Slowly minimize the liquid sugar and energy drinks in your diet (sugar and caffeine do not encourage stable moods, energy, or focus). Staying well hydrated will help keep you alert and support your memory, focus, and ability to learn.
  2. Crowd Out. Keep in mind the 80/20 rule (or 90/10). Focus on regularly adding healthy habits in to your life which will automatically crowd out less healthy habits. The goal is progress over perfection (perfectionism breeds stress which can affect your moods and dumb you down!) Encourage your family to get involved or to support you in your healthy goals.
  3. Eat a PFF Breakfast. Start your day with a breakfast that is high Protein & Fat with some (plant) Fiber. Move away from sugary/processed breakfast foods which cause a mid-morning energy crash, negatively affect mood, and impair memory and learning. If you hate eating early in the day, pack a healthy snack to eat mid-morning; this will curb sugar cravings and improve your energy and ability to concentrate.
  4. Listen To Your Body. Our bodies give us cues all the time. Pay attention to your cravings/food aversions and how you feel after eating certain foods. How is your energy level, mood, behavior? Do you experience physical symptoms like skin rashes or burning, diarrhea, bloating, or a general feeling of being unwell? These cues can indicate hidden food allergies or sensitivities – discuss them with your parents or health provider. Allergies and sensitivities can have a negative impact on behavior and mood.
  5. Eat Regularly. Your mood, memory, focus, and energy will all benefit from eating regularly (ex. every 4 hours/not skipping meals). Consider keeping healthy snacks in your locker, office or vehicle (ex. trail mix and fruit). When you go too long between meals you may get jittery, grouchy, and crave sugar for a quick energy boost. Most adults should not require regular snacks (unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding) – nourish well at meal times so that you can feel satiated longer.
  6. Be a Qualitarian. About 60% of the calories people eat today come from products that didn’t even exist 20 years ago – these are not “real food”. Make simple upgrades to your nutrition. For example, swap whole grains (ex. rice and quinoa) and natural sweeteners (ex. raw honey or pure maple syrup) for refined/processed versions. Choose quality fats and proteins instead of fast-food/processed foods.
  7. Prioritize Produce. Most Canadians do not eat enough produce each day. Challenge yourself to double the amount you are currently eating (or get a minimum of 5 servings/day to start). Fruit and Veggies provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants (which protect us from damage to our cells) and fiber to support our health, including mood and cognitive function. Aim for ‘whole food’ fresh or frozen produce (not juice or processed versions). Adults – one or two pieces of fruit per day is enough (but fruit is not actually necessary) – make room for a vibrant and varied array of veggies in your menu.
  8. Feed Your Brain Fat. The human brain is nearly 60% fat. Essential Fatty Acids (like Omega 3’s) are essential to brain health and performance and must be obtained through our food. Talk with your parents about possibly supplementing with fish oils (EPA and DHA) and aim to get more cold water fatty fish in your diet. Other good fats include: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, organic butter, ghee, avocado oil, olives, nuts/seeds, eggs, avocado, coconut, and even dark chocolate (aim for 70%). Don’t be afraid of saturated fats but do consider the source (ex. if an animal fat, how was it raised?). In addition to poor memory, mood or focus, if you are struggling with hormone imbalance including thyroid disorders, infertility, what seems like postpartum issues, gut issues or skin issues; if you care about supporting a healthy brain as you age, boost the quantity of healthy fats in your diet!

In the midst of a busy life or a challenging season, it is easy to reach for the junk food and sugar or extra alcohol. I get that it makes you feel good in the moment. But if you truly want to live a life of greater purpose, health and joy, if you want a healthy brain, then I encourage you to upgrade your nutrition. I can attest to the life-giving benefits of a nourishing,  real food diet to my own body and mind and have witnessed the power of nutrition to exert a significant positive impact on a child’s allergic response and behavior – a sweet child who I believe would be medicated today had we not been willing to modify her diet many years ago.

The food you eat can help you build a healthy brain and greatly improve your memory, mood and focus. Nourish yourself well as a tender act of self care. Don’t forget to print your eat-your-way-to-a-healthy-brain-handout.

I’m off now to grab a bit of dark chocolate and an herbal tea to take to bed with me,

Krista xo

P.S. If the picture above looks yummy to you (my sister made it for me during our last visit), you can check out the recipe for the stuffed portabellas here. I leave out the breadcrumbs and you can certainly leave out the cheese if dairy-free or use some goat cheese if that works for you.

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4 comments on “Eat Your Way to a Healthy Brain: Improve Memory, Mood & Focus

  1. Many good thoughts here. I shared a quote from Gandhi for my broken-hearted American friends today:

    “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
    ― Mahatma Gandhi

    Now, I would like to ask a question: What do you think of the new frenzy over sprouted flours? I’ve heard everything from “It’s a way to turn grains into vegetables!” to “Well, maybe it’s a bit more nutritious, but still…” Is it truly a better way to deal with baking and the like, or is it, in the end, just one more refined food?

  2. Sorry for the delay, Amidha, and thank you for that quote:)

    I like sprouted grains, legumes, seeds in general as this increases the nutrient profile of the food in question and can increase digestibility in some cases (one can also soak grains to increase digestibility – brown rice is a good example of this or ferment as in sourdough). In the end, whether we prepare our own homemade treats or buy sprouted products like Silver Hills or Ezekial Bread, I still consider these processed. Healthier than many options, but processed nonetheless, and therefore to be enjoyed (if tolerated) but not every day.

    The MAIN reason I feel this way is simply that it is so easy to fill up on yummy baked products and not consume enough healthy fats, proteins and vegetables. So anything that is not easily recognizable as a ‘whole food” should play a role on the periphery of our menu plans:)

    Because I think most of us can do well at least lowering our grain intake (and for many a drastic reduction would serve), and certainly eating fewer processed flours products overall, whether we grind our own organic spelt berries or buy a bag of fresh sprouted organic flour for occasional use – neither in my books is extremely better than the other because they will not be used as a staple.

    I hope that helps!

  3. Hi again!!
    This post resonates! I am also a person that has to walk with care. I have to watch with care what I eat and how much anxiety I create for myself. Baby steps with care!

    Have you heard about float therapy – or sensory deprivation tanks?

    I am a person that never ever ever slows down. I have a major project on the go at all times – I never rest and always multitask. Always always always. I wolf my food down and get impatient with others that move at a slower pace.

    I heard about floating recently – a friend mentioned it. I looked it up and read that it can be good for people with anxiety, like me!, or people with PTSD or fibromyalgia and pain. I figured what the heck, why not try – what can it hurt.?! You just float in heavily salted (Epsom salts) water. I have “floated twice now and I think I really like it! It is the only thing that really FORCES me to slow down. Actually to stop. To stop with constant moving, STOP with multitasking, Stop with being agitated, planning, rushing. It actually isn’t even that hard to turn my brain off! . I just float with my eyes closed for 90 mins in total darkness. You kinda fall into that stage just before sleeping when you are awake but still kind of dreaming. Interestingly, the last time I went, each time I started to drift into that stage of sleep-ish-ness I actually dreamed of alarms going off. I literally set an internal alarm to keep myself from drifting into calm. And it happened three times. It was an aha moment, in a way. Like “man, I really refuse to let myself slow down! Even in a float therapy tank I am forcing myself into action, or pushing away the quiet!”

    Have you heard of them or tried them? Interested in your take.

    Stay well!

    • Hi Isabella, I have heard many people talk about trying float tanks (mainly on health related podcasts) although I have never tried one myself – I would be happy to have the experience one day even as an experiment. Living in a small town limits the easy availability of such things but I could make an effort to find one in the nearest city at some point.

      Do you know your Myers Briggs personality type or enneagram? If not, you might like to find out and begin to explore this a bit – it can simply add a new layer to your self awareness. It is both useful, potentially eye opening and fun, too:) A couple starting places: https://www.16personalities.com/ and https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions.

      When I did acupuncture with a Chinese Medicine Doctor (vs. getting it from my qualified chiropractor) I found one of the benefits was simply that I was forced to rest. He would dim the lights, put a heat lamp at my cold feet, and leave me there with soothing music and there was no where I could go, nothing I could do, for that 30 minutes. It was like forced rest. Mostly I prefer going to my chiropractor because he only leaves the needles in 10-15 minutes and I’m on my way.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, by the way:)

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