My third pregnancy was challenging in many ways- I knew I was depleted nutritionally and emotionally. About two months following the birth of our youngest daughter I crashed. My pregnancy weight wouldn’t shift, I was forgetting to pay bills (unheard of for me) and often I would think one thing but a totally different word would come out of my mouth; it became quite frightening. I had zero energy and felt like I was living in a deep fog. I was also doing a lot of crying and yelling and my hands were so cold that they hurt and I wore gloves in the house during the heat of summer. Looking back, I see that I probably already had Hashimoto’s which I will discuss more in-depth in a future post.
When my baby was about 6 months old I began having INTENSE cravings for fish. This was horrifying to me as I had, at this point, been a vegetarian for about 15 years and eating a dead animal again wasn’t on my list of top things to do before I die. But even back then I knew that it is crucial for us to listen to our bodies and the cues they give us. I had already added eggs into my diet during my first pregnancy, again due to cravings. My vegetarian diet was fairly high carb and low in both fat and protein and I figured the cravings were probably due to protein deficiency. For about two weeks I searched for answers and asked questions where I could, but then I just gave in.
I was afraid I would throw up when eating the fish so I started by eating fish sticks, of all things, because they seemed the least ‘fishy’. Once I opened up that door my body screamed for more and I began devouring fish three times a day; any sort I could get my hands on. Within TWO WEEKS I began dropping baby weight (about 20 lbs came off in a short period of time) and, more importantly, felt like I awoke from the brain fog. I could once again think clearly and had some energy. The short-term improvements were incredible but I continued eating a ton of fish over the next year until, slowly, my cravings subsided. At that point I backed off but we left fish in our family diet about three times a week.
Not long afterward I came upon information about the importance of quality fat and fish oil, in particular, to brain health. How I had been unaware of this, having gone through three pregnancies, was amazing and sad to me. Fortunately, there now exists far greater awareness of the role that maternal/paternal nutrition plays in healthy pregnancy, post-partum health, and the long-term health of our children. Another issue that I run across frequently is the fear that many women have around the outdated message that eating fat will make them fat. They struggle with mood and cognitive health but do not understand the critical role that quality fat plays in our overall physical and mental well-being!
Two key points I want to highlight which are related to the story I am sharing today: first, our brains are composed of about 60% fat – they need ample quality fats (EFA’s) to function optimally; second, “adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is vitally important during pregnancy as they are critical building blocks of fetal brain and retina. Omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in determining the length of gestation and in preventing perinatal depression” (source).
You do not have to be pregnant or currently suffering with mental illness to benefit from these “brain foods” (note: If you are post-partum and struggling, please do not wait long before seeking out help from a trusted member of your care team). Regularly consuming these nutrient-dense foods can provide you and your children a boost in memory and focus; who doesn’t need that? These foods are loaded with antioxidants (which prevent cellular damage due to oxidation) and good fats, along with an array of vitamins and minerals to support both the gut and the brain. As much as possible, choose organic and/or local from sources you trust.
Eat More Fat
Omega 3 fatty acids, and especially EPA and DHA, are critical to brain function. You may want to supplement with fish oils or an algae derivative. Further great fat choices include: extra virgin olive oil drizzled over foods (be careful because many brands are ‘cut’ with unhealthy oils; Costco’s Kirkland brand is supposed to be a pure choice); avocado oil, ghee, grassfed butter, or coconut oil for cooking; coconut; avocados; olives; walnuts and other nuts and seeds; chia, flax, and hemp hearts.
Enjoy Protein With Each Meal
Nutritional deficiencies (ex. being low in iron/ferritin, B vitamins or zinc) can lead to poor neurological function; a diet low in protein (and especially animal proteins) can result in these type of deficiencies. Greater care is needed if you follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Eat cold water fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, herring, trout or sardines, crab and oysters; bone broth (I make chicken broth and elk broth); free-range eggs (the yolks contain a large amount of choline which helps in fetal brain development during pregnancy and have been shown to improve cognitive performance and memory – source); red meat like wild game; poultry; beans and lentils (soak these overnight and cook with kombu); small amounts of organic fermented soy, and quality protein powders (but aim for whole foods first).
Load Up On Colorful Produce
Eating an array of colorful produce, mostly veggies, can help boost mood and cognitive function. All that fiber also promotes a healthy gut which is linked to brain health. Stock up on blueberries and other fresh or frozen berries, goji berries, Northern fruits like apples, pears, peaches and apricots which are lower glycemic; red cabbage, dark leafy greens like kale, swiss chard, spinach and romaine, cilantro, broccoli, tomatoes, different colored beets, and sweet potatoes…just as examples.
Swap Out The Refined Sugar And Grains
Excess dietary sugar (ex.from refined grains and sugars) negatively impacts mood, impairs memory and learning, and has been linked to inflammation in the brain among other consequences (source). Opt Instead for whole (fiber-rich) grains like quinoa, oats, buckwheat or soaked brown rice* (don’t over consume brown rice or rice products in general because of concerns about arsenic levels). The amounts of grains (if any) a person needs for optimal mood and brain health can vary widely so it may take a little trial and error to find your sweet spot. Bread, pasta, and even homemade baked goods using quality ingredients are refined and, in my opinion, fall into the ‘treat’ category (thus, not for everyday use). Use natural sweeteners like stevia (check the label for fillers; brands like Truvia, PureVia, and Stevia In The Raw are NOT good quality), pure maple syrup, molasses, or raw local honey. Coconut palm sugar is yet another lower glycemic, less refined option. Reduce the sugar content of favorite recipes, and gradually eliminate the liquid sugar in your diet, in order to slash the amount of sugar you consume overall, natural or not.
Include More Fermented Foods
“An emerging field of research focused on the human microbiome suggests an important role for the gut microbiota in influencing brain development, behaviour and mood in humans” (source). Regular consumption of fermented foods is one method of contributing to a healthy gut microbiome. For those who consume dairy this might include kefir or organic Greek yogurt. Additional choices could include kimchi, sauerkraut (there are some really fun combinations that can be purchased these days if you don’t make your own; a favorite of mine is a beet-cabbage mix), fermented condiments, beet kvass or kombucha (both fermented drinks).
*Check out the book Brain Maker: the power of gut microbes to heal and protect your brain-for life, by David Perlmutter, via my amazon side bar (affiliate link) for more information on this topic.
Try These Bonus Foods
The world is full of amazing herbs, spices, and other delicious plant foods that offer brain-boosting benefits. Curcumin protects the brain from oxidative stress, is anti-inflammatory, improves memory and protects against neurodegeneration. You can supplement or simply begin cooking more with turmeric (though it only contains about 3% curcumin by weight). Rosemary contains carnosic acid which is protective against neurodegeneration and it may enhance memory and concentration. Dark chocolate or raw cacao powder offers antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and improves blood flow to the brain. Plus – yum! Finally, Green Tea is considered neuroprotective and helps produce a state of relaxed concentration.
Beyond nutrition, there are, of course, many additional lifestyle habits that promote optimal brain health – engaging in regular joyful movement, quality sleep, stress management practices, reducing toxins in our lives, and so on. Furthermore, while I mentioned supplementing with fish oils earlier, there are other supplements that can support our brain health; see this post for ideas. Lastly, blood sugar regulation was yet another critical aspect of me restoring my brain function following the birth of my third child. Next Tuesday, I will share strategies to balance your blood sugar and eliminate sugar cravings – a point of tremendous frustration for many women I know.
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To better brain health,