We were lucky enough to sit down with neuroscientist Dr Amy Reichelt to chat about all things brain-health. You’ve been making some interesting headway on the relationship between diet and…
We were lucky enough to sit down with neuroscientist Dr Amy Reichelt to chat about all things brain-health.
You’ve been making some interesting headway on the relationship between diet and brain health. For those who may not be familiar with what you do, tell us a bit about your brain-science background.
I’m fascinated by how our brains control our thoughts, behaviours and emotions. I studied for an undergraduate degree in Psychology and then completed a PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience. For the past 5 years I’ve been at the forefront of neuroscience research to understand how highly refined junk foods change how our brains function spanning from the molecules used by brain cells to communicate, to our psychological relationships with food.
What first sparked your interest in the relationship between brain health and food?
I’ve always been interested in why certain behaviours can spiral out of control, and people can become addicted to substances, but then that got me thinking about food… We need food to live, but our world is full of highly refined, processed foods that are effectively synthesised to hit us right in our sweet spot – our brains. Many drugs of abuse are originally from nature, think the coca plant that can be refined to cocaine. In a similar way foods can be refined and manufactured to be as tasty as possible, making us want more and more, leading to uncontrolled eating.
Away from work, what inspires you on a daily basis? Do you have any daily rituals you use to anchor your day?
I’m driven by curiosity in all aspects of life, I love finding out about how things work and what is happening in the world.
I always get up and make coffee in the morning! My job is busy, starts early and I can end up working very late. I’m a big believer in breakfast though, it’s the best way to kick my brain into gear with some protein – you need it to make neurotransmitters! I love getting out into nature and taking my dog, Frank, out for walks. He’s a miniature dachshund so he’s only got little legs, but I always take him for a morning stroll so he can sniff around and say good morning to the neighbourhood dogs. I work out at my local CrossFit 3-4 times a week. I love the community spirit and varied workouts.
Let’s get back to basics, how does what we eat affect our brain physically?
Our brain is a hungry organ – The average human brain comprises of only 2% of our body mass, but uses 20% of our energy, much more than expected for our relative brain size. The brain is always functioning, which means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. Brain fuel comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Our brain doesn’t get fat if we eat high fat diets, in fact there are some imaging studies that show obesity actually leads to reductions in brain volume overall, which could be due to the loss of neurons. Of note, brain imaging studies have shown that poor diets can reduce the size of the key brain region involved in memory – the hippocampus. This is important because the hippocampus is vital for remembering daily events, and also receives a lot of signals from our gut in terms of how hungry or satisfied we are.
How does what we eat affect our mental health?
Diets high in refined sugars and saturated fats are harmful to the brain, which can change how we process events that happen to us, and shift our moods. These diets also increase inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, which extends to the brain. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
What sorts of foods promote a healthy brain?
A varied, balanced diet promotes a healthy brain. Your brain needs omega-3 fatty acids to maintain brain cells (neurons) structurally – oily fish, flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds are good sources of omega-3’s. As a result, diets high in omega-3s may slow cognitive decline and could decrease the incidence of dementia.
Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant chemicals like flavonoids, act to nourish the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells, and can also occur from living in a polluted urban environment.
Some key foods that can be great for your brain include berries and the spice turmeric. Berries, particularly blueberries, are rich in the the flavonoid anthocyanin, an antioxidant to help fight against the oxidative stress that damages neurons. Turmeric is the curry spice that gives Indian foods their bright yellow colour. Turmeric contains curcumin, an anti-inflammatory noted for treating arthritis. Curcumin can also exert anti-inflammatory actions in the brain and may be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.
What food gives us more energy and alertness?
COFFEE! Okay, you might not drink coffee as much as I do, but caffeine is scientifically proven to enhance mental alertness, increase energy and also improve focus. Green tea is another great cognitive stimulant – it contains both caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine, which is important for producing the neurotransmitter GABA. Increasing GABA in the brain can promote mental clarity and relaxation. So green tea can give you a less jitters if you are sensitive to caffeine. Other foods that can make us feel more alert include dark chocolate (again, it has caffeine in but also flavonoids that are antioxidants).
How does sugar and processed foods affect the brain?
Sugar and highly processed foods tend to be low quality, and not nutritious. These foods have a detrimental impact on the brain in a variety of ways.
Diets that are high in refined sugar and saturated fats can cause inflammation in the brain, called neuroinflammation. If your brain is deprived of good-quality nutrition, or if there are excessive free radicals or damaging inflammatory cells within the brain enclosed space, negative functional consequences can occur. Your brain cells (neurons) will not function at appropriate levels and can lead to cell death, which will reduce the numbers of neurons in the brain overall. The damaging environment for neurons by creating an adverse environment for them, preventing them from working optimally.
But why do we keep eating these foods when we know they are bad for us? High sugar and processed foods are very rewarding, our brain releases the chemical dopamine, which gives us a kick from eating these foods, our brain makes us want more. But if we do give into these urges and eat these foods regularly, our brain adapts to this new standard level of food reward, so we have to eat more of these foods to get the same kick. This then sets about more damaging conditions.
What is the ideal brain-health diet?
Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, these nourish the brain and protects it from the oxidative stress that can damage cells. Processed foods are often stripped of their nutrients, and have excessive additives like salt, sugar and maltodextrin added to them to make them taste “better”. We know that sugar (particularly fructose) is damaging for the body, and it also damages neurons, so avoiding refined sugars is really important. Although fruits contain a lot of the fruit sugar fructose, they also have lots of fibre when consumed in the whole form (i.e. not juiced), this slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.
Fibre is also important for our gut microbiota, these are the microbes that live in our digestive system. By ‘feeding” our gut microbiome with nutritious, fibrous foods they can process bioactive molecules that can enhance neurotransmitter production, and regulate hormone signals. A balanced diet with lots of soluble fibre in also encourages “good” bacteria to colonise our digestive system, which help to keep our brain healthy.
Alcohol seems like it would be a sure thing when it comes to damaging the brain, but is all alcohol consumption bad for us?
Alcohol works in the brain by increasing the effects of inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and reducing the activity of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. This causes our neurons to not communicate together efficiently, causing the cognitive slowing associated with being drunk. Prolonged excessive alcohol consumption is very bad for the brain, this really long term consumption can cause a type of dementia called Korsakoff’s syndrome, and is sometimes seen in alcoholism. But in general small amounts of alcohol aren’t particularly detrimental to the brain in the long term.
Red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant which might be neuroprotective to some extent. Many people choose to have a glass of wine with dinner or to help them relax, which has mood boosting properties. Premixed drinks and many cocktails often contain a lot of sugar, so are best avoided on the grounds that the sugar is bad for your brain, particularly if you binge drink a lot of them at night.
How can we start improving our brain health right away?
Eat a healthy balanced diet, move your body, stress less and surround yourself with good people.
Dr Amy Reichelt can be found at [amyreichelt.com](http://amyreichelt.com/)