Obtaining and Maintaining Your Best, Healthiest Brain - and avoiding “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”

Article by Jasmin Lim. Photography by Lottie Hedley Photo.

It was once thought that the brain had a finite number of cells from the day you were born, and as you progressed through life, you started to lose them and could never get them back. I recall being in my tweens and having mum warn me about Rock n’ Roll “head banging” – at the time I thought it was a myth, but in actual fact many Rock n’ Roll enthusiasts have brain damage from it, including Evanescence guitarist Terry Balsamo who had a stroke as a result of some innocent helicopter and figure-eight head thrashing – who would’ve thought…

Now, what I am going to talk about doesn’t mean that you can follow these steps and safely head bang away to some Metallica or Slayer (if you’re into that kind of thing…), that’s beside the point (and totally irrelevant…).

New research has shown that our brain is incredibly adaptive, and can regenerate vital cells as a result of positive input from the environment, a process known as neuroplasticity. However, negative aspects of our environment can also play a roll in its degeneration, leading to brain decay.

We live in a chemical soup – being exposed to an unparalleled number of neurotoxins on a daily basis from the air we breathe, food we eat, and clothes we wear. The incidence of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, memory loss and Parkinson’s are rising, and are no longer limited to the elderly, appearing in unprecedented levels among the younger population. To put it short, our modern day lifestyle is contributing to the rapid degeneration of our brains.

However, it’s not all bad news. There are many simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of early brain decay. Memory loss, losing things, fuzzy memory, confusion and brain fog aren’t just signs that you are ageing, but can also be signs of a poor diet and lifestyle. So here’s our guide to maintaining or obtaining your best, healthiest brain (perhaps you can still be a genius after all…).

Cut the processed sugar, drastically.

Now this may seem a little extreme, and I may be the Grinch that stole the sugar, but overindulging that sweet tooth will increase inflammation of the brain. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, NutraSweet and sucralose are even worse, having a toxic effect on the brain – not to mention that studies have shown that they increase sugar cravings even more than sugar! Save the cakes, cookies and ice cream for special occasions, and use natural sweeteners such as banana, dates, maple syrup and honey wherever possible. 

Eat MORE than 5 a day

Fruit and vegetables contain certain substances shown to not only protect the brain, but also stimulate healing. Flavanoids, glycoproteins, vitamins and minerals found in fruit and vegetables contain protective properties that help prevent and reduce chronic inflammation. Think berries, apples, grapes, grapefruit, spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, garlic, asparagus, kale and artichoke – aim for at least 10 servings a day.

Avoid the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”

The phrase was coined in the 1960’s by an article in The New England Journal of Medicine. Twenty minutes after eating Chinese food, some people would experience tingling, brain fog, numbness, chest pain or headaches, due to the presence of a flavour enhancer called MSG, which was later linked to a process called excitotoxicity that causes the degeneration of synapses (connections between brain cells), being the earliest damage seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

MSG was originally developed and used by the military during wartime, to make bad tasting food taste good. Food manufacturers soon caught onto this, and have since used it extensively in food production. Ethics in the food industry are rather unclear, which means manufacturers can offer misleading food labels to consumers, and thus some of the “other names” for MSG include: anything-hydrolysed, anything-protein, caramelized yeast, caseinate, autolyzed yeast, carrageenan, natural flavouring, soy isolate – and so it pays to read your labels! MSG has also been associated with depression, addiction, brain fog, confusion and memory problems. The only way to ensure you avoid these additives is to eat fresh food (preferably local, seasonal and organic wherever possible).

Get Some Regular Exercise

Many studies confirm that exercise is one of the best things you can do to stay mentally agile into old age. Exercise promotes greater blood flow to your brain and stimulates your brain by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their connections and protecting them from damage –improving cognitive function. Not only have scores of studies linked regular exercise to reduced risk of dementia, but also increased brain mass and improved reasoning ability. The best evidence so far has been shown for aerobic exercise that gets you heart rate up – such as jogging, swimming, cycling and HIIT workouts.

Have Meaningful Relationships

Evidence from observational studies linking reduced risk of dementia with social connectedness dates back to the 1990s. What’s most important isn’t how large a person’s social network is (FYI those 2,000 Facebook friends don’t count…), but the variety and satisfaction with those social connections. In short, think quality over quantity.

Nutritionist & Naturopath Nellie Pigot's Top Tips for Optimum Brain Health:

  • Berries are particularly high in Malvidin, an antioxidant rich plant compound responsible for their vibrant red colour, which helps protect brain cells from oxidative damage. Think cranberries, blueberries, pomegranate, mulberries and red grapes. An antioxidant rich diet can slow down age related motor changes such as Parkinsons, dementia and Alzheimers disease.
  • Eat plenty of good quality Omega 3 oils. Omega 3 oils are particularly important for maintaining a healthy cell wall, and brain cells are high on that list to help usher in nutrients and eliminate waste for great cognitive functioning. With their exceptionally high Omega 3 content and the fact that they look like a brain, walnuts are one near the top of the list and have been shown to be very protective against dementia and memory loss. Coconut oil and hemp seeds are also up there - add coconut oil to smoothies or spread on toast and incorporate hemp seeds or oil into your daily diet to keep those brain cells plump and healthy.
  • Fantastic herbs for protecting brain neurons and promoting better blood circulation to the brain are Ginkgo Biloba, Gotu Kola and Pie Bark Extract.These three wonderful herbs have been used traditionally to promote longevity by nourishing the brain and improving memory. Kitchen herbs such as Rosemary are also great for cognitive function and memory - make a tea by steeping rosemary in boiled water, add to salads and a touch to juices, and have a bottle of rosemary essential oil on your desk to gently inhale when you need to increase concentration and sharpen your brain.
  • Detoxifying greens such as chlorella, spirulina and coriander are particularly effective for dealing with heavy metals and other toxins that can seriously effect brain function, so amp up the green juices, smoothies and salads.
  • Sleep - your brain builds up toxic waste during waking hours so the process of sleep actually appears to shrink your brain cells so that more fluid is available around the brain to flush out these toxins.  See how important it is to get your 8 hours!

References:

Avena et al.,(2009) Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-Like Behaviour.  Journal of Nutrition, 139(3)623-628.

Helgasan, C. M. (1988) Blood Glucose and Stroke. Concepts of Cerebrovascular Disease and Stroke, 23,1-6.

Vauzour et al.,(2008) The neuroprotective potential of flavonoids: a multiplicity of effects.  Genes. Nutr. 3(3-4)115-126.

Samuels, A. (2009) Evidence of MSG-induced Brain Damage and Endocrine Disorders: The Animal Studies. [online].

Seneff et al.,(2011) Nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease: detrimental role of a high carbohydrate diet.  European Journal of Internal Medicine, 22(2)134-140.

Blaylock, R.L.(1996) Excitotoxins. The Taste That Kills.  New York: Health Press.

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