Brain food: how to eat and sleep your way to a healthy mind

Rosie Fitzmaurice
·6-min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Look, we’re not going to mention the L-word again but if you’re not feeling sluggish, foggy-brained and emotionally burned out by now then you’re certainly in the minority.

Neuroplasticity is the latest buzzword when it comes to cognitive wellness, and it refers to the brain’s ability to rewire itself. Nutrition, along with other lifestyle factors, play a key role in this process, meaning there are ways you can support your mental health and protect your brain through your diet to your exercise routine and sleep patterns.

Here’s how to hack your way to a healthier mind.

The brain diet

Start with real food. The brain is mostly made up of fat and water, so eat plenty of healthy fats like oily fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil, particularly those high in long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids, says podcast host Dr Rupy Aujla (@doctors_kitchen), author of Doctor’s Kitchen 3-2-1 (£16.99). “They have been shown to promote the growth of brain cells which can help maintain the adaptability of the brain and also provide quality protein, which is broken down into amino acids that are used for the production of neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers of the brain),” Aujla says.

“Dark leafy greens like cavolo nero, spinach, rocket and sprouts contain high amounts of phytonutrients that drastically reduce inflammation in the body, which can disrupt brain processes leading to symptoms of fatigue and low mood.”

In fact, as a rule of thumb, the darker the food, the better, according to neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart (@drtaraswart), author of the 2019 bestselling title The Source (£10.99), as these foods contain anthocyanins that contribute to neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons in the brain), a form of neuroplasticity. “So choose black beans over cannellini beans, purple sprouting broccoli over regular,” she says. “Organic dark chocolate (containing over 80 per cent cocoa) and organic coffee count, too”.

Hydrate by eating plenty of water-rich foods - like cucumber, melon and berries - which will allow you to retain more water than simply drinking it, she advises. Berries are particularly beneficial to the brain as rich sources of polyphenols, Aujla adds. “They may also be involved in the production of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor BDNF, which is involved in the maintenance and survival of nerve cells and could be a critical component of protecting the brain against disease.”

When to supp

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to supplement our diets, “if we all ate organic and grew our own food,” Swart says. But lifestyle factors mean we can miss crucial nutrients from our diets, and this is exaggerated in times of stress. “When we’re stressed, the body leeches itself of certain nutrients, particularly magnesium.” Magnesium plays an essential role in memory and sleep and it can be difficult to get enough of it from modern diets. Twitchy eyelids can be a sign of deficiency, she adds. Magnesium is best absorbed through the skin, so apply topically for best results. Spray a couple of drops of The Nue Co’s Magnesium Ease (uk.thenueco.com, £20), slather on some of Neom’s Real Luxury Magnesium Body Butter (neomorganics.com, £36) or sprinkle a few handfuls of Westlab’s Magnesium Flakes (westlabsalts.co.uk, £6.99) into your bath before bed.

Harley Street nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh (@alicemackintosh_nutrition) says she often sees clients with deficiencies in zinc, choline and B vitamins in her clinic, and they are all important for supporting healthy brain functioning. “When it comes to supplementation everything works synergistically together. In order for B vitamins to work well in the body, you also need folic acid and iron, for example.” She set up her own supplement brand for women, Equi, with former investment banker Rosie Speight. The brand’s Original Formula for mind and body is supercharged with 46 nutrients (equilondon.com, £50).

The rise of “smart drugs”

Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs,” are growing in popularity, with an explosion of new products promising everything from enhanced memory to a sharper focus and better concentration. But do they work? Anything that has an action on the brain, including caffeine and herbs and roots like ginkgo biloba, can be classed a nootropic, but Dr Swart warns there’s “no magic drug”. Dr Aujla agrees, adding the best way to protect your brain is via “your plate and lifestyle”.

While Mackintosh suggests focusing on nutrients like zinc and magnesium in the first instance, Equi formulates its supplements with some natural nootropics for their overall “balancing effect.” “Siberian ginseng is an adaptogenic herb that helps to support our adrenal response and balance hormones, so it may help us cope in times of stress. Another one is ashwagandha which is very calming and may support sleep cycles.”

Indi Mind is another brain-focused supplement packed with anthocyanins, nootropics, adaptogens and beta-glucans (indisupplements.com, £40).

Feed your second brain

Did you know that around 80 per cent of serotonin - or the happy hormone - is produced in the gut, often described as our “second brain”? “The brain and gut communicate very closely linked by vagus nerve,” Mackintosh says, and an inflamed gut has been linked to things like low mood, brain fog and a lack of intuition.

We know that by consuming enough different fibre sources and eating probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha we can help to promote a diverse gut microbiome, keeping it healthy, but if you struggle to do this within your diet every day, Swart recommends taking a probiotic.

There are a number of different probiotic strains out there, so it’s important to find the one that works for you. Symprove (symprove.com, £52 for four-week supply) is a popular choice. Read our full review here.

Stress less, move more

“Stress is the worst thing for your brain, cortisol literally kills off brain cells,” Dr Swart says. Incorporate breathwork and aerobic exercise into your routine to oxygenate the brain, there is also a benefit to simplifying your life where possible, this is known as “choice reduction.”

“Every time you make a decision, you’re dipping into your finite bucket of cognitive resources,” she says. “So doing things like laying your clothes out the night before and having a meal plan for the week, means you’re not using up your brain power on these things.”

Finally, get some rest. “During sleep your brain’s lymphatic system (which removes toxins and waste products as a result of normal cellular processes) gets to work to clear debris that can impact the functioning of your nerve cells,” Dr Aujla says. Aim for at least eight hours and try to stick to regular sleep/wake times for an added benefit.

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