Vegan nutrition blog


Brain fog - clearing the mind with plant foods

25 Jun 2017

While 'brain fog' isn't generally something you hear discussed in everyday life, its influence persists in many of us, regardless of whether we suspect it or not, or indeed whether we understand our experience of it. By and large, we've all complained of feeling below par after a night of seldom sleep or exuberant revelry, yet mental displacement may be more prevalent in our lives than we realise. Make no mistake, many of us will recall episodes of mental malaise and a lack of application during a typically busy day, but at its most extreme, brain fog can feel like you're fatigued all the time, as well as being irritable, disconnected socially, feeling removed from the immediate environment (as if you're imagining it), stumbling over what to say (fragmented, clunky conversation), and even feeling anger at stunted rates of productivity. Perhaps you're sat reading a novel and find yourself going over the same short paragraph five times before proceeding, still unconvinced you've grasped what's being covered. Similarly, procrastination is about as clear-cut a symptom as you can get. Elsewhere, you might experience 'floating shapes' and splotches of colour before your eyes, particularly when sat before a computer. Vegan or omnivore, we're all equally susceptible to brain fog, just as someone leading a sedentary lifestyle might complain of a 'foggy' mental state no different to that of a solicitor, fire fighter, or emergency worker. In any case, for the purposes relevant to the forum here, we're best served in discussing which plant foods are the most optimal in competing with brain fog. Without neglecting obvious lifestyle changes like improving sleep quality and introducing regular exercise, opening a dialogue on plant foods responsible in lifting mood and improving application is of paramount importance. It's curious to note that, despite findings from the likes of this study, where saturated fat is implicated as an impediment to both learning and memory, there remain nutritionists who insist we need saturated fat in order to think clearly. However, many commentators in the field believe there's a much stronger case to be made for anti-inflammatory plant foods when it comes to mental clarity. Seen in this video, Dr Eric Berg recommends we eat a 'big salad' embellished with 'healthy fats' every few days in order to clear brain fog, as well as avoiding sugars. On this point specifically, it appears little coincidence I was able to bypass a New Years Day hangover (and any experience of brain fog) this year after consuming a salad comprised mostly of leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, nutritional yeast, red onions and walnuts on New Year's Eve. This NYE meal serves as a useful window into what those with experience of brain fog should be eating daily. Again, we will focus exclusively on plant foods for the purposes of readers here and, having begun with brain fog, it makes sense that the study below appeals more universally to optimal brain health and diet. PLANT-DERIVED NUTRIENTS AND FOODS FOR THE BRAIN

OMEGA 3s

Omega 3s improve blood circulation in the brain, meaning healthy brain arteries are crucial to clear thinking, just like those servicing the heart. To preface any conversation on omega 3 and its most abundant sources, we mustn't neglect that plants contribute much of the omega 3 found in modern food's vanguard of this healthy fat, fish. So it begs the question - where do the fish get their omega 3s from? It turns out they snack on a variety of sea vegetables as part of their diet, just as greasing cattle source their B12 from soil. Expanding on specific omega 3 vegan sources found underwater, sea vegetables, algae and cyanobacteria (the 'blue green' type of algae made famous by Spirulina) provide ample omega 3s, including the dominant types DHA and EPA (both of which contribute to healthy cell membranes, with the latter well known for its anti-inflammatory capacity). The former type plays a crucial role across initial brain development and in curbing symptoms of mental impairment, while the latter appears to regulate mood and behaviour, meanwhile lifting mental performance. Cultivated micro algae are a particularly good vegan source of DHA. 1 Existent across different forms, the algae kingdom is vast in itself, supplying a plethora of edible and nutrient-dense options, like those found here. Curiously, the red and brown species of algae, including nori (found in sushi) and kelp, are the most abundant in both DHA and EPA, sufficing as a reliable vegetarian and vegan source. 2 Moreover, such types are found locally at health food stores like Commonsense Organics, and in Asian supermarkets across New Zealand. Algae-derived 'algal oil' meanwhile is nutritionally equivalent to salmon in terms of DHA and, although harder to come by locally, nonetheless represents a useful alternative to fish-derived oil. 3 Concerning plant sources of omega 3 found on land, flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds stand as widely available options crucial in countering the increased prevalence of omega 6s in the Western diet. For example, vegetable oils are very high in omega 6s and, according to Dr Russell Blaylock in this interesting clip on diet and criminal behaviour, our omega 3 ratio should far surpass our omega 6 count. Unlike most plant-deriving oils, flaxseed oil boasts a comparatively high omega 3 count, tipping the scales at around 4:1, with the former number denoting omega 3s (as shown in this article). Moreover, it's worth pointing out too that, unlike pro-inflammatory omega 6s, omega 3s are anti-inflammatory and responsible in producing a clear state of mind. In ground form too, flax seeds boast great versatility and can be applied to just about every meal, including smoothies. Like chia seeds, flaxseeds assist in thickening a mix once combined with water, sufficing as capable egg substitutes in cooking. Walnuts

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IODINE (THE FORGOTTEN KIWI BRAIN NUTRIENT)

The trace mineral iodine is crucial for all cells in the body. Iodine is best absorbed alongside the other trace minerals like selenium (found in brazil nuts, shiitake mushrooms and brown rice etc) and magnesium. The latter is particularly crucial in that it supports the mitochondria responsible for energy production and optimal cognitive performance. While magnesium can be found across a variety of everyday foods like pumpkin seeds, spinach and sesame seeds, iodine has taken a back seat, with many of us misled in believing the mineral is only available in fortified table salt. Once used to purify water supplies instead of chlorine, iodine no longer persists in our everyday lives, but is crucial in alleviating brain fog since it is concentrated in, and supports the function of, every cell in the body. Remarkably, only 10% of the iodine in salt is bioavailable, so it's even less prevalent than we think 4. Referring back swiftly to vegan seafood as outlined in the study on omega 3s above, much of the ocean's vegetation is high in iodine. Unsuprisingly then, kelp and wakame are leading sources of iodine and vegans will be encouraged at the resounding percentage of iodine found in sea vegetables (especially brown sea veggies) over sea animals, seen here. According to this study on iodine, the only word of caution is to monitor one's daily intake of sea vegetables through fear of getting too much iodine. So for those concerned about abusing the safe daily amount, supplementation of sea kelp or similar is a viable option. Wakame

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CHOLINE

While seen as synonymous with eggs and liver as leading dietary sources, the brain-harnessing nutrient choline is found across a range of plants too. Choline is critical in neurotransmitter function and promotes cell repair 5, but can be harmful from animal sources due to its role in producing trymethlamine n-oxide (TMAO). However, when taken in from plant sources, we don't see such an inflammatory response in the body from choline 6. Vegan sources of the nutrient include shiitake mushrooms (which contain roughly 36% of our recommended daily intake), beans, cauliflower and peanuts. Shiitake mushrooms

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CURCUMIN

Found in turmeric, curcumin has shown much promise in facilitating hippocampus health, enhancing its function as the home of memory and mental application 7. Chief among the world's best anti-inflammatory food sources, the spice has long been revered for inducing clarity of thought and relieving stress. Moreover, curcumin has been shown to dramatically reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, restoring cognitive function following brain injury 8. While brain fog can emerge without any incidence of brain injury, the common denominator of inflammation shared by the two suggests that curcumin, along with other powerful antioxidants like vitamin E, mark a worthwhile antidote in mitigating mental cloudiness 9. But adding turmeric alone to food isn't enough. According to Dr Michael Greger, it is crucial to eat turmeric with black pepper and a source of healthy fat for optimal absorption, as explained here. Turmeric root

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B VITAMINS

All B vitamins are important for powering the mind and are found most abundantly in products like nutritional yeast as a complete B vitamin 'shot in the arm'. Referring back to my New Years Eve plate outlined at the beginning of this piece, I can certainly vouch for nutritional yeast's effectiveness, but it's important to know why the entire family of B vitamins are so beneficial for the brain. In short, B vitamins work in tandem with one another to achieve best results, with niacin (B3), folate (B9) and B6 dependant on riboflavin (B2) for successful conversion and recycling. 'Flavoproteins' found within riboflavin also serve to promote the metabolism of fatty acids in brain lipids, meaning those omega 3s are better absorbed. Indeed, riboflavin deficiency alone would compromise optimal brain function in spite of other B vitamins in the diet 10. Speaking of other B vitamins, B6, B9 and B12 are implicated in brain health through their role in supporting neurotransmitter function 11, 12. Moreover, it has been shown that treating patients with these B vitamins significantly slows the rate of brain loss in subjects with mild cognitive impairment 13. The utility of B vitamins as a remedy for brain fog appears to be supported by a study on thiamine (B1) where subjects reported feeling more "clearheaded, composed and energetic" after receiving the vitamin in supplement form at doses exceeding the RDA 14. Aside from nutritional yeast, beans, dark green leafy vegetables and bananas represent leading sources of B vitamins in food, but the list goes on. Nutrition information on nutritional yeast

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FERMENTED FOODS

We're all familiar with the expression 'gut feeling' and many of us will report a physical gut response to stressful thoughts and anxiety, but is this mere coincidence? It appears not. The medical community is becoming increasingly aware of the link between gut health, serotonin and happiness, 15, 16. Fermented foods both feed and spawn good gut bacteria, serving to soothe the stomach and improve digestion. Also known as probiotics, fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, tempeh and apple cider vinegar are implicated in improving cognitive function through regulating neurotransmitters 17. This video further explains the role of probiotic foods and their ties to mental wellbeing. Kimchi

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CRUCIFEROUS GREEN VEGETABLES

Leafy green vegetables are just about the healthiest food one can eat. Hinted in its very name, kale is very high in vitamin K and rates among the best green veggies to eat. A much neglected nutrient also harvested through consumption of spring onions, cabbage, cucumbers, broccoli and asparagus, vitamin K has shown promise in cognition. On this, it's useful to draw on a study examining low vitamin K intake across Alzheimer's patients. The research paper proclaims, "this lower consumption of green vegetables in participants with Alzheimer's disease explained their lower vitamin K intakes overall", suggesting that deficiencies are costly in the face of Alzheimer's 18. Further studies suggest a link between vitamin K, in this case the plant-deriving K1 type known as phylloquinone, and improved cognitive among the elderly. The study found that "increased dietary phylloquinone intake was associated with better cognition and behaviour among geriatric patients." 19 Elsewhere, leafy green vegetables like broccoli, swiss chard and bok choy are packed with brain-healthy nutrients including vitamin A and C, iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Bok choy is particularly rich in many of the B vitamins discussed above, including B6 and B9. Broccoli

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SULFORAPHANE

A growing body of evidence is emerging in favour of the little-known sulforaphane, a compound found most abundantly in broccoli sprouts and Brussels sprouts. A 2014 study examining the behaviour of young men with experience of autism (a condition characterised by social impediment) discovered a marked improvement in social behaviour after daily sulforaphane treatment, with such improvements fading with the ceasing of treatment, therefore emphasising the role of sulforaphane from broccoli sprouts in improving behaviour and mood 20. Since autism is perceived of as a disorder located on a 'spectrum', its presence can be subtle. While most of us won't report any experience of autism, the findings around sulforaphane spell great things for the human brain moving forward, particularly since many of the hallmarks of autism match those of brain fog. For those adverse to Brussels sprouts, you could do worse than opt for broccoli sprouts instead, particularly since these contain a higher concentration of sulforaphane. Better still, to take in sulforaphane at higher concentrations, broccoli sprout powder marks another useful way of realising the benefits of this super compound. Broccoli sprouts

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FINAL THOUGHTS

To conclude, there's ample choice when it comes to allaying brain fog on a vegan diet. By integrating all the foods described below in shopping list form, you'll do your brain a world of good. While other lifestyle factors like sleep quality and quantity shouldn't be ignored, there's great tangible reward in adding brain healthy foods to your weekly shop. But don't go out and buy everything at once. Instead, look to incorporate a couple of new foods each week, paying heed to how you're thinking and performing. This way you won't overlook all the other amazing plant foods you're buying already, most of which are crucial in optimising the absorption of the healthy brain foods outlined below. Brain healthy plant foods grocery list (A-Z): Asparagus Brussels sprouts black beans beans (general) blueberries (though not featured in any of above, the antioxidants in blueberries have a positive effect on cognition 21) broccoli cabbage cauliflower chia seeds cucumber flax seeds green tea kale kelp kimchi nutritional yeast peanuts pumpkin seeds sesame seeds shiitake mushrooms spring onions turmeric (with black pepper) wakame walnuts