Eating well under stress is hard. I’m certainly guilty as charged. In my book, there’s a scene where I toss out the healthy carrot my daughter hands me for a hunk of chocolate! And if caregivers don’t eat healthfully, chances are their families are not eating well.
I recently discovered “Nourish your Noggin,” a wonderful blog by Tina M. Sullivan devoted to food’s effect on the brain. The blog provides “healthy ways to hasten healing after mild TBI.” I got in touch with her to ask some questions I thought we could all learn from:
How does food directly impact the brain?
Rosemary, the foods that we choose to eat and drinks affect us on a cellular level and nutrients come in the form of vitamins, minerals, water, amino acids, carbohydrates, and lipids. Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) are responsible for relaying impulses to your nerve cells. When you eat a diet rich in whole grains, veggies, and fruits, it raises the amino acid, tryptophan. This amino acid elevates the level of serotonin in the brain, which calms you down. When you eat good, high-quality protein, you increase dopamine and norepinephrine, which in turn helps to keep your brain alert and present.
What are the three top foods we should be eating to help heal the brain?
There are many but there are three that are easy to incorporate: coconut oil, greens, and a gluten-free grain like quinoa.
Coconut oil contains a healthy fat called lauric acid. This has natural anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. It boosts your immune system and provides a quick energy source. The brain uses more than 25 percent of the body’s cholesterol, which is used as an antioxidant and supports the neural network by wrapping and delivering neurotransmitters.
Leafy greens are shown to increase circulation, purify your blood, lift your mood, and increase your energy. My son, who is recovering from a brain injury, drinks them in a smoothie almost every day!
And, as for quinoa, it is a very high-protein grain that contains all eight essential amino acids. It contains fiber, magnesium, iron, and potassium. It’s easy to cook and takes on the flavor of whatever you mix it with. All of the above are easy to find.
Caregivers often experience high levels of stress. What foods or eating habits will fortify us against stress?
Rosemary, you’re talking to the caregiver who, during the really tough days, stood in the pantry eating chips! Not the best choice.
Foods that are high in magnesium, which calm the body, and B vitamins will serve you well. Nuts, legumes (beans) and healthy oils (like avocado, flax seed, and olive oil) are good. Emotionally, the crunching of nuts or seeds can calm stressful feelings and satisfy you much longer than going through the drive-thru for a quick sugar and caffeine fix.
If you can, take a couple of deep breaths before you act on your cravings; this is called “mindful eating” and will give you more control. By the way, a piece of dark chocolate daily is good, too! It can lower blood pressure and is full of antioxidants.
After a long hospital visit, a person with a TBI will have lost some muscle mass. According to one study, “30-year-old adults who were put on bed rest for a month lost an average of a pound of muscle just from their legs.” What foods or supplements can a caregiver provide to her loved one to help build up lost muscle mass quickly and healthfully?
I understand that too well. My son was 85 lbs. at his lowest and has gained 45 lbs. High-quality protein and healthy fats are needed to regain muscle. A high-quality protein powder can be mixed in with greens, nuts, fruits, flax seed, ½ an avocado, and unsweetened vanilla almond milk to create a great tasting smoothie to boost muscle mass and serve as a good supplement. Almond milk has 50 percent more calcium than regular milk and 50 percent of the daily RDA of vitamin E. Avocado is a wonderfully healthy and tasty choice and makes the drink really smooth. Eating foods that are broken down to their cellular level allows the digestive system to absorb the nutrients much more effectively, providing the body with instant energy. Also, smoothies are great for people with a TBI who have difficulty swallowing or issues with texture. We love the Nutribullet mixer, it’s quick, easy, affordable, and pulverizes everything.
What advice do you have for maintaining brain health for people with TBI and caregivers throughout our lives?
Understand that every bodily system interacts with each other. The mind and body connection is very important. For example, if a person with TBI or his caregiver has PTSD, get it treated; constantly living in “fight or flight” mode is not healthy. Eating well is a great life-long plan. I recommend Super Brain Yoga (the YouTube video takes five minutes daily), meditation, having a strong spiritual practice, surrounding yourself with positive people, and most importantly, daily positive SELF-TALK. Give yourself credit for any progress that has been made. Empower yourself by becoming your own best advocate … and keep moving forward a little every day.
Tina’s answers are wonderful advice we can all use. Now heading to the fridge!
See excerpts from Tina Sullivan’s book Nourish Your Noggin on BrainLine here: