• Neurological conditions like ADHD and Alzheimer’s seem to be rising. Our food systems are making it harder to give our bodies what they need.

  • Founder of Food for the Brain Patrick Holford gives his eight tips to promote brain health

Your brain generates more energy, and consumes more fuel, from food than any other organ in the body. Every single thought and image you see sends messages whizzing through your neural network. After a day’s activity your brain literally has to repair and reload, which is what sleep is largely about. While you don’t generally make more brain cells you do make, and lose, connections between them all the time. What you eat and how you live has a major impact on, not only how you think and remember, but also on how you feel.

Let’s take two examples. Depression and dementia. If you lack brain fats – either vitamin D or omega-3 fats found in seafood – you are likely going to become depressed. Both of these nutrients, as well as a lack of B vitamins, are also going to substantially increase your risk of losing your memory and, ultimately, developing Alzheimer’s. Less than one in a hundred cases of Alzheimer’s are caused by genes.

Why? One reason is that the membrane of your brain cells, called neurons, are made of essential fats, primarily omega-3, which are only made functional by a process called methylation which is dependent on vitamins B6, folate, found in greens, and B12 which is only in animal foods. Low levels of these vitamins predict your future risk for dementia. 

How do you know if you are getting enough from your food? 

With a simple blood test called ‘homocysteine’ which determines if you’re doing methylation properly. If your homocysteine is above 11mcmol/l, which can be tested with a home-test kit, your brain is shrinking at an accelated rate. Brain shrinakge is the hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Roughly half of those over 60 have a homocysteine level in the brain shrinking zone. Why? Because B12 becomes increasingly hard to absorb. These people need to take a high potency B vitamin supplement providing 500mcg of B12. You’ll be hard pushed to eat more than 5mcg. An egg, for example, gives you 1mcg.

So, already you’ve learnt two brain essentials: getting enough brain fats (omega-3 and vitamin D); getting enough B vitamins. These literally help build your brain. 

But what does it run on? 

Your brain is hybrid – it can run on either glucose, made from carbohydrates or ketones, made from fat. If you stop eating your liver will turn body fat into ketones to fuel the brain. There’s also a type of oil, called C8 oil, you can buy in the health food store from which you’ll make ketones. You might think that if glucose powers your brain eating sugar will give you brain a boost. Well, it does in the short-term but eating too much sugar and carbs actually messes up glucose delivery to the brain so you actually become deficient. Teenagers with sugar problems already show similar memory problems and shrinkage in similar areas of the brain as those with Alzheimer’s. The youngest recorded diagnosis of non-genetic Alzheimer’s is age 19. Even having a slightly raised but ‘normal’ blood sugar level in mid-life bumps up dementia risk in later years by 15 per cent. Giving C8 oil (two tablespoons a day) to people with pre-dementia improves their memory and increases energy supply to the brain. 

A lack of energy means you can’t concentrate. So there’s two more upgrade your brain secrets – learning how to eat a lower carbohydrate diet, with very little sugar. This is called a low GL diet and is explained in my book. The second secret is how to bump up your ketone supply with C8 oil.

All this energy production, like an engine that has to work hard, makes exhaust fumes. These are called oxidants. That’s why both smoking and living in a polluted environment, increase dementia risk. It’s also why eating lots of vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices, which are high in antioxidants, reduces risk. So too does vitamin C. Those who supplement it have lower risk of memory decline. So that’s another brain upgrade secret. Eat lots of fresh, organic vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices.

Like a muscle, if you don’t use your brain you lose it. That’s why having an ‘active mind’ and ‘active body’ help keep your mind sharp. Exercise, especially anything that requires complex movement or balancing, such as dance, hill walking and sport, really engages your brain. These are two more brain upgrade secrets. 

What does a dog do after a walk? Sleep. That’s why we literally have to sleep to recover and reload the brain. So getting enough sleep is a brain essential. Those who sleep seven to right hours a night have much lower risk of dementia and depression than those who sleep too much or too little. Prolonged stress also interferes both with sleep but also with brain recovery. So learning how to build stress resilience and getting enough sleep, which my book explains, are tow more brain essentials.

8 brain health essentials

  • Low carb and GL: Eat a low glycemic load (GL) diet 

Minimise sugar and eat fewer carbs. Eat ‘wholefoods’ avoiding white bread, rice and pasta. Eat whole fruit, not fruit juice, and lots of vegetables.

  • Up brain fats: Omega-3, phospholipids and vitamin D

Seafood provides both brain-friendly omega-3 and vitamin D. Eggs provide brain essential phospholipids. Aim for three servings of fish and six eggs a week.

  • B vitamins: Keep your homocysteine low with B vitamins

Your brain depends on B vitamins, especially vitamin B6, folate (found in greens) and B12. Vitamin B12, found only in animal foods, becomes harder to absorb when you age. Supplementing 500mcg has cut brain shrinakge in those at risk by half.

  • Antioxidants: Eat and drink anti-ageing antioxidants and polyphenols

These are found in higher amounts in organic, fresh vegetables, fruits, especially berries, herbs and spices – and also in dark chocolate. Have five to seven servings a day. 

  • Active body: Exercise and keep physically active

Aim for half an hour activity every day. Stay toned – yoga, pilates and strength training maintain muscle mass which promotes brain mass too.

  • Active mind: Keep yourself socially and intellectually active

Use it or lose it. Learn new things, engage with brain games, don’t veg out of too much mindless telly. Learning a language or a muscial instrument or any new skill you're not good it is great for your brain.

  • Sleep well: Get seven to eight hours sleep a night

Get at least seven to eight hours sleep a night and learn how to control your stress level. Stay away from too much coffee (and sugar) after noon. Drink less alcohol. 

  • Stay calm: Learn how to build stress resilience

Making sure you get time outdoors in the day, and engaging with activities that you find relaxing, like mindfulness or creative pursuits, will all help manage your stress levels. If you feel chronically stressed, professional support from a therapist or counsellor may be useful. 

Patrick Holford is the founder of the charity foodforthebrain.org and author of Upgrade Your Brain

Further reading

How therapy changes the brain

4 ways to protect your brain throughout your life

Why do we need to sleep?

Why boredom is good for you

Why do some people get more stressed than others?