Our society is experiencing an epidemic of chronic brain problems. An estimated 40 million people in the United States experience some sort of anxiety-related disorder. As many as 30 million suffer from depression.
The use of antidepressants doubled from 1995 to 2005, and they're now the most prescribed drugs on the market. There's been a twentyfold increase in attention-deficit drug consumption over the past 30 years. Autism now affects 1 in 88 children. From anxiety, attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and autism to brain fog, dementia, depression and mood swings, one thing is clear: we have a rapidly growing mental health problem.
What is the mainstream medical system's answer? As with most chronic conditions, its solution is to diagnose a disease or condition and match it with a corresponding pharmaceutical drug. In Functional Medicine, my goal is to clinically investigate the underlying, unlooked, and uninvestigated factors that are at play in chronic health issues such as these and to naturally address them.
Obviously conditions like these are complex, and there's no easy answer. Below I've laid out some great pieces of the puzzle for optimal brain health. They're a great starting point, and are not intended to be quick fixes.
The tips and tools below are not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill advice that you've heard a million times. Most people know they should be eating more vegetables; that's a given. I wanted to give you the best, fresh plan for promoting a healthy brain, and to push you out of your comfort zone and into optimal health:
This incredible, edible superfood is one of the most unjustly and inaccurately persecuted foods, ever! The yolk of the egg gets a particularly bad rap, but the yolk contains the majority of the eggs nutrients. I see so many well-intentioned people throw out the yolk or buy egg whites because they're fat-phobic.
From a health perspective, this is very misguided. The yolk is so rich in nutrients for your brain that a separate article could be devoted to the topic. The yolk is truly nature's multivitamin. Organic, pastured eggs from chickens who roam outside in the sunlight offer us essential brain food like choline. Choline has a variety of functions for healthy brain function, including the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and cell-membrane signaling, which is needed for all hormone function. Symptoms of choline deficiency include fatigue, insomnia and memory problems. Pastured egg yolks are also rich in omega-3 fats which are essential for a healthy brain.
As with all meat and dairy, not all eggs are created equal. Pasture-raised eggs have been shown to contain three times more of the brain beneficial omega-3 fats than supermarket eggs!
2. Organ meats
A second real food multivitamin is organ meat. Powerhouse superfoods, like liver, have been consumed by abundantly healthy societies throughout history, but now are eaten sparingly in modern Western society. The liver is a storage organ for many important brain nutrients, like vitamins A, D, E, K, B12 and folic acid, and minerals such as copper and iron. A great way to get these nutrients is through a liver pate. Fermented cod liver oil is also a great option, and comes in different forms like gels and capsules if you want to take it in a whole-food supplement form.
3. Bone broth
To have a healthy brain, you need to have a healthy gut! The two are inextricably linked through nerve pathways. It's no coincidence that your gut is also called "The Second Brain:" 95% of your serotonin, your feel-good hormone, is made and stored in your gut. Conditions like leaky gut syndrome and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) can have damaging effects on your entire body. The connection between your gut and your brain (gut-brain axis) has been linked to depression, anxiety and autism. Bone broth is one of the best foods you can consume for a healthy gut. This nutrient-rich liquid is filled with collagen, which acts like a healing ointment to a stressed-out inflamed gut.
4. Coconut oil
This amazing food can do wonders for your brain health. A study in the journal Neurobiology of Aging suggested that medium-chain triglycerides, like those found in coconut oil, improved cognitive function among older folks with memory problems and Alzheimer's disease. The amazing thing in this research was that cognitive function was improved almost immediately following ingestion of the medium-chain triglycerides!
5. Grass-fed dairy
Your brain is made up of 60% fat and contains more cholesterol than any other organ in your body, yet we were raised to avoid these two essential brain nutrients. In addition to this, the cell membranes of our body, where your hormones communicate, are lined with the same components of saturated fat and cholesterol. That's why it's important to acquire these nutrients through your diet, and high-quality dairy is a good way to do that.
Dairy should always be grass fed, organic, and preferably raw. Fermented dairy like kefir is also a good option. The healthy fats of grass-fed dairy are where all the brain food is, so avoid low fat! Two fats that your brain wants and needs are saturated fats and arachidonic acid, both of which can be found in grass-fed dairy. Another nutrient your brain craves is vitamin K2, which is critical for the formation of the myelin sheath and the nerves in the brain. We get this power nutrient from the fat of grass-fed animals, the very food that's disappeared from our modern low-fat diet.
It's no secret that a lot of people are deficient in vitamin D. Our culture lathers up with toxic sunscreens and avoids the sun like the plague. But moderate sun exposure is healthy for most people. Vitamin D has many jobs, and one of them is its critical role in making your endorphins.
If you live in places that don't always have strong sunlight, or if you work inside a lot, then get your vitamin D from the foods you eat. When we consume the dairies and fats listed above, from animals who live outside in the sunlight, they will have plenty of vitamin D in their fats.
As I've said earlier, these are pieces of the puzzle to regain your health, not the entire picture. Hormonal imbalances, food intolerances, chronic infections, toxicity, and nutritional deficiencies are all factors that need to be investigated for the individual. A comprehensive health program tailored for you and your unique needs will be necessary to create sustainable results. In Part II of this series on natural mental health, I will give you the top things you will want to get rid of for a healthy brain.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian,The Inflammation Spectrum, and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.