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Feed Your Busy Brain

August 2, 2021 | Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition



The ability to function, focus, and maintain mental health in school, work, and social events with life-stress depends on brain health. No matter the level of your gifts, abilities, and skills, your brain requires nutrients for you to function optimally. Nutrients affect your emotions, cognitive ability, stress tolerance, physical health, and aging. Your brain and nervous system are at the core of human function. You must feed your busy brain to survive and thrive.


A Demanding Brain


Your brain is the most energy demanding organ in your body. Starting at three weeks post conception and throughout your entire lifetime, your brain and nervous system are in a state of growth, development, remodeling of neuroplasticity, and metabolic activity. As an adult, your brain consumes 20% of the energy produced by your body, yet it represents only 2% of your body weight.


Most of the energy used by your brain is used to energize and power internal organs and to keep you alive. Daily 24/7 “housekeeping processes” demand up to 50% of the total amount of brain energy as nerves communicate and monitor unconscious activities. Much of this energy is for the communication that occurs at the synapses, or tiny gaps between brain cells. These synaptic connections send and receive signals via sodium and potassium ion channels where electrical charges are created. Trillions of electrical charges occur to make life-sustaining activity.


Digestion takes about 8-15% of your brain’s energy demands. Your brain uses about 320 calories per day on average. Over 100,000 chemical reactions happen in the human brain every second under intense concentration. More than 60 neurotransmitters are produced to manage conscious and unconscious activities. These activities create significant amounts of oxidative stress and demand adequate nutrients.


Brain Fatigue


Brain fatigue is a common experience. You can see the exhaustion in a student who completes finals week, a driver who has driven for long stretches, a toddler going to daycare or preschool for the first few weeks. When you started a new job or learned a new skill or language, it also undoubtedly left you feeling exhausted and drained.


This is the brain trying to adapt to new cognitive experiences and/or being pushed to the limit on top of all its regular 24/7 duties. It gets fatigued. Your brain never stops working, but it does get fatigued and needs self-care. A nap, a good night’s sleep, or maybe a day off is all that is needed to “recharge” for mild brain fatigue.


In other circumstances, where nerves have been injured or overwhelmed by overwork and stress-exhaustion, illness, or simply age and wear-and-tear, brain fatigue interferes greatly with daily activities. It is more difficult to accomplish tasks. It takes longer to complete things as the brain is less efficient at managing neurological communications. Accomplishing something like reading a page in a book, going to the market, or even getting dressed and eating a meal may be exhausting. The metabolic efficiency of the brain and its functionality has changed. It is trying to work in the midst of a backlog of neurological wear-and-tear inflammation.


Consequences of brain fatigue may make you feel not only mentally and physically drained, but it can lead to other symptoms. It may be hard to process information, form thoughts, and find words. It may contribute to headaches, poor mood, loss of interest, sleep problems, and digestive changes or more. These concerns may last for a short time in some people, but for others it may be an ongoing battle.


Identify the Brain Drain


In order to help maintain good brain energy, you want to avoid things that drain the brain of energy. Every demand or watchful activity that your brain engages in requires energy mainly supplied by glucose. In fasting states, it may also use fatty acids for energy production.


It is vital to have healthy glucose metabolism for brain function. High blood sugar and low blood sugar levels are stressful to your brain and contribute to inflammation in nerves and brain cells. Stable blood sugar levels without the spikes and drops are essential to brain energetics.


Your brain also needs adequate oxygen. Sleep apnea, blocked arteries in your neck from heart disease, high blood pressure and low blood pressure problems and other issued may compromise circulation to your brain and contribute to brain fatigue and decline in neurological health.


Nutrients like iron, vitamin B12, folate, vitamins B1, B2, and B6, vitamin C, copper, zinc, vitamin A, and potassium are essential for red blood cell formation and/or oxygen metabolism necessary to feed the brain. Insufficient supply of any nutrient makes it harder on your brain and contributes to fatigue and metabolic stress.


Other energy drainers on your brain include leaky gut syndrome, food intolerance and allergies, acute and chronic infections, yeast overgrowth, hormone imbalances, thyroid and/or adrenal dysregulation, heavy metal and other toxin exposure, mold toxins, poor sleep habits, sleep apnea, emotional overwhelm, alcohol, sedentary activity, grief and loss, and more.


These life demands and challenges increase oxidative and mitochondria stress, overstimulate nerves and microglial cells, and increase repair needs. In order to manage its daily housekeeping needs, your brain needs nutrients.


Basic Dietary Support


The most fundamental dietary brain nutrients include proteins, a variety of fats, complex carbohydrates, and water from a healthy, balanced diet. A lack or excess of any of these affects the brain. A healthy brain also starts with meal timing. Sticking to a healthy routine with breakfast first thing in the morning and a schedule that correlates with the natural day-night cycle also helps the master clock in the brain. This helps turn on energy processes, gene signals, and entrains metabolic efficiency.


For healthy adults with light to moderate activity, consume 5-9 servings of vegetables and some fruit, complex carbohydrates (beans, legumes, and grains), at least 6-9 ounces or 0.8grams/kg of protein per day. For a 150-pound individual, this equates to about 55 grams of protein per day. Age and activity level impact needs. Make sure to have a variety of fats from plants and animal sources every day. If you eat junk and nutrient-devoid foods, brain health suffers. Overconsumption with empty calories and nutrient poor intake, i.e. the Western diet, is highly stressful to your brain, while a healthy diet rich in antioxidants supports brain resiliency.


Different Fats are Critical for Brain Structure and Function


The brain is a fatty organ. Cell membranes, nerve structures, and other tissues within the brain require fat and cholesterol for structure, electrical and metabolic function, and repair. Cholesterol made by your liver and found in the diet is critical. Low cholesterol levels contribute to depression, aggression, violence and impulsivity. Over-medication with cholesterol-lowering medications or underlying illness with low cholesterol may contribute to brain fatigue and other neurological symptoms.


Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, provide critical support for brain metabolism and its structure. Omega-3 DHA provides superior support for brain health. Omega-3 oils (EPA and DHA) are from cold-water fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, etc. Plant-based omega-3 oils are from walnuts, flax, hemp, and chia seeds. Plant oils can be converted into EPA and DHA, but the process is markedly inefficient and may not happen because of genetics or nutrient deficits.


Many individuals consume far greater amounts of omega-6 plant-based oils (vegetable, canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, sesame, etc.) in the diet than omega-3 oils. This tips your brain and metabolism into a pro-inflammatory state. Omega-3 oils make anti-inflammatory compounds called PGE1 and PGE3 and are necessary to balance pro-inflammatory PGE2 compounds. If you don’t consume omega-3 rich foods in your diet, you must supplement daily.


Nerve sheaths, cell membranes, and normal repair mechanisms in your brain require choline/acetylcholine and phosphatidylserine in addition to DHA. Choline intake in the diet is especially important for brain health and is vital for neurotransmitters and nervous system function. It is commonly lacking in the American diet. You can learn more about choline in the article Memory Neurotransmitter & Gut Health Linked.


Energy and Support for Brain Synapses


Brain synapse function is a huge demand for brain energy. Many things affect this including proteins and amino acids, electrolytes (calcium, magnesium, sodium, chloride, and potassium), and nutrients for mitochondria protection and function. Mitochondria provide ATP/energy and several other functions that affect synapse activity. This energy intensive process involves mitochondria and must be protected by antioxidants and provided nutrients to function.


When mitochondria are injured, they leak electrons. This affects their performance, nerve synaptic energy, and electrical energy. You ultimately feel fatigued and experience a decline of function. Mitochondria require antioxidants to protect them from oxidative stress and toxins like medications, environmental pollutants, alcohol, tobacco, high cortisol/stress levels etc.


Critical nutrients include all B vitamins, glutathione, magnesium, lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, and plant-based antioxidants like fisetin, curcumin/turmeric, PQQ, resveratrol, grape seed extract, astaxanthin, tocotrienols, which all provide safe, protective support for mitochondria brain health and metabolism.


Three Special Nutrients


With age, poor diet, and stress, the nerves, mitochondria, and cell membranes within your brain become beat-up, stiff, in disrepair and contribute to decline in function and vitality. Yet, your brain has the ability to repair and age well with the natural production of nerve growth factor.


Nutrients such as acetyl-l-carnitine, phosphatidylserine and a specialized form of choline, glycerophosphorylcholine (GPC) have been found to enhance brain/nerve growth factor which supports nerve repair and aging. These nutrients help mitochondrial energy production, repair cellular components, make new highly flexible cell membranes in the brain, and support neuroplasticity.


Support Your Brain’s Resiliency


Your brain is the most important organ in your body. Without oxygen, blood sugar, hydration, and adequate blood flow, critical life functions falter. In order to partake in life’s activities, contribute physically, mentally, and emotionally and be resilient, your brain requires you to take care of it.


Get plenty of sleep, laugh, and love and connect with others. Wear a helmet and a seatbelt when needed. Eat a well-balanced, nutrient dense diet with meal-timing. and feed your busy brain with DHA, choline and phosphatidylserine, B vitamins, magnesium, and a variety of antioxidants.


Mood stress, loss of resiliency, simple forgetfulness, and fatigue are some of earliest signs that your brain health is crying out for more support. You must provide your brain with the nourishment it needs every day. Are you able to manage your day well or is brain fatigue getting the best of you?