With the internet overflowing with quotes from wise, philosophical types, a generous abundance of pre-8AM life-hacks to choose from each morning, and a self-help industry worth more than $11 billion, the idea of "feeding our minds" has taken on a certain color. We’re advised to immerse ourselves in the writing of great minds, to broaden our spiritual horizons, to create and follow personal maxims. And rightly so. Feed away.
But I want to think about this a bit more literally: how about feeding our minds with the food we eat?
I’ll mention just one quote from a wise, philosophical type, which is this:
"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - Virginia WoolfTweet It!
There’s emerging science which shows how certain, everyday foods have complex properties which help our brains do their thing — i.e. to feel good, to focus well, to sleep soundly.
It’s unsurprising, really. We can put pills in our mouths, digest them, and find ourselves relieved of depression, anxiety, sleep problems and stress. It’s surely not a huge stretch to imagine that the food we eat can do the same thing — but in a more natural, sustainable, side-effect free way.
Ancient cultures have known this for centuries, but — as with so many things — it’s taking us a bit of time to come full circle. Armed with Western science alongside long-held holistic knowledge, there’s a pretty compelling case for using and enjoying food as a way to feed our minds.
One in five of us in the UK are affected by anxiety or depression, and nearly half by chronic stress; there’s a fairly terrifying increase in rates of dementia; plus growing awareness of a ‘modern epidemic’ called brainfog. The time feels pretty ripe for exploring ways to tackle mind-related issues that are well within all of our control, available to us daily, and don’t involve a prescription.
So what does it mean, as Woolf so simply put it, to "dine well"?
There’s a wealth of knowledge out there — and even more that we don’t yet understand. Based on my own biohacking self-experiments and a lot of research, below are my top five awesome mind-fueling foods that are probably already in your cupboard. Equally important is a short explanation of the way they work their magic — because the last thing anyone needs is another list of "Eat this!" / "Never eat this!" to blindly memorize; it’s time we embraced the stories of why and how.
Turmeric is a root, closely related to ginger. It contains curcumin, which is an absolute wonder for the brain. It regulates the levels of serotonin in our brains, by putting a stop to the enzymes which break it down — giving it freedom to run round our brain making us feel good and sleep well. It’s also a brilliant anti-inflammatory that keeps brain cells calm and happy, and promotes the growth of nerve cells. Awesome for memory. Best eaten with black pepper, to make it easily absorbable.
Parsley is the best herb to have in the house. It’s full of vitamin C (way more than oranges) — which is known to directly reduce levels of a particularly nasty inflammatory called CRP. It contains luteolin, which helps the hippocampus — where memory and learning happen — to do its thing. It’s also rich in antioxidant flavonoids, which run around neutralizing floating free radicals so they can’t damage and age cells.
Miso. Fermented foods — like miso — rebalance our gut bacteria, which sorts out all manner of woes. Too much ‘bad bacteria’ in the gut creates toxic byproducts, which are horrible for the brain and disrupt serotonin production. Miso helps prevent this. And to counter stress, get the ‘barley’ version (it’ll say it on the label) for a powerful antidote to anxiety — it contains phosphatidylserine, which reduces the stress hormone cortisol.
Walnuts look like teeny brains for good reason. They contain anti-inflammatory polyphenols which soothe upset, tired cells; magnesium, which aids ‘synaptic plasticity’, making it easier for the brain to rewire itself — a helping hand if you’re stuck in anxious repeated thoughts; melatonin, which supports natural deep sleep so that brain cells can chill out and get all the rest they need each night; and finally, vitamin E, which protects and maintains brain cell membranes.
Honey. Tryptophan — the building block of serotonin — is really hard for our bodies to absorb. It gets crowded out by the bigger, bulkier proteins that exist in all tryptophan-rich foods, and struggles to enter the bloodstream. So — and the gods of modern fad diets may strike me down for saying so — carbs are super important. Eating some pure carbs after protein gives the tryptophan a chance to enter the bloodstream, without all the other big hulking proteins getting in the way. Carbs in the form of refined sugars (like sweets, white pasta and bread) are a no-no — they deplete brain cells’ mitochondria, making them tired and age faster. But honey is carb with a difference — a unique source of anti-inflammatory sugar which calms, rather than upsets, brain cells. Best eaten before bed to help with the sleep cycle.
This is about nothing more than being informed and deliberate about what we eat, and enjoying the amazing powers of the foods so readily available to us. It’s not about expensive supplements, complicated meals, or restrictive diet plans.
There are loads more foods with exciting stories to tell — their tales just need to continue to be uncovered, shared, and lived.
Our brains are our most exciting, powerful tool. Let’s feed them, literally.
Becca Warner is a writer, traveler, and change-maker. She leads a team of revolutionaries at Escape the City, and explores the power of food for the brain on her website ThinkFeelFood. Check out her writing or follow her on Twitter.
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