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Can Plants Make You Smarter?

If you have an interest in how lifestyle and, in particular, how nutrition affects brain health, the book “Smart Plants’ by Julie Morris is an enjoyable and informative place to begin your discovery.

The book begins with a reminder that what’s good for the body is also good for the brain.  As you might expect, a mostly plant-based whole food diet supplemented with exercise is an important prerequisite for attaining the best brain health. If that was the only advice, the book could be reduced to a couple of sentences.  Fortunately, there is much more.

The discussion of nutrition includes recommendations for supplementing the diet with Omega 3s.  Given that a third of the brain is composed of Omega-3 fatty acids, it’s easy to appreciate why Omega 3s might get special attention.  The reason for supplementing Omega 3s is to improve the ratio of Omega 3s to Omega 6s.  In the Standard American Diet, the proportion of Omega 6s to Omega 3s is usually too high.  While Omega 6s are good fats, excess amounts of omega6s can trigger the body to produce pro-inflammatory chemicals. Higher levels of Omega 6s relative to Omega 3s are found in oils made from corn, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, soy, and peanuts.  The healthy solution is to use less refined oils and more whole foods that are high in Omega 3s.

Although the USDA has not established a recommended daily allowance for Omega 3s, many health professionals now recommend that an Adequate Intake (AI) is 1-2 grams daily. Despite the importance of this nutrient, the Standard American Diet (SAD) only provides about half of what the brain is believed to need.

Plant-based foods that provide Omega 3s include most nuts and seeds. Ground flaxseeds and chia seeds are among the better choices that you are likely to find while shopping for groceries.  While fish is one of the best sources of Omega 3s, fish may also be an unfortunate source of toxic heavy metals and other industrial toxins.  A safer source of Omega 3s is plankton, the food fish get their Omega 3s from, or algae, the food plankton get their Omega 3s from.  In a polluted world, eating lower on the food chain is usually healthier. As for algae, that’s about as low as you can go.  Also, in favor of Omega 3 supplements made from algae over other food sources is that, unlike nuts and seeds, Omega 3s in algae is as bioavailable as Omega 3s in fish.  If taking Omega 3 supplements, the adequate intake recommendation is typically 250 – 500 mg daily of DHA and EPA combined, with a larger ratio of DHA.  Personally, I supplement my Omega 3s with a tablespoon of ground flaxseed in my morning oats.

The type of protein we consume also affects brain health.  Recent studies indicate that some of the best benefits of fasting may not come from the restriction of calories but rather from the restriction of protein. In particular, the reduction of animal protein seems to have the greatest positive effect. More specifically, a reduction in leucine, an amino acid that is most concentrated in animal-based protein, is beneficial.  A reduction in leucine also correlates closely with biological processes that lead to slower aging and less cancer. Of note, the diet of the long-lived Okinawans included only a 10% protein intake (mostly plant-based) as a percentage of total calories eaten.

While making sensible food choices may at times seem complicated, when confused, you can usually sort it out by simply asking, “What would Dan Buettner do? If the name is not familiar, perhaps his best-selling book, “Blue Zones,” is more familiar. Blue zones refer to the five areas in the world that boast the longest-living populations, on average. The zones include Sardinia, Italy; the islands of Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula, in Costa Rica; and the island of Icaria, Greece.  While Buettner discovered that a primarily plant-based whole food diet and exercise were common to healthspan success in all five regions, he also noticed seven other characteristics including a sense of life’s purpose, emphasis on stress reduction, engagement in a religion, priority on family life, active participation in social life, moderate alcohol intake, and moderate caloric intake.

If the book was only about eating the right foods, you might wonder why it takes a 300-page book to cover the subject. The simple explanation is that while the foods we eat and daily exercise top the list, there is an abundance of additional ways to enhance the foods we commonly eat. It’s these other possibilities that make for a very interesting book. For the most part, these other possibilities include herbs that can be used in cooking, herbs that can be taken as supplements (mostly because they taste so bad you would never want to cook with them), and herbs and spices that are known to have mild but positive brain benefits.  Some of these herbs and spices have been in use for over 4000 years. In most cases, these herbs and spices enhance the taste of foods and offer a path to near-endless opportunities for creative cooking.

If the idea of improving brain health and healthier home cooking is appealing, you’ll be happy to know that about two-thirds of the book showcases delicious recipes that demonstrate how to use brain-healthy herbs and spices in tasty recipes.  Included are 49 nutritious seasonal recipes with colorful pictures to help the imagination. Typical recipes include a cauliflower leek soup, roasted beet salad with blackberry vinaigrette, simple rosemary-roasted walnuts for salads and snacking, and an intriguing butternut squash hummus. Of course, each recipe includes one or more nootropics.

To better appreciate why the book is more than just another book about healthy eating, it helps to clarify the concept of nootropics (new-TROP-picks), the foods and supplements that provide special brain function benefits.  To set the stage for what nootropics offer, it helps to understand the five characteristics of foods and supplements that earn the distinction of being called nootropics.  As defined by Dr. Corneliu Giurgee’s, the five characteristics nootropics must have include:

  • A nootropic should enhance learning and memory.
  • A nootropic should enhance the endurance of learned behaviors and memories, making them more resistant to conditions that would disrupt them.
  • A nootropic should protect the brain from damage caused by a physical or chemical injury.
  • A nootropic should increase the efficacy of the cortical/subcortical control mechanisms, thereby improving conscious and subconscious behaviors.
  • A nootropic should lack the usual pharmacological or psychotropic drugs (meaning it shouldn’t impair motor function or possess sensitive qualities), and it must have very few (if any) side effects, as well as extremely low toxicity.

               Several synthetic cognitive enhancement drugs attempt to meet the nootropic guidelines. Most are designed for boosting brain function.  Noopept, Piracetam, and other racetams have been studied at low doses.  Although the risk of using them may be small, long term effects are unknown.  Although prescribed in other countries, none are FDA approved.  A complicating factor is that the effects of these synthetic drugs vary from one person to another.  The better approach remains natural nootropics that have been used for centuries.

               Fortunately, there are many foods, herbs, spices, and natural supplements discussed in the book that meet the ideal nootropic principles with ‘positive side effects.’  In contrast, the brain will compensate for synthetically created drugs with changes in neurotransmitter activity by adjusting and often diminishing the way natural neurotransmitters are produced.   In essence, the brain recognizes non-natural nootropic substances and attempts to compensate for their effect. For example, the reason cigarettes become so irresistible over time is because of the concentration of nicotine in the tobacco, which artificially activates dopamine production.  This activation causes you to feel temporarily good and mentally upbeat. The problem is that regular exposure to nicotine and the extra dopamine it produces causes your brain to believe it doesn’t need to make as much dopamine on its own.  With an outside factor ready to take on the task of producing dopamine, your brain recalibrates. Suddenly, you’re making significantly less dopamine on your own, and to feel good the easy solution is to reach for another cigarette. There’s a word for this behavior.  It’s called addiction.

               Coffee also has many brain-friendly benefits. Coffee increases circulation and blood flow, which can help ensure that adequate oxygen and nutrients are being delivered to your brain, thus promoting better cognitive function. The high caffeine content in coffee has the kind of brain-boosting impact you feel almost immediately.  The effects often include increased energy, improved mood, better concentration, and drive. And yet, the main reason that coffee works so well is also the same reason it can be harmful. Coffee is a stimulant, just like nicotine in cigarettes.  The high levels of caffeine in coffee directly impact your brain by precipitating a flush of excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine and epinephrine/adrenaline, which makes you feel up, at least for a while, but then it lets you down.  Once the chemical wears off, the neurotransmitter system is left bankrupt.  True nootropics, like those discussed in the book, help build and maintain healthy neurotransmitter levels, not break them down.

Natural nootropics are not a way to make you the next Albert Einstein, nor will they provide the strong stimulant effect of coffee, nicotine, or Adderall.  While they offer many positive benefits, they are not a substitute for a healthy diet or a substitute for sleep.  Most importantly, they are not a substitute for medications prescribed for serious neurological or psychological conditions.

What the plants called nootropics offer is a degree of neuroprotection (protecting nerve cells from damage or degeneration) along with helping optimize cognitive performance. Depending on the nootropic used they can bolster brain health by boosting memory, motivation, mood, attention, learning ability, and thought flow.  In some studies, they have been shown to increase intelligence over the long-term.  As shown in the table below, the ten most common nootropics often have multiple properties.

Nootropics are usually categorized by the functional benefits they provide. Often a nootropic will provide more than one of these benefits as shown in the following tables.

  • Calm: Helps manage anxiety, improves sleep quality, and provides stress relief.
  • Flow: Helps encourage mental clarity and promotes creativity.
  • Mood: Helps balance the mind, promotes a sense of well being and positivity, and supports motivation
  • Memory: Helps with working memory (short- term) as well as memory recall (long-term) and AIDS learning
  • Focus: Helps stimulate reaction time, increases alertness, enhances concentration, and improves stamina.

Natural Nootropics by Function

CalmMoodFocus
AshwagandhaAshwagandhaAshwagandha
Cacao*Cacao*Cacao*
Goji BerryGoji BerryGoji Berry
Lion’s ManeLion’s ManeMatcha*
Matcha*ReishiPurple Berries
ReishiRhodiolaRhodiola
SchisandraTumericSchisandra
Tumeric  
MemoryFlow
AshwagandhaMatcha*
Cacao*Purple Berries
Goji BerryReishi
Lion’s ManeRhodiola
Matcha*Schisandra
Purple Berries 
Reishi 
Schisandra 
Tumeric 

*Contains small amounts of caffeine

            Although not shown in the above tables, the five functional benefits are effectively supported by one or more of the following three processes:

  • Priming: Optimizes the brains for everyday activity and maintenance
  • Protection: Defends the brain against the factors that cause cognitive impairment and disease
  • Plasticity: Promotes the brain’s ability to continuously adapt to changes and learn new things (neural plasticity), and encourages the growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis).

One advantage of the natural nootropics shown above is that they can complement many recipes.  Additional edible nootropics that have milder effects include black pepper, chamomile, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, lavender, lemon balm, licorice, peppermint, rosemary, sage, and vanilla.  As one might guess, all of these are used in one or more of the recipes in the book.

As a parting thought, nootropics have a place, but usually only second place to exercise for boosting brain health.  For additional benefits, the book “Smart Plants” provides a nice reminder that cooking tasty plant-based whole food recipes can be about much more than feeding a hungry stomach.  While none of the nootropics mentioned can fix a bad diet, they all have the potential to boost brain health while adding flavor to food.  For myself, what better way to end the day than in my happy place – a kitchen stocked with whole foods, spices, and herbs. Should you be interested in learning more about how to have fun in the kitchen with nootropics, the book “Smart Plants” is available from the public library.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

More Brain Facts from “Smart Plants”

  • The average human adult brain contains approximately 100 billion nerve cells or neurons, and it’s the incredible way that all these neurons communicate with one another that determines how you act, think, and feel
  • Many suffer from a bit of neurotransmitter malfunctioning from time to time. You might experience this in any number of ways, including depression, brain fog, loss of motivation, aggression, and an inability to fall asleep. Fortunately, through proper lifestyle, brain chemistry can be improved.
  • Exercise is one of the best ways to balance all the mood neurotransmitters at once. Physical activity is one of the best things you can do to keep your brain chemistry balanced by increasing natural levels of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and other “feel-good” brain chemicals called endorphins.
  • Two parts of the brain that are thought to be capable of regeneration in adulthood – the hippocampus, which serves as your long-term and spatial memory hub and which is arguably the most plastic part of your brain and the cerebellum, which controls coordination and muscle memory. Fortunately, neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are very promising means of rewiring the brain, especially as we age,
  • In a Harvard study, women who had the highest composition of saturated fat in their diet had the worst memory and cognition over time. While the amount of total fat intake didn’t seem to affect women’s brain function, the type of fat did. Women with the most monounsaturated fat in their diets from foods such as olives, nuts, seeds, or avocado performed best.
  • From the MIND diet study, it was discovered that a 53% reduction in Alzheimer’s risk could be achieved by simply eliminating foods like red meat, fast foods, pastries, sweets, butter, and cheese. In essence, a plant-based whole food diet was very protective.
  • From plants, we get the brain-friendly antioxidants known as flavonoids (also called bioflavonoids). This subgroup of polyphenol antioxidants has shown promise in improving memory, learning, decision making, and reasoning. Luckily, these plant-based chemicals are quite easy to identify – they are the colorful pigments in plants.
  • For the most part, alcohol and brain health don’t mix. That’s because alcohol doesn’t just make you drunk and act silly – it’s a known neurotoxin. Even moderate drinking can compromise neurotransmitter activity, causing serotonin levels to plummet and diminish your ability to achieve deep sleep, the essential sleeping stage your brain requires for “housekeeping” and rebuilding.

More Nootropic Herbs and Spices

Several common spices and herbs can provide brain benefits.  Most provide only modest benefits.  Of course, just as with general nutrition, every bite is either for better health or against health.

  • Black pepper helps overall brain functioning and clear thinking and is a mild antidepressant. The active compound in black pepper, piperidine, can also amplify the absorption of other nootropics.
  • Chamomile is highly calming. May improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety and depression.
  • Cinnamon can enhance cognition, learning potential, and recognition-oriented memory. It has also shown beneficial effects on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
  • Cloves are naturally high in manganese (an essential mineral for brain function). May decrease oxidative stress in the brain.
  • Fenugreek is packed with choline (an essential brain nutrient) that can help with brain development, memory, nerve cell signaling, and mood disorders.
  • Garlic is an overall neural protectant that may help shield the brain from neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease.
  • Ginger contains a special compound called zerumbone which may help prevent tumors, inhibit inflammatory responses, and improve reaction time and working memory.
  • Lavender induces calm and promotes relaxation.
  • Lemon balm may help modulate mood and cognitive function. It also helps to fight stress, promotes calm focus, and aids with information processing.
  • Licorice in small quantities may be neuroprotective and improves sleep.
  • Peppermint may increase cognitive performance and mood, as well as enhance brain alertness and quicken reflexes
  • Rosemary may promote mild memory improvement through consumption and aroma.
  • Sage can help improve memory and overall cognitive performance.
  • Vanilla has mild anti-depressive effects. The aroma can positively affect the electrical activity of the brain.

When Does Life After COVID-19 Begin?

            Almost everyone has an opinion about the merits of social distancing.  For most, social distancing is an annoyance.  The question is when does the need for social distancing end.  Unfortunately, the best we can hope for is an informed opinion from the experts. In the case of COVID-19, the experts are the epidemiologist, the people that should have the best answers about pandemics.

            From a survey of 500+ epidemiologists we learn that a consensus is forming although the span of opinions ranges from months to ‘never again.’  To discover when these epidemiologists expect to return to normal read “When 511 Epidemiologists Expect to Fly, Hug and Do 18 Other Everyday Activities Again.”

Make Stress Your Friend

            Stress makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken, and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.  To view Kelly McGonigal’s explanation of how to make stress your friend, click here.  This talk was presented at an official TED conference. The talk may also be viewed on YouTube.

Personal Stories

            Changing lifelong food habits can be challenging.  From Forks over Knives, two stories remind us of the capacity within all of us when we make a positive commitment.

            “After Cardiac Arrest Nearly Killed Me, I Went Plant-Based” by Dr. Ken MacLeod

            “From Sedentary Asthma Sufferer to Long-Distance Runner on a Plant-Based Diet” by Jane Elizabeth

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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