An Introduction to Nutrition and The Brain
What is The Brain?
Shakespeare once wrote “the brain is the soul’s fragile dwelling place,” and fragile it is. The brain has the consistency of tofu, and brain injuries, strokes, or diseases often result in impairments. Our brains are made up of billions of nerve cells and fibers, networked by trillions of connections and synapses. Yet, a hard skull, three layers of membrane, and a cushion of shock-absorbing fluid are all that protect the seat of our personality, emotions, actions, and abilities.
Just a few decades ago, it was commonly believed that the functional cells of the brain were unable to regenerate or repair themselves once the brain was fully developed around the age of 25. This perception set clinical neurology on a trajectory of seeing the brain as a fixed organ throughout adulthood: a brain that is incapable of repairing itself after injury.
Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a Professor of the Graduate Program of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, refers to this time period as the “bronze age of neurology.” Thank goodness we’ve reached the age of reason. Today, we know that the brain is plastic, or capable of change, and we’re constantly improving our understanding of “neuroplasticity,” or the ability of the brain to adapt and to change, and applying new strategies in the field of neurorehabilitation.
As outlined in Dr. Norman Doidges’ book, The Brain That Changes Itself, “neuroplasticity is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable.” Featured in his book are the stories of individuals who regained the ability to speak after stroke, who were blind and learned to see, and whose aging brains became rejuvenated! In many ways, these stories mirror my own and are increasingly changing the way we understand neurorehabilitation.
The brain is remarkable to say the least, and every brain is different. These differences profoundly affect function, and it is because of these differences that every brain injury is different. There is certainly no cookie-cutter approach to treatment, but the most pivotal realization that I made following my own injury was that…
…there are ways in which anyone can support the health of their brain and brain function.
After the acute stages of my brain injury, I worked through post-acute therapy to relearn the abilities to walk, talk, and eat again. When I left NYC to live with my mother in Austin, Texas, my therapy continued and I began to work with a functional neurologist. By implementing a leaky gut protocol, I noticed that my thoughts were beginning to become clearer, and I soon learned that there were ways in which I could support my recovering brain at its most fundamental level: at the cellular level.
What Makes Up The Brain
The primary functional cells of the nervous system are called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other in order to allow us to do absolutely anything: think, move, see, eat, talk, swallow, smile, breathe, digest food, and essentially everything else that we do. Neurons and their communications are vital to EVERY function of life.
When the brain is injured or diseased, neurons (and the connections between them) are damaged.
While neurons give us the abilities to do all the things we do, they only make up about half of brain cells. The rest of the brain is made up of what are called glia. Glia support the function of neurons so that they are in turn able to support the functions of the brain and body.
Borrowing an analogy from a mentor, Dr. Alex Vasquez, DC, ND, DO, FACN, let’s think of neurons as plants, and the glia, or the cells that support neurons, as the soil that the plants are potted in. Much like how the soil is what provides nutrients to a plant, glia provide nutrients to the neurons so that they can grow, function, and repair.
When the brain is diseased, damaged, or degenerating, we see damage to the neurons, and the connections between them. In order to rebuild those connections and encourage the regeneration of neurons, there are two very important ingredients…
- We need to supply the building blocks through nutrition
- We need to stimulate the growth of those neurons and the connections between them.
I think of building new pathways in the brain using an analogy of building a bridge. Doing therapy and putting in the work is like enlisting skilled workers to build a bridge. Supplying the brain and body with the right nourishment is supplying those workers with adequate tools and resources.
Building New Pathways
We can enlist as many skilled workers as we like, but if we don’t provide them with the right supplies and tools, the job can’t get done.
Conversely, eating nutrient dense, brain-building nutrition, but doing little or no therapy is like having all the lumber that one would need to build a strong bridge, but no one to build it. In either scenario, a bridge, or new pathways in the brain, are not very well supported or established. Both skilled workers (therapy) and the right building materials (nutrition) are necessary.
What Are the Nutritional Building Materials for the Brain?
Like every other part of the body, the brain heals cell by cell. When cells malfunction or are damaged, eventually the cells that make up those damaged organs also malfunction. Whether it is the liver with cirrhosis, the intestinal lining with Crohn’s disease, the lungs with Bronchitis, or the brain with a brain injury or neurodegenerative disease, the cell is what it all comes down to.
Imagine a living cell as a vehicle with an engine that is always running. You can’t turn a cell off and store it in your garage for even a few minutes without it dying. In every running vehicle, there is an engine that requires fuel. The engine within each cell is called the mitochondria, and the fuel that the engine requires comes from the food that we eat!
I’m going to say that again because it was this understanding that was the most important lesson I made in my recovery (and my entire outlook on health):
Cells need the right fuel to function properly, and cellular fuel comes from food.
As I learned how my actions and food choices could have a direct impact on my brain, I began to eat my way to regained clarity and was able to escape my brain fog… and I’m not alone. Many other survivors with whom I’ve worked and spoken have reported similar results.
Whether you are looking for a more successful recovery from injury, stroke, disease, pain relief, mood stability, or improved brain function, amazing things have been reported as a result of following these principles. Focusing on a foundation of healthy digestion and the right kind of nutrition…
anyone interested in protecting or optimizing brain function can greatly benefit by learning how to feed a brain.
Not a day goes by that I don’t hear about the significant, positive, and life-changing effects of conscious eating and healthy digestion. The right kind of nutrition really is one of the most important keys to sustainable health and function—be it headache and migraine relief, reduced medications, mood stability, sleep, stroke recovery, brain injury, brain disease, or other neurological conditions.
Since my injury, I have been working with doctors, nutritionists, registered dieticians, survivors, researchers, and nurses to write a book that is all about how to supply the right building materials to the brain through nutrition and I just published! You can pick up How to Feed a Brain: Nutrition for Optimal Brain Function and Repair on Amazon, and check out the Feed a Brain Interview Series with top-notch brain and nutrition experts!