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BrainHealth Breakdown: Nutrition

Our physical, spiritual, and mental lives are connected to the brain. Since the brain is the “CPU” of our bodies, it is through the brain we experience every aspect of life. At Life Skills Village we promote a holistic approach to traumatic brain injury rehabilitation. We believe keeping your brain healthy is vital – whether or not you have a TBI. That’s why the upcoming series of blog posts focus on diet, exercise, and sleep.

Our physical, spiritual, and mental lives are connected to the brain. Since the brain is the “CPU” of our bodies, it is through the brain we experience every aspect of life. At Life Skills Village we promote a holistic approach to traumatic brain injury rehabilitation. We believe keeping your brain healthy is vital – whether or not you have a TBI.  That’s why the upcoming series of blog posts focus on diet, exercise, and sleep. 


Eating right is the best way to ensure your brain and your body is working right. Your brain is only a small portion of your body weight, but it makes up 20% of your metabolic energy consumption. People who eat a healthy diet tend to live longer lives with better cognition and memories. Conversely, a poor diet is associated with many diseases like "heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer," as reported by U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

How do we know what foods to eat and what foods to avoid? How do we make healthy changes to our diets? I think that if we group the food we eat into nutrients we know are good for the brain it will be easier to introduce healthy changes one piece at a time, and it will be easier to notice the positive effects!


Magnesium is a dietary mineral with many psychological benefits and a deficiency is likely to result several side effects including increased general anxiety. There are a few reasons for this: magnesium activates Gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors in the brain whose purpose is to relax the brain, and magnesium filters stress hormones like cortisol before they enter the brain. These stress hormones activate immune system messengers called cytokines to inflame the brain in an attempt to “heal” the stress. This autoimmune response doesn't work and it leaves you with memory issues in the long term. When these messengers are blocked, inflammation is reduced or prevented. Another physiological/chemical benefit of magnesium is that it binds with heavy metals in the body, and carries them out. It is not known if this process is active in the brain, so it important to address the issue before the toxic elements collect there. Studies have concluded that a magnesium supplement can help hypoglycemic individuals better maintain their blood sugar levels.

Magnesium could also bolster Neuroplasticity, a process made mainstream by brain game apps such as Lumosity, which pairs well with cognitive therapies because of its capacity to promote the creation of neural pathways and increase base-level serotonin. Because of this it might help lift depression without aggressive medication. When these issues are addressed, it helps put the individual back in control; sleep is improved, stress is reduced, and focus and concentration are bolstered.

Magnesium should not be treated as a cure all, and only taken in appropriate amounts.  It has benefits but cannot solely solve your mental health issues.

Here is a list of the best dietary sources of Magnesium:


  • Legumes

  • Nuts 

  • Whole grains

  • Spinach

  • Anything with dietary fiber

These are the supplements to look for:


  • Magnesium Chelate

  • Magnesium Chloride Oil (skin application, used for people with digestive disorders)

  • Magnesium Glycinate (good for   people with magnesium deficiencies),

  • Magnesium Orotate (good for heart too)

  • Magnesium Citrate (has laxative effect at high doses)

Protein is one of the 3 macronutrients essential to body and brain function. There are eight amino acids that make up protein that the body cannot produce and as such it is important to get enough of each type.


  • Valine

  • Lysine

  • Threonine

  • Leucine

  • Isoleucine

  • Tryptophan

  • Phenylalanine

  • Methionine


Diane Roberts Stoler, writer with Psychology Today, explains that if we don't get all eight in one meal, the proteins are broken down for energy rather than growth and repair and that "getting all eight together is most easily accomplished by eating animal products,” but it is possible to get complete proteins from non-animal products, and it is still beneficial to have protein if you are not getting all 8 parts. Ask a registered dietician on how to best calculate your daily protein intake.

Protein can be acquired through powder supplements to be mixed into drinks.  There are a lot of these out there and some are not good to use; be sure to research your protein shake before you buy and consume them regularly.

Dietary sources of Protein:


  • Legumes

  • Whole Eggs

  • Avocado

  • Meat

  • Fish

  • Soy

  • Milk

  • Nuts

Folate, also known as vitamin B9 and sometimes folic acid depending on where it's found (folate is in food, folic acid is in supplements), is critical to healthy brain and body function. After being digested and absorbed it becomes methylfolate, which is essential for the brain's production of DNA and neurotransmitters. Folate is crucial for women who are trying to get pregnant or are already pregnant. During pregnancy it is recommended they consume 400 micrograms per day, and 500 micrograms per day during lactation. This is especially important one month before trying to get pregnant and within 21 days of conception. Refer to our sources for more complete information. The National institute of Health has a list of recommended folate intake.

Good food sources of Folate:


  • Beans

  • Avocado

  • Nuts

  • Meat

  • Eggs

  • Leafy Greens

  • Beef Liver

  • Spinach

  • Black-Eyed Peas

  • Fortified Cereals

  • Asparagus

  • Brussels Sprouts

  • Lettuce

Vitamin D is synthesized in our skin when it comes into contact with sunlight. However, because of our lack of contact with sunlight during winter, Americans are often Vitamin D deficient. Symptoms of this deficiency include bone pain, muscle weakness, seasonal depression, and a study in the UK found evidence indicative of impaired cognition. If a physician diagnoses a deficiency, it is important you take Calcitriol or Vitamin D3, the active forms of Vitamin D. While it is found in foods, 10-20 minutes of direct sunlight will produce more Vitamin D than a day’s worth of food. But as you age your body is less efficient at producing the vitamin, so it is important to include in your diet, and take supplements.

Tips for supplementation: Magnesium helps increase effectiveness of absorption. A safe amount of Vitamin D to include in your diet is 400 IUs for infants, 600 IUs for adults, and 800 IUs for seniors.

Good sources of Vitamin D:


  • Whole Eggs

  • Fish

  • Fish Oils

  • Fortified Milk

  • Beef live

Antioxidants are in many fruits and vegetables, and can be man-made for supplements. They also have varying effects on brain and body function. Vitamin E has been shown to ward off depression, Vitamin C is linked to reduced incidence of stroke and enhance skin healing, and Vitamin A is good for eye health and cholesterol. All Antioxidants, though, are used in the body's natural response to reactive compounds called free radicals (pollution, smoke, UV light). This process is useful to us because it helps preserve cells in the presence of these irritants. They are also an anti-inflammatory, which is associated with reducing pain, preventing neurodegenerative disease and cardiovascular disease.

Flavonoids, carotenoids, and other phytonutrients are responsible for the bright coloring in fruits and vegetables. There are over 6,000 different types make up the largest group of phytonutrients, and are powerful antioxidants to seek out.

Antioxidants to look for in your food and supplements:


  • Vitamin E

  • Vitamin C

  • Vitamin A

  • Folic Acid

  • Superoxide Dismutase

  • Glutathione Peroxidase

  • Beta-Carotene

  • Caretonoids

  • Flavonoids

  • Polyphenols

  • Selenium

Various antioxidants can be found in these foods:


  • Blueberries

  • Celery

  • Turmeric

  • Dark Chocolate

  • Bright Colored Fruits and Vegetables

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  • Strawberries

  • Almond Butter

  • Walnuts

  • Seeds

  • Fortified Cereal

  • Canned Tomato Purée

  • Turnip Greens

  • Spinach

  • Avocado

  • Onions

  • Citrus Fruits

  • Brussels Sprouts

Healthy Fats are necessary for proper brain function, which is common sense considering the brain is 60% fat. In utero, and as we grow, our brains use fat to grow membranes, myelin sheaths, and other structures. These are important to protect neurons and axons. The brain never stops needing fat to function, and it will utilize available fats should the correct ones not be available. Omega 3 EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) fats are what the brain craves and allows it to function at peak performance. Heather Pratt, with Natural Grocers, postulates that these omega 3 fats are correlated with "neurotransmitter production and function, meaning... serotonin and dopamine (the chemicals in our brain that control happiness) absorption is improved [by omega 3 fats]”, and that helps stabilize mood, and stress response. 

Healthy fats, in general, have a wide variety of positive body outcomes. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats raise good cholesterol while lowering the bad. Omega-3 and omega-6 are good for the brain and skin.

Good fats to look out of in food and supplements:


  • Polyunsaturated Fat

  • Omega-3 DHA and EPA

  • Monounsaturated Fat

  • Omega-6

  • Medium-Chain Fatty Acids or Triglyceride


Good sources of healthy fats: 


  • Avocado

  • Wild Salmon and Trout

  • Anchovies

  • Nuts

  • Olive Oil

  • Coconut Oil

  • DHA Enriched Products (Eggs, Milk, Beef)

  • Algae DHA and EPA Supplements

  • 100% Butter

  • Ghee Butter for Cooking

  • MCT Oil, Full-Fat Dairy

Vitamin K is known for its benefits to the circulatory system like improving bone health, reducing inflammation, and increasing blood flow. all of which helps improve cognitive function. The Vitamin comes in two varieties: K1 and K2. K1 is important to blood coagulation and is stored in the liver. K2 is more active around the body, and does everything mentioned above. Watch out for MK-4 and MK-7 on supplement labels, as those are the forms of Vitamin K2 that should ingest.

Good sources of Vitamin K:


  • Broccoli

  • Spinach

  • Blueberries

  • Avocados

  • Kale

  • Leafy Greens

  • Brussels Sprouts

  • Cauliflower

  • Cabbage

  • Fish

  • Liver

  • Meat

  • Eggs

  • Cereal

Collagen production in our bodies declines as we age, making it important later in life to boost your collagen intake. It is usually known for its role in joints, cartilage, and muscle, but it has also been shown to protect brain-cells from amyloid-beta proteins known to cause Alzheimer's disease. Watch out specifically for Collagen VI as it has been researched in these Alzheimer's findings.

Good sources of Collagen:


  • Bone Broth

  • Fish

  • Red Vegetables

  • Dark Green Vegetables

  • Orange Vegetables

  • Berries

  • Soy

  • White Tea

  • Citrus Fruits

  • Protein

  • Garlic

  • Oyster


Trans fats are guaranteed to age your brain should they be consumed frequently. This quote by Psychology Today, describes it best: "Trans fats can lead to serious health complications including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, low birth rate, obesity and immune dysfunction. They also have serious consequences on brain health.” Look for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the ingredients list to know which items to avoid.

Avoid these foods, especially if packaged and store-bought:


  • Commercial Muffins

  • Cake Frosting

  • Cookies

  • Pies

  • Biscuits

  • Breakfast Sandwiches

  • Margarine

  • Crackers

  • Microwave Popcorn

  • Cream-Filled Candies

  • Doughnuts

  • Fried Fast Foods

  • Frozen Pizza

  • Corn Chips

Saturated Fats can be tolerated in amounts higher than trans fats but will still show the same raised levels of bad cholesterol and cognitive decline over time.

Saturated fats can be found in these food products: 


  • Fat on Meat

  • Chicken Skin

  • Full Fat Dairy Products

  • Butter

  • Cakes

  • Pastries

  • Biscuits

  • Pizza

  • Fried Food

  • Hamburgers

  • Hot Chips

  • Creamy Pasta

  • Rib-Eye Steak

Sugar, syrups, and simple carbs cause obesity, metabolic syndrome, and an assortment of other disorders and diseases that arise from those conditions. Studies have shown that high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sugar alternative, hampers cognitive ability, slowing down memory and learning. It is believed that this is because the test subjects (rats) developed insulin resistance; a condition in which insulin's ability to regulate stored sugar for brain function is inhibited. 

Foods to avoid with High Sugars:


  • Commercial Muffins

  • Citrus Sodas

  • Sodas

  • Processed Foods

  • Ice Cream

  • Hard Candies

  • White Rice

  • Beached Grain

  • Store Bought Fruit Juice

  • Donuts

  • Milk Chocolate

Mercury is a neurotoxin. It is found in seafood, and can accumulate if eaten too regularly. After being ingested, or inhaled, mercury is stored in the kidneys, blood, liver, spleen, brain, fatty tissue, and bones. It is known to inhibit the development of babies’ brains, hearts, and circulatory systems in utero. It is a known cause for several types of cancer, can cause neurological and behavioral disorders, and can change neuromuscular activity. 

Do not touch it with bare skin, avoid being in closed spaces with it, and do not eat it.

Foods to avoid with Mercury in them:


  • Tuna

  • Bigeye

  • Ahi

  • Albacore

  • Yellowfin

Brominated Vegetable Oil, or Bromide, is a chemical used in citrus sodas to help keep flavor syrups from separating from the drink. It has a sedative effect on the brain because bromide can replace the chemicals used in the communication between neurons, which causes the neurons to go negative, in comparison to a resting state, making it difficult for other neurons to stimulate them. This is a problem because the dosage for sedation is close to the dosage for toxicity, and the amount used in soda can be toxic to a person addicted to soda.


Drinks to avoid with Brominated Vegetable Oil:


  • Citrus Sodas like Mountain Dew

  • Squirt

  • Fanta Orange

  • Sunkist Pineapple

  • Orange Gatorade

  • Fresca Original Citrus

There is a lot to consider when it comes to your brain health but the task of improvement doesn’t have to be so daunting. With a few tweaks here and there over time your habits will keep you healthy! Sign up for notifications from the blog to find out when we post the next part of our series “Brain Healthy!” What is your favorite super food?  What would you like us to cover next? 

This list is incomplete, and I am not a registered dietician. Research your nutrients before changing your lifestyle, and ask your doctor before changing your diet if you have digestive disorders or immune system deficiencies. 

*General food sources: DraxeEatThis
*Magnesium fact sources: BeBrainFitAncient-MineralsDraxe
*Protein fact sources: PsychologyToday
*Folate fact sources: AuthorityDietPsychologyToday
*Vitamin D fact sources: WebmdScientificAmericanPsychologyTodayReadersDigest
*Vitamin E fact sources: Life-Enhancement
*Antioxidant Fact sources: LivescienceEveryDayHealth
*Healthy Fat Fact Sources: GreatistNaturalGrocersDraxe
*Vitamin K Fact Sources: EverydayHealthMedlineplus
*Collagen Fact Sources: NewBeautyScienceDaily
*Trans Fat Fact Sources: IVLProductsPsychologyToday
*Saturated Fat Fact Sources: IVLProducts
*Sugar Fact Sources: IVLProducts
*Mercury Fact Sources: GlobalHealingCenterGreenFacts
*Brominated Vegetable Oil Fact Sources: ChemistryWorld

Other articles in the Brain Health library includes content on nutrition, sleep, and brain games.

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