How To Eat For A Stronger Brain

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Diets usually focus on your body. Rightfully so: staying lean and muscular keeps you thriving well into your later years.

Of course, a sound body isn’t much good without a sound mind to run it. What you eat also has a tremendous impact on your brain, which makes tweaking your diet a valuable opportunity to hack everything from mental clarity to anxiety and mood. Your brain uses food as fuel; fill it with premium, and it will run beautifully for years. Fill it with junk, and it will break down.

The Bulletproof Diet is designed to boost both physical and mental performance (check out the free Bulletproof Diet roadmap here). This article takes things even further with a special focus on using nutrition to hack specific aspects of brain health. You may get something new from it, even if you’ve been eating Bulletproof for a long time.

The nice thing about these hacks is that they’re powerful enough that you’ll feel them right away, but they’ll also add up over time, slowly strengthening pathways that make your brain more resilient. Enjoy.

 

Polyphenols to keep your brain young

Right now, as you breathe, you’re flooding your system with oxygen, which your mitochondria (the power plants of your cells) latch onto and use to make fuel. They leave behind free radicals, the part of the oxygen they can’t use.

A few free radicals are good; they destroy damaged cells so you can replace them. But excess free radicals start attacking strong cells, causing inflammation and prematurely aging you. Chronic stress, toxins from smog and low-quality indoor air, mold, sugar, pesticides, and many other trappings of modern life produce free radicals at high enough levels to make you old fast.

The solution? Eat your veggies. All vegetables contain polyphenols that neutralize free radicals and prevent them from doing damage. Low inflammation boosts blood flow to your brain, providing it with the oxygen to make more energy [1]. Increased blood flow gives you stable energy and focus. Polyphenols also help you make more BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein dubbed “Miracle-Gro for the brain” that causes you to build new brain cells [2].

Dark green veggies are a good source of polyphenols. For an extra anti-inflammatory boost, add in dark red, purple, and blue plants. They tend to have the strongest polyphenols in the largest amounts. Here are some of the most powerful polyphenol sources:

  • Coffee is the densest source of polyphenols in the Western diet [3], with over a thousand different beneficial compounds in every cup [4]. It also has special polyphenols that protect high-fat cells, and your brain is made up of some of the fattiest cells in your body [5]. Coffee is strongly neuroprotective. No surprise that regular coffee drinkers have a significantly lower risk of death from all causes [6].
  • Green tea contains theanine and catechins, both of which prevent cognitive decline [7,8]. Theanine also improves attention and mood when you pair it with caffeine [9], so take your green tea caffeinated. You won’t find green tea’s polyphenols in coffee. Drink a cup of each for extra cognitive performance in the morning.
  • Blueberries get their deep blue color from anthocyanins, potent polyphenols that increase blood flow [10] and, in animals, dramatically increase lifespan [11]. Blueberry polyphenols also directly increase BDNF, helping you create new brain pathways [12]. Blueberries are fairly low in sugar, but they do still have a few grams, so stick to a couple of handfuls a day or find an extract.
  • Pomegranates contain ellagitannins, special polyphenols that get directly into your mitochondria and protect them from damage [13]. In addition to that, your gut bacteria break pomegranate down into something called urolithins that may protect the brain from cognitive decline [14]. Again, stick to a couple of handfuls of pomegranate seeds per day or a concentrate. Avoid popular juices that include pomegranate. Again, too much sugar.
  • Red cabbage contains anthocyanidins that are particularly powerful at curbing inflammation. They’re what give red cabbage its color; white or green cabbage doesn’t have the same powerful effect.

Most polyphenols are fat-soluble, so be sure you get them with a good dose of quality fat (that’s part of the idea behind Bulletproof Coffee).

Saturated fat to keep your brain cells insulated

Your brain is about 60% fat, 25% of which is cholesterol. If you’ve ever tried a low-fat diet and felt tired or unfocused all the time, you now know why: you’re starving your brain of one of its main components. No surprise that low cholesterol links to cognitive decline [12].

Brain cells send signals to each other along long branches. Many of the branches are covered in myelin sheaths, fatty coatings that insulate your brain cells so electrical signals travel faster across your brain. It’s similar to the way electricity travels through an insulated wire.

If your myelin start to break down, electrical communication in your brain slows. That’s when you start forgetting your keys and losing your train of thought. Myelin are made almost entirely out of cholesterol, which you get from saturated fat. Cholesterol is also the basis for all sex hormones: testosterone, estrogen, cortisol (which you want in healthy amounts), and so on. Give your body plenty of cholesterol to work with, and it will balance your hormones.

You don’t want to eat lots of carbs alongside saturated fat. Carbs cause oxidative inflammation that ultimately forms arterial plaques from saturated fat and cholesterol. In other words, it’s the inflammation from excess carbohydrates that weaken your heart, not the saturated fat alone. A high-fat, low-carb, anti-inflammatory diet is ideal for most people.

Here are some of the best sources of saturated fat and cholesterol:

  • Grass-fed butter. Kerrygold and Anchor are two great brands. Notice the sunny yellow color and creamy consistency – you can literally see the extra nutrients. White or waxy butter is a sign that the cow producing it ate a poor diet.
  • Pastured eggs. Again, look for a deep yellow or orange yolk. The shell should be difficult to crack, too – both are signs that the chicken producing the egg grew up on pasture eating grubs, wild seeds, and all kinds of other nutrient-dense goodies. Fun fact: chickens are surprisingly good hunters. They’ll chase down and eat field mice. “Vegetarian-fed” eggs are actually a bad sign, not a good one. Instead, look for “pasture-raised” on the label. Vital Farms sells excellent pasture-raised eggs.
  • Dark chocolate. Watch out for added sugar. The darker the better. Chocolate is full of polyphenols, too.
  • Grass-fed beef and lamb. Looking to save a few bucks? Go for the fattiest ground beef available. It tends to be the cheapest because most people still think fat is bad, not good. Take full advantage. 75% lean grass-fed ground beef makes a phenomenal burger. US Wellness Meats and Alderspring Ranch both sell superb grass-fed beef online.

 

Omega-3s for inflammation and brain structure

There are two types of omega-3s that offer powerful brain upgrades. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) competes with omega-6 fats, decreasing inflammation across your whole body, and your brain in particular. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the main structural component of your brain and central nervous system [13]. In fact, there’s strong evidence that high-DHA diets played a huge role in the evolution of the modern human brain [15].

DHA is one of the most important factors in sharp memory and brain cell integrity [16]. It’s also essential for mood: a global study on fish consumption, DHA levels, and depression showed that eating more DHA-rich fish correlates strongly with greater happiness [17]. It’s not a proven cause-effect relationship, but it’s compelling.

The third kind of omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the variety of omega-3 in plants. Your body can’t use ALA, so it converts it to DHA and EPA … but the conversion is inefficient [18]. You only convert about 6% of ALA to DHA/EPA. All those superfood companies boasting that their plant-based products are high in omega-3s are using deceptive marketing; with the exception of a couple of species of algae, plants only contain ALA, which doesn’t actually do you much good. Get your omega-3s from animal fats (or algae, if you’re vegetarian/vegan).

Here are top sources of omega-3s (DHA and EPA):

  • Wild-caught, low-mercury fish. Alaskan salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and trout are all good sources. Make sure they’re wild-caught, and if you get them canned, check that the cans are BPA-free.
  • Fish/krill oil. Krill oil tends to be a little better, but it’s also more expensive. Jarrow makes a good krill oil that’s sustainable. Surprisingly, Costco’s Kirkland brand krill oil is also solid, and it’s cheaper than most others.
  • Grass-fed organ meats are also high in omega-3s. Brains are by far the best source. Skip cow brain (the whole mad cow disease thing is troubling), but lamb brain is excellent if you can find it. Heart, liver, and kidney are also high in DHA and EPA. Make sure your organ meats are grass-fed. Here’s a guide to making them tasty.

Incorporating the above foods into your daily diet is a solid foundation for a fast, resilient brain. This article covers the tip of the iceberg: you can boost your brain even more by removing grains and carbs and fasting on occasion.

Want a complete guide to upgrading your brain?

Check out Head Strong, a practical guide to tweaking your diet, lifestyle, habits, environment, and more for the most powerful mind possible. 

 

References:

Click to read the complete list of references.

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By Bulletproof Staff

  • Pingback: Eat Fat, Drink Coffee for a High-Performance Brain - Belus Active()

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  • Geoff Reader

    I travel every week for work. I’m on the road and in different hotels basically Monday night – Thursday night. Does anyone have a blueprint to follow that’s worked for them for bringing grass-fed butter on the road with them and eating bulletproof in restaurants? I don’t have the luxury of eating my own food at home. I have to eat in restaurants all the time so I want to make sure I’m maximizing my bulletproof diet while on the road.

    Any suggestions will be appreciated.

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  • Jord

    what ironic, is that caffeine actually inhibits neurogenesis
    dont want to tell people that though, do we?

    that would be bad for business

    • That’s one reason I don’t recommend caffeine pills. But there’s a difference between pure caffeine and coffee. Coffee is the main dietary source of neurogenesis-promoting dietary polyphenols in the Western world. Add in the neuroprotective antioxidants and the wide array of studies that link regular coffee consumption to better cognitive function, and I’m comfortable saying coffee is good for your brain, not damaging to it.

  • David

    Dave,

    Have you ever tried a vegan diet for say, 6 months? I think that, if you did, you would see amazing health benefits. What do you have to lose? I mean, think about it: you’re dying anyway, right?

    To add, I think it would be really cool if you showed your blood test results before AND after going vegan. I’m fairly certain that if you approach it properly (get enough calories, all your macronutrients, etc.) you would have dramatically better blood biomarkers (lower cholesterol, lower triglycerides, lower IGF-1, etc.).

    If you prefer to eat meat because of the taste and simply don’t care about the health aspect, then fine- more power to you. It’s a free country. But if you’re REALLY interested in health, I offer you a friendly challenge to, at the very least, give it a try.

    I’m 99.99999% sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your blood biomarkers and energy levels if you make the switch.

    Cheers,

    David

    • Hey David,

      I did raw veganism for a good long while, back before I developed the Bulletproof Diet. It tanked my energy and screwed up my hormones, and I developed a lot of food allergies. Everyone’s biology is different, though, and I’m happy it’s working for you. Follow whatever boosts your performance.

      That said, I issue you a friendly challenge in return: try eating Bulletproof for 6 months and see how you feel. I’m 99.99999% sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your blood biomarkers and energy levels if you make the switch 😉

    • Pizza Hut

      Do you not read his blog or listen to his podcast? He stated his reasons for raw veganism countless number of times.

    • Wombat Hunter

      I’m 99.99999% sure you’re incapable of hearing an alternative viewpoint because you’re a vegan and unbelievably annoying. Dave is one of the many who’s tried veganism only to move toward a diet that isn’t based in fairy tales.

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