Healthy Gut, Healthy Brain
Eight Steps to a Well-Nourished Brain

You may have heard that a happy tummy equals a happy brain. That’s because our gut is home to the trillions of bacteria and other micro-organisms that make up our microbiome. The vast majority of gut bacteria are beneficial to our health – they help us digest food, power up our metabolism, and even produce some essential vitamins. Additionally, gut flora acts as a mighty warrior on behalf of the immune system, defending us against the harmful microbes that cause inflammation. New research reveals that our microbiome is also involved in several aspects of brain health and behavior, especially in our reaction to stress and anxiety, while at the same time supporting brain longevity. There are several things we can do to return the favor and support our microbiome in turn.

Step 1: Manage your carbs

There are three rules to eating carbs:

  • Vegetables and fruits are carbs. Vegetables should make up half of your plate at any given meal.
  • Whole grains are in; refined grains (white flour, white pasta, and white bread) are out.
  • Legumes and starches like sweet potatoes are excellent sources of good carbs.

Step 2: Enjoy Phytoestrogens

For women, estrogens are paramount to maintain a healthy land balanced life. Plants offer a vegetable version of estrogens – phytoestrogen – that are usable in our human bodies. 

Soy is the greatest source for phytoestrogens. Research has showed the positive effects of soy on menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. However, soy has become one of the most controversial foods on the planet. You will find it promoted as a healthy superfood one minute and blacklisted as a cancer-inducing poison the next. This deserves a double take since Asian women eat soy regularly and are four times less likely to get breast cancer as their Western counterparts. Current scientific evidence suggest that moderate consumption of soy foods is unlikely to have adverse effects on hormonal balance on individuals who are not allergic to soy.

Step 3: Protect your brain with antioxidants

Of all of the organs in the body, the brain is the one that suffers most from oxidative stress. However, there are solutions: enter antioxidants! Among the most powerful antioxidants are vitamins C, E and A – beta carotene. Research show that a diet rich in these antioxidants is associated with steady brain energy levels and fewer Alzheimer’s plaques. 

Doctors are learning that one of the best ways to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation lies not in the medicine cabinet, but in the refrigerator. Plant-based foods make up the bulk of the best antioxidant available to us. Fruits such as berries, oranges, grapefruits, and apples are excellent sources of these nutrients. Extra-virgin olive oil and flaxseed oil are loaded with vitamin E while also acting as excellent anti-inflammatories.

Step 4: Choose the right fats

Both type and source (rather than the amount) of fats are key when assessing health risks. Does the fat you’re eating come primarily from fruits, vegetables, and seeds, or from animal sources? If from animal sources, is it from fatty fish like salmon, or is it from fried bacon? Does it come from fresh, homemade food or from a box? 

The rule is simple: do not eat processed foods! Processed foods are the richest source of harmful fats, called trans fats, the worst type of fat on the planet. Processed foods are proven to increase the risks of dementia, heart disease, and breast cancer. We need and deserve access to healthy foods that nourish us instead of making us sick. 

Foods that contain omega-3 are specifically good and highly anti-inflammatory. They also preserve the brain, the breast and bone health. Well-selected fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, albacore tuna, anchovies, and sardines) are our best sources of omega-3. Recent research show that regular fish consumption is crucial for brain health. If fish is not an option, there are other ways to get your omega-3s. Flaxseeds and chia seeds are good alternatives, as well as olives and their oils, almonds, avocados and soybeans.

Step 5: Feed your microbes.

In order to keep your gut healthy, you should feed it with: 

Fiber-rich foods. Healthy digestion is essential to removing waste, harmful toxins, and bad bacteria. When your diet is low in fiber (and high in processed meats and other foods), the harmful bacteria in your gut end up outnumbering the good ones. When this happens, the bad bacteria can hijack your brain leading to feeling emotional, anxious, depressed, and even forgetful.

  • These are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as “fertilizer” for good gut bacteria. Garlic, onions, asparagus, cabbage, leeks, bananas, and artichokes are all great sources as well variety of legumes like beans and lentils in particular.
  • These are live bacteria that replenish our microbiome with good guys. You can find them in fermented and cultured foods like yogurt of pickles. If yogurt is more appealing to you, choose carefully. Most commercial yogurts are full of artificial colors, sugars, and additives. Instead of delivering any health benefits, these products may end up nourishing the disease-causing bacteria in your gut instead. Plan, full-fat, probiotic-rich yogurt is the only yogurt worth eating.

Step 6: Alcohol and Coffee… Drink Water

As we get older, our liver begins to slow down. This results in a slower metabolism, which in turn raises our cortisol level, the stress hormone. This hormone can ruin your sleep, up your weight, and turn the cranky on. 

For most people, a glass of red wine does not hurt. Red wine has protective effects for the brain, thanks to its high level of potent antioxidant. Same for coffee. Moderate – and only moderate – coffee intake may promote a healthy brain and reduce folic acid. Moderate means that coffee has positive effects is its consumption is less than 300mg of caffeine a day, which is the equivalence of a single expresso or two small cups of regular coffee (6 to 8 ounces). The type of coffee you drink also matters. Freshly brewed expresso has the highest antioxidant capacity among all beverages, whereas instant coffee is no more than a chemical concoction to be avoided at all costs. Adding things to your coffee, tons of sugars or creamers, is also a no-no. If you really need sweeteners, add honey or coconut sugar. Go for fresh full-fat milk instead of processed creamers. 

The brain is 80 percent of water. Every chemical reaction that takes place in the brain depends on water. The brain is so sensitive to dehydration that even a minimal lack of water can cause symptoms like brin fog, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, headache, and most alarming, brain shortage. It is important to appreciate how quickly dehydration can occur. Simply going four to six hours without water can cause dehydration, and therefore, those neurological symptoms in turn. The well-known recommendation to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Or about two liters, is backed by research that shows that this simple practice will not only maintain proper percentage of bodily fluids in your system, but also can speed up your reaction time and cognitive performance by up to 30 percent.

Step 7: Go organic as much as you can

Pesticide exposure and any kind of chemicals have been associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer. Food colorants, insecticides, pesticides, skin care, building supplies, all these chemicals can be found in our diets. Paying attention to our food choices is a significant first step to avoiding contamination and thereby protecting our bodies, our brains, and our hormones. According to some research, organic food tests at higher nutritional levels than its conventional counterpart. In absence of pesticides and fertilizers, plants naturally multiply their vitamins and minerals. Therefore, they become more resistant to bugs and weeds. As you eat these more resistant plants, you too benefit from this same protection.

Step 8: Eat Less

New research indicates that reducing our caloric intake can boost cognitive capacity, reduce cellular aging, and promote longevity. For almost a century, scientific data have showed that stressing our bodies and brains via calorie restriction pushes our cells to grow stronger rand more resilient. Just as muscles get stronger the greater resistance, so do your brain cells strengthen as they resist hunger. Caloric restriction also boosts the brain antioxidant defense system.  

One efficient way to consume fewer calories and maintain nutritional quality is to increase the consumption of low-glycemic fruit, vitamin-rich vegetables, lean proteins, and essential fats, while reducing sugary, fatty, and processed foods.  

Dr. Judith Ryba

Dr. Judith Ryba

Hi I'm Dr. Judith. I am a certified Life Coach in Nutrition and Emotional Eating. I help women of all ages find pleasure in food while maintaining healthy eating habits. I am passionate about creating a safe and supportive space for women to honor their needs. I believe food is one of the greatest pleasures in life but also a great healer.

Dr. Judith Ryba - PhD

Coaching in Nutrition and Emotional Eating