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My mind is still blown after attending the Dataessentials’ Foodscapes event in Chicago a couple of weeks back.  It was a fantastic meeting of the minds on technology, wellness, product innovation and the future of food. (As a side note, definitely check back for future posts as I unravel some of the lessons learned at the meeting, including personalized nutrition, AI and cannabis gone mainstream). I’ve been obsessed with learning more about nutrition for peak performance so Max Lugovere’s talk on Genius Foods (where he uncovers the top 10 foods that are most protective against cognitive decline) was right up my alley (more on that later).

Over the course of my career I’ve seen health trends come and go.  People are talking a lot less about heart disease, even though it’s the nation’s number one cause of death and has been since mid-20th century.  (A combination of advances in science, fewer smokers and more pharmaceuticals can partly explain this reduction.) By the mid 2010’s, gut health was coined the new “Frontier in Medicine” as scientists started understanding how central the microbiome is to wellbeing and prevention of chronic disease.  So what’s next?

‘Brain Health’ Emerges As The Next Trend in Health

While gut health is likely here to stay for a while, brain health is emerging as the next big trend in health and it already has shown strong penetration. According to Research and Markets, the Global Brain Health market was valued at 2.3 billion in 2015, and is expected to reach 11.6 billion by 2024, increasing 19.6% from 2016 to 2024.

Brain health is on a lot of brains these days, and for good reason.  After listening to Max’s talk I did a quick Google search and came across this stunning statistic from the Alzheimer’s Association.  Between 2000 and 2015, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease increased 123 percent, while deaths from heart disease (remember, the #1 cause of death) actually decreased 11 percent.  WOW.  The higher mortality rate due to Alzheimer’s is due in part to an aging boomer population as well as more practitioners reporting the disease as a cause of death, but it’s only a partial explanation for this emerging health trend.   

Medical providers have known of the strong association between dementia, early onset Alzheimer’s and diabetes, which is increasingly referred to as Type 3 Diabetes.   Insulin resistance, characterized by elevated blood sugar is at the heart of diabetes and may contribute to brain cells deprived of glucose they need to function, causing damage that begins as early as young adulthood.  An ever-expanding supply of processed foods filled with too much added salt, sugar and fat continues to drive rates of Type 2 Diabetes sky high.  Just as nutrition is central to the prevention and management of heart disease, so too will it be an important strategy in supporting brain health and slowing cognitive decline that comes with aging (especially as it relates to chronically elevated blood sugar levels).

Neuro-Hacking Peak Performance

And beyond those who could benefit from lifestyle changes to slow down brain degeneration, there is another contingent singularly focused on optimizing brain health.  Neurohackers intent on achieving peak performance have already maxed out the potential for healthy lifestyle (ie. healthy diet, mindfulness, exercise) to improve cognition.  

These folks are looking for an edge and finding it with nootropics. According to Drew Ramsey, MD a Columbia University Psychiatrist, “first yoga and meditation were everywhere as life-optimizing tools that helped us cope with stress, and this is a natural progression of the wellness movement. The brain runs the show. Mood, focus, creativity, and confidence are all brain phenomena…the intense, high-tech times we now live in have made these harder to come by.”

Nootropics, Greek for “mind change”, are “smart drugs” or supplements intended to enhance mental function.  There is a growing body of research on their effectiveness. Caffeine is one of the more well-known, mainstream nootropics out there shown to improve mood, focus and concentration in some (while others experience jitters and a surge in blood pressure…(know thyself!). As always, before spending too much money on supplements that may not make sense, best to do your research and check in with trusted medical professionals before initiating supplementation.

Neuro-Hacking with Food

So I always recommend food first, before supplementation. It’s also important to consider the entire context of the diet (instead of relying too heavily on supposed “superfoods”). Ideally, a varied diet rich in whole, unprocessed plant-based foods, experts agree will serve us well.  That said, there are plenty of foods to include regularly that contain specific compounds our brain’s need to thrive. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Kale (and all deep green leafy’s): You may be tired of hearing about kale and the other brassicas, but they truly are foods to embrace, especially when it comes to maintaining brain function.  This study concluded that just 1 serving per day of deep green leafy’s rich in compounds phylloquinone, lutein, nitrate, folate, α-tocopherol, and kaempferol may help to slow cognitive decline with aging.

Wild salmon:  I can see that my body and brain loves this food just by seeing its effects on my complexion!  Salmon contains DHA and EPA, two important essential fatty acids that our body must obtain through the diet. Since these powerful anti-inflammatory compounds are not readily available in most foods, many people fall short.  Research points to their ability to aid depression and prevent cognitive decline.

Lion’s Mane: This edible and medicinal mushroom (it can be eaten whole or cooked) is becoming more mainstream and you’ll continue to see it in functional foods, such as teas and coffee beverages.  Lion’s Mane contains 2 active compounds that stimulate brain cell growth and one study showed that 3g of dry powder administered to the elderly for 4 months showed a dramatic improvement in cognitive functioning. These shrooms can be enjoyed cooked, like this recipe for Lion’s Mane Mushrooms and Garlic,  or boiled and steeped in tea.

Avocado:  Our brain is made of mostly fat (60%!) so it makes sense that it functions best on a steady supply of good, healthy fats.  Avocado ranks high as an exceptional source and it’s versatile; include it as a spread, sandwich or salad topper or blended in a salad dressing.

Broccoli:  This one often gets overlooked, but as a member of the sulforaphanes, a fancy name for phytochemicals that are rich in sulfur (you know it when you smell it) broccoli contains what’s been called, “the mother of all antioxidants”).  Glutathione is responsible for the cellular detoxification of reactive oxygen species in brain cells. Our body’s can produce it, however we first need to obtain its building blocks, the sulfur containing foods like broccoli and brussels sprouts, through our diet.

Sally the Robot Fuels Chowbotics For Greatness

Once again, we should not underestimate the power of good nutrition to help prevent most progressive conditions like Alzheimer’s while supporting us in achieving our peak potential.  Starting on the right path as early as possible can be the difference maker in the quality of our adult, aging lives. While there are key foods that can elevate our diets, it all comes down to choices that include plenty of vibrantly colored fruits and veggies, fiber-full carbs and healthy oils.  Sally the Robot makes fresh brain foods accessible daily and keeps the Chowbotics team moving at lightning speed. And as the company nutritionist, I feel just a little responsible for making sure we are fueling our amazing team for greatness. #winningwithSally