Food for Brain

by Olga Ivanov, MS, RD, CDN, RYT

We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are.” – Adelle Davis, an American author and foremost nutritionist.

by Olga Ivanov, MS, Nutritionist, RD, CDN, RYT

"We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are." – Adelle Davis, an American author and foremost nutritionist.

From time immemorial, people worldwide have been aware that food could affect general health, emotional well-being, mood, and even libido. Nowadays, the scientific community is driven by experimental research, observational studies and data analysis investigating how nutrition influences every aspect of our lives. Although, within the last few decades, there has been an increase in life expectancy secondary to medical and pharmaceutical advancements, our brains oftentimes cannot keep up with our longer-living bodies. Yet people of young and middle ages become increasingly aware of cognitive health, which includes the ability to learn and remember new things, organizing and planning, decision making, and judgment to keep up with our highly demanding modern world. 

Many factors influence our cognition throughout our life span. Some of them we may not modify, such as heredity or age. However, we do have the power to better our lifestyles, habits, and diets so that they will positively affect our physical, emotional and cognitive health.

How can nutrition influence our brain function? Let's talk about our brains. It is a fatty organ that is comprised of nearly 100 billion brain cells - neurons. Our neuron membranes need essential fatty acids (those that come from the diet) to keep them flexible. These are the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (FA). Good sources of omega-6 FA are seed and nut oils, such as safflower, grape seed, sunflower, and walnut oils. In addition, these oils have a high smoking point and are suitable for cooking rather than olive oil, which, when heated, turns into carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. 

Omega-3 FA are found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, herrings, sardines, and cod liver. Seeds such as flax, chia seeds, and walnuts are another rich source of omega-3 FA, especially for vegans and vegetarians. Moreover, omega-3 FA are well-known precursors for anti-inflammatory agents and today, we know that inflammation is at the core of virtually most health-threatening diseases, including neurological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal disorders, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis, just to mention a few. Hence, 2-3 servings of fish per week, a handful of nuts daily over our salad or as a snack, and two tablespoons of seeds in your morning oatmeal, a smoothie, or a yogurt cup will provide you with essential fatty acids that will keep your brain cell membranes fluid and flexible.

Free radicals are molecules that oxidize (damage) our DNA, eventually leading to disease and aging, and are inevitable byproducts of cellular metabolism. That is why anti-oxidant foods have lately gained popularity. They are found in green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage family), nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, citrus fruit, berries, and dark chocolate. Therefore, it is essential that we consume these foods daily. It is not clear how these compounds affect cognition, but they certainly reduce oxidative stress and damage while protecting our DNA and cellular integrity.

Moreover, a diet rich in colorful vegetables will provide your body with essential vitamins and minerals for the formation of myelin, a protein that insulates brain cells (neuron's axons) so that they can communicate properly, forming new networks (learning a new skill). Iodine is another important counter-partner in myelin synthesis and is found in sea vegetables. One can incorporate iodine into the diet by adding various seaweeds into soups, salads, or snacks.

On the other hand, the primary source of energy for the brain is glucose. However, one should avoid refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta and rice. Even whole wheat bread and pasta should be consumed in moderation. Another way to provide our brain and red blood cells (which rely exclusively on glucose for energy) is to incorporate whole grains into the diet by consuming foods such as oatmeal, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, brown rice, and amaranth. These grains are not just good sources of complex carbohydrates that fuel our brain while keeping us full longer but also provide us with essential amino acids and vitamins and minerals crucial for neurogenesis (formation of the new neurons).

Health experts recommend a balanced diet that provides healthy nutrients from the real foods you eat and Hippocrates' famous quote, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," puts it all in perspective.

The Cholesterol Debate

by Olga Ivanov, MS, RD, CDN, RYT

I was trained academically and clinically that elevated serum cholesterol level, especially LDL level (aka bad cholesterol), is one of the primary risk factors for the onset of cardiovascular diseases (CVD), the number one killer in the United States.

This whole dogma was built on the studies from the 80s’, which found a correlational relationship between elevated cholesterol levels and CVDs rather than causational. What about lack of exercise, stress, poor diet, and sleep? Why were those factors taken out of the equation and cholesterol got all the blame?

Then this idea was picked up by the pharmaceutical industry and for decades, we have had treatment in place – statins. The side effects of statins are underrated! I think we will have a whole generation of people dealing with health issues related to statin use. I worked at the nursing home where I saw hundreds of residents on statins, with “controlled” levels of cholesterol, living with Dementia and yet still dying from strokes and heart attacks.

We need cholesterol. It is an essential component of each cell’s membrane, it is a base ingredient for many hormones, and our immune cells rely on it in fighting off infections. If you are concerned about your lipid profile and considering statins, please feel free to reach out, so we can together come up with lifestyle modifications that can help you stay healthy and enjoy the foods you love!

Managing Your Hormones Through Your Diet

by Olga Ivanov, MS, RD, CDN, RYT

Hormone fluctuations during your menstrual cycle affect many aspects of your life, such as your mood, appetite, and energy levels. I specialize in mid-life woman’s nutrition and would like to share some tips on optimizing your well-being and possibly reducing PMS symptoms by aligning your diet with your menstrual cycle. 

Our menstrual cycle (typically 28 days) is divided into menstrual (day 1-5), follicular (day 6-14), ovulatory (day 15-17), and luteal (day 18-28) phases. I recommend avoiding alcohol, fatty and salty foods, and caffeine during the menstrual phase.  Drink soothing herbal teas like red raspberry leaf, peppermint, chamomile, and thyme to reduce menstrual cramping.

The follicular phase and ovulation are governed by estrogen, which is metabolized in the liver. During this time, increasing plant foods intakes,  such as green leafy vegetables (dandelion greens, swiss chard, endives, microgreens, mustard greens, beet greens, spring mix, etc.), fruit, berries, nuts, and seeds, along with fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, scoutcraft,  and tempeh will help your liver and gastrointestinal tract to detoxify estrogen metabolites. 

Progesterone is peaking around day 21 (luteal phase), and foods that are rich sources of Vit C and B, zinc, and magnesium will be beneficial one week before your period. These are whole grains (oats, quinoa, buckwheat), greens (arugula, kale, broccoli, watercress), nuts, and pumpkin seeds.  Eat foods promoting happy hormone serotonin synthesis, such as organic grass-fed beef, poultry, wild salmon, eggs, and cheese. 

See if these recommendations affect how you feel throughout your cycle. I always ask my client to listen to their bodies because all the answers are within.