Nutrition Meets Neurology: How To Eat For Your Brain

A cartoon brain is being lifted out of a frying pan with a spatula. We examine the relationship between nutrition and neurology.

Approaching nutrition with the specific purpose of maintaining a healthy brain can help you sidestep common headaches, severe migraines, and even strokes. Photo by Anshita Nair on Unsplash.

Mind Your Mind

Whether or not you suffer personally from severe headaches, migraines, or— more extremely have suffered a stroke or strokes, it is common knowledge that a malfunctioning mind can have a hugely negative impact on your life. Many factors contribute to the propagation of these conditions— genetics, hormones, exercise habits, anxiety, sleep debt, and the like— but in this article, we will further explore the relationship between human neurological fallout and food.

They say, “you are what you eat.” We are taking that statement and zooming waaaay in, looking at how your munchies could alter the molecular activity of your brain.

Nutrition Meets Neurology

We all know diet is one of the star players in every preventative health regimen, significantly lowering one’s chances of headache, migraine, and stroke. Specifically, with migraine and stroke-prone individuals (like me), it’s vital to approach eating to maintain proper circulation to the brain and keep blood vessels wide and clear. Some vitamins and minerals that can help achieve this are…

  • Magnesium. Getting enough magnesium in one’s diet is essential for regulating blood vessels and maintaining a healthy nervous system. Why? According to this article, when the body produces energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (or ATP, the body’s “energy currency”), it requires magnesium ions in order to enter our cells. Without magnesium to make those connections, energy is wasted, and our brains suffer lapses in cognition and memory while its vessels become increasingly inflamed. Inflammation restricts blood flow which leads to clotting which leads to migraines which can become strokes—bad news all around! A few magnesium-rich foods include nuts like almonds, cashews, and peanuts, seeds like pumpkin seeds, leafy greens like spinach and kale, and whole grains like quinoa.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids. The scientists behind this article posit that Omega-3s— healthy fats found in fish like salmon and mackerel— have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks by inhibiting the “release of inflammatory cytokines.” While more research is necessary before any conclusions are drawn, most nutritionists regard Omega-3 Fatty Acids as beneficial to many of our body’s systems. They keep our hearts healthy, synapses firing, and may even help prevent conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  • H2O. Unfortunately, most humans are chronically dehydrated, so it’s easy to imagine how dehydration could be considered a common migraine trigger. Staying well-hydrated is crucial to having a well-functioning everything, nervous system included. Specialists claim that “prolonged dehydration causes brain cells to shrink,” contributing to the development of “depression, fatigue, sleep issues,” memory loss, cognitive impairment, and, you guessed it, headaches! Drinking caffeine-free herbal teas and eating water-rich fruits and vegetables can help maintain proper hydration if you are not a big water fan.
  • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2). According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, riboflavin “works to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation of nerves, which are contributors to migraine headaches,” and that “the vitamin is also needed for normal mitochondrial activities” as “migraines are sometimes caused by mitochondrial abnormalities in the brain.” Incorporating foods like lean, responsibly sourced meats, dairy products, certain types of mushrooms, and leafy greens into your diet can help up your B2 levels and keep that mind of yours crystal clear.

Making A Happy Brain

Creating a healthy nervous system is not as simple as input. It is also critical to…

  1. Limit Sodium. Reducing your sodium intake can help lower blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for strokes. Much like sugar, there can be hidden excesses of sodium in the processed and pre-packaged foods you buy, so be mindful! If you find that your food is lacking flavor after a salt cut, experiment with different spices like garlic powder and curry to bring some of that oomph back.
  2. Limit Alcohol. In large amounts, alcohol triggers a bodily reaction known as vasoconstriction. This response is where your blood vessels (including those in the brain) become narrow, increasing your blood pressure. In addition, Brain&Life— a blog detailing neurological breakthroughs affiliated with the American Academy of Neurology— claims that “alcohol also can reduce magnesium levels, which may explain why it can be a migraine trigger.”
  3. Limit Caffeine. Like alcohol, caffeine is a vasoconstrictor. In a study done to examine the relationship between caffeine use and cerebral blood flow, researchers found that blood flow was reduced by 27% across their test subjects after use. This reaction may be a no-brainer, but friends, brains need a steady flow of blood to work! Even though the 27% reduction their test subjects experienced was only temporary, it is troubling to think that your coffee or energy drink consumption could reduce your brain’s ability to function properly by nearly a third. If you find yourself tapped for energy, there are options with less risk, like getting more sleep, drinking a glass of cold water, or doing some peppy stretching.
  4. Avoid Trigger Foods. For headache-prone individuals, certain foods like processed meats, aged cheeses, and artificial sweeteners can trigger migraine attacks. If you are among them, it may be beneficial to keep a food journal, writing down what you eat, when you eat it, and how you feel afterward. This technique can help you notice patterns you would otherwise miss and safely sidestep any common causes.

The Takeaway

Preventing headaches, migraine attacks, and strokes necessitates taking a holistic approach to health, with nutrition playing a significant role. By incorporating recommended foods into your diet and avoiding your triggers, you can reduce your risk and improve your overall well-being. Remember that a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management, complements a balanced diet.

As always, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance, especially if you have specific health concerns or dietary restrictions.

If you are interested in reading more about all things brainy, check out my article on a strange new way people are preventing their migraines here.

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About Cristin Dickey

Born in Maryland, raised in Texas, and educated in Utah, Cristin is a purveyor of stories from all widths and walks of life.  With a background in filmmaking and a staunch passion for literature, she aspires to give digital spaces a uniquely human touch.

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