How to Build a Healthy Brain – Part 3: Nutrition

In Part 1 we discussed how exercise can affect brain health and in part 2 we looked at the importance of sleep.

Continuing our series on brain health we will be looking at a very important factor…nutrition. We decided to reach out to one of our colleagues in the field, Dr. Rosalyn Hayman, to discuss how nutrition affects our brains.


Dr Rosalyn Hayman, B.Sc, ND

The type of food and nutrients you’re eating, how much of it, and at what time of day all seem to have an impact on your brain function. So if you are worried about your memory or just aren’t feeling sharp, read on!

Sugar and Fat

Oregon State researchers recently demonstrated that a diet high in both sugar and fat leads to cognitive changes in the brain. Specifically they found that eating high amounts of simple sugars and fat impaired both short term and long term memory, and also the ability of the brain to adapt to new situations. This is the typical diet that most Westerners follow – bagels with jam, hamburger with french fries, ice cream, etc.

We have known for a long time now that the gut and the brain are constantly sending signals to each other. This research is expanding on that, and found that when sugar and fat are consumed it changes the bacteria in a person’s intestines, which then alters brain signals!

Omega 3

The brain is a very fatty organ. Not surprising then that healthy fats have been shown to be vital in keeping the brain in good form. Mainly we’re talking about Omega 3 EPA and DHA from wild salmon, sardines, makerel and trout.

People with high levels of trans fats, an unhealthy type of fat found in packaged baked goods as well as fast, fried and frozen foods, scored lower on thinking and memory tests than those with low trans fat levels. Trans fats are also found in some types of margarine and have been banned in some locales.

B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E

People who had high blood levels of these nutrients scored better on thinking tests than those who had low blood levels of these nutrients. Their brains also showed less shrinkage, a sign of brain health.

Other studies have shown that deficiencies in individual nutrients, like vitamin B12, can lead to memory problems. And anyone with memory problems should be tested for that and other vitamin levels because blood measurements are considered more reliable than questionnaires to assess people’s

Vitamin B: There are many types of B vitamins, and all are important for nerve and brain health. B12 in particular has been shown to be protective against memory problems. B12 deficiency is VERY COMMON in society, for reasons like vegetarianism, poor absorption, and diabetes medications.  If you lose the ability to absorb B12 from foods, supplementation or injection is crucial. B12 is found in meats and other animal foods like fish, eggs and cheese. Some cereals are fortified with B vitamins as well.

Vitamin C: Most people know vitamin C from orange juice, but it’s also found in broccoli, red peppers, dark green vegetables, strawberries and kiwifruits.

Vitamin D: Called the sunshine vitamin because people make it through the skin on exposure to sunlight. MOST Canadians are low in vitamin D, especially older people, and therefor need to supplement. Milk has added vitamin D, but it’s also found in fatty fish.

Vitamin E: Since vitamin E is stored in fat, you don’t want to overload on it. But it is found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, leafy greens and whole grains. Wheat germ is also an excellent source of vitamin E.

Intermittent Fasting

“IF” is a pattern of eating where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. For some this means eating only between 11am and 7pm, for others it may mean drinking only water one day each week. IF is being shown to decrease insulin levels which decreases brain inflammation and potentially allows for more brain cell rejuvination.

Caloric Restriction

Dietary restriction is the most powerful natural means to extend lifespan. The best example of this is the Okinawan people in Japan who have the longest life span and lowest rates of heart disease, etc.  Major credit to this end is given to their strict abiding the to philosphy of only eating until they are 80% full.

Short term studies in humans have shown that consuming fewer calories lowers insulin and inflammation, which is important because insulin and inflammation cause cognitive decline. People consuming fewer calories (no less than 1200 calories/day to prevent malnourishment)  had better recall of words and made fewer errors on memory tests.

Eat smart and your brain will thank you for it!

About the author – Dr Rosalyn Hayman is a Naturopathic doctor and the clinic director at Halifax Naturopathic Health Centre. Her areas of clinical focus include gastrointestinal disorders, low energy, and hormone health including thyroid dysfunction, PMS and fertility. 


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Bedford, NS B3J 3T1

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Halifax, NS B3J 3T1

Phone: (902) 405‑3661


Click here to see reviews




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