We all use our brain intensively. Reading, writing, learning, synthesizing and making decisions are part of our daily lives. Learn about the six micronutrients that are most important for optimized brain health and the therapeutic nutrients you can add to your routine.
We could spend many episodes on this, but today we’ll consider basic and therapeutic nutrients to optimize brain health. I’ll also talk a little bit about some other things you can think about with regard to your diet and lifestyle if you’re trying to optimize your brain health and I’ll direct you to some resources where you can learn more about those things.
In this episode:
5:36 What Chris ate for lunch
12:50 Micronutrients that optimize brain health
22:13 Therapeutic nutrients that affect brain health
24:41 The Paleo Cure bonus chapters and supplement guides
26:46 Lifestyle tips that support brain health
Steve Wright: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. You are listening to the Revolution Health Radio show. I’m your host, Steve Wright, co-author at SCDlifestyle.com. If you don’t know, this episode of RHR is brought to you by 14Four.me. If you’re starting out this New Year, you’re not sleeping correctly, maybe you’re carrying a little extra weight from the holidays, a little acid reflux from all the stress, 14Four.me might be the program for you. In this program, it’s a 14-day lifestyle reset, diet reset, movement reset, and stress reset program that Chris has put together, where you’re actually handholding and it’s much simpler than that long line that I just put together to try to tell you about this course. It’s actually pretty simple. It really helps with integrating new healthy habits and sort of changing around your health. So if you haven’t, go check out 14Four.me. Check out the program that Chris has put together. Moving on to the podcast, Chris Kresser, you are the integrative medical practitioner, healthy skeptic, and New York Times bestselling author. Welcome.
Chris Kresser: Hey, Steve. How’s it going?
Steve Wright: I’m enjoying my day today.
Chris Kresser: Sounds like it. You might have had a couple extra cups of coffee.
Steve Wright: I am coffee-free!
Chris Kresser: Or you’re just high on life?
Steve Wright: I am high on life and maybe a little bit of spearmint green tea that I just chugged.
Chris Kresser: Hey, if that’s your vice, you’re doing pretty well.
Steve Wright: Yeah, man. I got into tea. I’ve got all these cool, like turmeric ginger ones and yerba mate, and just playing around with them.
Chris Kresser: Have you tried pu-erh?
Steve Wright: I do have a little bit of it.
Chris Kresser: It’s one of my favorites.
Steve Wright: One packet tastes like licking the ground.
Chris Kresser: Dirt.
Steve Wright: Yeah. The other one tastes pretty delicious.
Chris Kresser: You have to like the bitter taste to go for pu-erh. But I found that it has a really kind of mentally-clarifying effect without giving me the jitters, which I can get if I have too much caffeine. That’s actually relevant to the topic that we’re going to be talking about today. But yeah, it’s fun. I’ve been a tea connoisseur for a long time. We actually have a store down in Berkeley, the entire store is devoted to tea. They have a tea bar. You can go sit there and sample tea. You know, each tea has a proper method of preparation, the proper water temperature, and the amount of time it should steep. It’s really cool. They don’t do the full tea ceremony experience, but they do at least part of the ritual. That’s part of what I like about it.
Steve Wright: Yeah. That’s basically what I asked for for Christmas from all my family and friends, “Give me some different, cool loose-leaf teas.” Then I had the kettle, but I needed the rest of the apparatuses.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. Do you have a programmable kettle, where you can dial in the temperature?
Steve Wright: Oh, no. This is the next level.
Chris Kresser: Sorry, sorry! I have that for making coffee and tea, because I’ve gotten pretty into coffee too with the pour-over method.
Steve Wright: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Then I have a burr grinder and a kettle with a special pour spout. It’s programmable, so you can dial in 205 degrees. Then press the hold button, and it just brings it to 205. It holds it there. If you’re doing something else, you can come back. You know, different teas, like black tea, you steep at a higher temperature, then the green tea lower, and then white tea even lower still. It’s a whole new world, Steve.
Steve Wright: Oh, man. Well, I’ve been doing the AeroPress and the hand grind for coffee for a long time.
Chris Kresser: I just stepped it up from that. I was doing the AeroPress and the home burr grinder, the hand one. I’m now using the Kalita Wave.
Steve Wright: Sounds Egyptian. It must be cool.
Chris Kresser: It’s a pour-over filter. It’s Japanese.
Steve Wright: Oh!
Chris Kresser: Almost all the good coffee tools are. Then I finally broke down and got the electric burr grinder for home, just to speed things up a bit. Then there’s this amazing coffee store in downtown Berkeley, right in the same place as the tea store, called Artís. They roast right on the spot.
Steve Wright: Oh, wow!
Chris Kresser: So you order coffee, and they will literally just roast it right in front of you, give it to you. It’s so fresh that I actually recommend you wait for a couple of days before you consume it. They’ve got all kinds of organic and fair trade varieties. They have a coffee-tasting bar. They do classes on how to do the pour-over method correctly. They have little handouts that they give for each brewing device, like the Kalita Wave or the AeroPress. I can see we might need to do an episode on coffee and tea making.
Steve Wright: We could, we could.
Chris Kresser: This isn’t the intended topic, but I can see there’s a lot to say and people might have questions.
Steve Wright: They might. They might want to know about Ethiopian coffee and lots of other fun coffee.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
What Chris Ate for Lunch
Steve Wright: Without further ado—we’ve since moved our podcast recording time to a little later in the afternoon. So Chris, what did you have for lunch today?
Chris Kresser: Elanne, my wife, made a really delicious kind of chicken curry dish in the slow cooker last night. So I had that. I had some salad and a little bit of white rice with the chicken curry. That was it. You know, Steve, we were trying to figure out why my video looks like somebody just painted light gray over my entire situation here. I think it might be the time of day.
Steve Wright: Oh!
Chris Kresser: We usually do this in the morning, and the sun is in a different position coming through the window. It’s very bright and sunny outside, but the sun is kind of behind a tree right now.
Steve Wright: Very serious right now. You’re businesslike.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, cold and serious. Anyhow, we’ve got a really good topic for the show here. This question is from Julia. Let’s give it a listen.
Julia: Hi, Chris. I recently started working on my PhD, and my life revolves around reading, learning, and memorizing. I already follow Your Personal Paleo Code guidelines, but considering how heavy the mental workload currently is, I was wondering if you had any specific advice on how to modify diet to enhance cognitive function. Any tips on what to eat and possible supplements to take to help with focus and memory? Thanks.
Chris Kresser: This is a great question, one that’s near and dear to my heart—or brain, I should say. It’s something I think a lot about. We all use our brain intensively, but I do a lot of reading, learning, and memorizing. Maybe not so much memorizing now, but reading, learning, writing, synthesizing, and researching. That’s pretty much how I spend my days.
Steve Wright: It’s not taking barista classes?
Chris Kresser: Yeah. Well, that’s what I do in my spare time.
Steve Wright: Oh, okay.
Chris Kresser: I’m an aspiring barista, Steve.
Steve Wright: I knew it!
Chris Kresser: One day, you’re going to walk into a Starbucks and see me behind the counter there.
Steve Wright: I knew it.
Chris Kresser: Let’s hope not. Nothing against baristas, but I think I’m not really cut out for that work. I don’t have the patience for it.
Let’s see, brain health. I mean, we could spend so many episodes on this, but I think I just want to stay really focused on what Julia was asking about. So we’ll consider basic and therapeutic nutrients to optimize brain health. Then at the end, I’ll talk a little bit about some other things you can think about if you’re trying to optimize your brain health. I’ll maybe direct you to some resources where you can learn more about those things, if you haven’t been listening to this show for a while, reading my blog for a while or my book. Let’s first talk about diet, particularly macronutrients, before we dive into micronutrients.
Steve Wright: Before you get too deep, Chris, I just want to remind the listeners that this podcast is for you and created by you, as evidenced by the question today. Go to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion to send us your question. We’ll make sure to get the show out about your question soon.
Chris Kresser: Thanks, Steve. It’s amazing to see how all the questions come in and how they break down. It really helps me to organize my research. So definitely keep them coming.
With diet, usually the first thing people ask is, “What about carbs? Should I be on a really low-carb, high-fat approach, even a ketogenic diet, to optimize my brain health? Or should I maybe eat more carbohydrates?” Of course, as usual, the answer is it depends. I think most people, just generally, if you’re overall relatively healthy, you don’t have any significant metabolic problems, you’re not dealing with a neurodegenerative condition like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, neuropathy or something like that, then a moderate carbohydrate diet, somewhere within the 20% to 30% of calories is carbohydrate range, will tend to work best. Really low-carb approach can sometimes be helpful on a temporary basis. Like if you have an exam coming up, some people feel better if they eat. Let’s say you have an exam at 11:00 AM. You might do better if you have a relatively low-carb, higher-protein, higher-fat breakfast that morning. Some people feel like that gives them kind of a temporary boost in mental clarity. But I would say most of my patients, most people I’ve worked with, find that if they stick with that diet over a long term, eventually, it kind of starts to have the opposite effect. It starts to sap their energy and ability to retain information and just stay focused and concentrated over a longer period of time. On the other hand, if you do have any of the conditions that I mentioned—metabolic issues, neurodegenerative disorders or a tendency in any of those directions—you might actually do better with a low-carb, high-fat diet or even a ketogenic approach.
Certainly, as we’ve talked about on the show and as I’ve written about on the blog, those approaches are being used successfully therapeutically in many of those conditions that I just mentioned, because the brain can utilize ketones for fuel when carbohydrate metabolism in the brain is damaged and not working well. So this is just yet another case where we need to distinguish between an approach that’s appropriate and useful therapeutically, and one that is like the basic recommendation for everyone. They’re not the same thing. At the end of the day, the best thing to do is just experiment a little bit. Try several days with a much lower-carb, higher-fat approach. See how that affects your cognitive function. Then go back to a more moderate-carbohydrate approach. Try that for a few days. Then actually boost the carbs up a bit and see where you feel best in that spectrum. Because ultimately, your body is going to be the guide.
Steve Wright: Yeah. Another thing to mention might be the timing in which you decide to eat those carbs. Some people, like myself, are much more morning people. My brain is on already in the morning. So sometimes I will actually eat most of my carbs at dinner, just because I actually do better with maybe just a banana or small apple or something, and then a bunch of protein and fat in the morning and throughout lunch.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Steve Wright: So you could always mess with the timing too, based on if you’re a night owl or a morning person.
Chris Kresser: Exactly, yeah. And I mentioned that in the book and provided a few different scenarios as well. We’ll come back to that at the end.
Micronutrients to Optimize Brain Health
Okay. Now let’s talk about micronutrients to optimize brain health. The first one is DHA. It’s a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid. It’s a fundamental building block of the brain and it’s a critical nutrient for brain cell function. It improves the fluidity of brain cell membranes. It supports the growth of the connective structures in the brain. It improves the ability to release neurotransmitters. It enhances communication between the neurons. And a significant percentage of the driveway to the brain is fat and is DHA. So it’s very, very important fat for the brain. That’s why when you look at studies of fetal development and you see mothers who don’t get enough DHA, that directly affects the brain function and even intelligence of their baby. So very important nutrient. Of course, you can get it in cold-water, fatty fish and shellfish. That’s the primary source of DHA in the diet. It’s not really found in any other food that we can consume, other than algae, although I don’t know that many people who consume algae. You can consume plant-based forms of omega-3, but the conversion of those plant-based forms into DHA is less than one-half of 1%. That’s the best-case scenario. So you really have to get it from fish or seafood, or from fish oil, cod liver oil. Even if you’re getting enough DHA in your diet, you may find that higher doses of DHA from supplements might be useful for shorter periods of time if you really need to optimize your brain function, like if you’re studying for a big exam or in Julia’s case, if she’s preparing for her dissertation or something like that. It’s not something I’d recommend over the long term, but doing that for short periods of time can certainly be helpful.
The next one would be vitamin B12. I’ve written and talked a lot about this. It’s a really, really crucial nutrient for humans. It’s really one of the main reasons that I think humans need to eat meat and/or shellfish, and that meat and shellfish probably played a significant role in our evolution. That’s because we require B12, and it’s not found in its actual form in any plant foods. B12 plays a crucial role in the function of the brain and the nervous system. It’s a cofactor for methylation, which turns on and off genes. It also impacts the metabolism of several different neurotransmitters and it plays a major role in providing cofactors for myelin, which is the protective sheath around the nerves. If you think that your brain is like a tangle of wires, which is one way to think about it, imagine what would happen if those wires didn’t have any insulation around them. So myelin is just absolutely crucial for the function of the nervous system in the brain. I’ve talked a lot about B12 deficiency. It’s a pretty involved topic, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here. If you want to learn more about it, just Google “Chris Kresser B12 deficiency” and you’ll see the articles there.
But the takeaway is that it’s a lot more common than people realize. Up to 40% of people between the ages of 25 and 83 have B12 in the low-normal range. We’re talking about serum testing. And what we know is that serum B12 is often one of the last markers to go out of whack when B12 is deficient. There are more sensitive markers like methylmalonic acid and holotranscobalamin that will be out of range before serum B12 is. So if 40% of people are in the low-normal range for serum B12, then that suggests that a similar percentage of people might actually be deficient or in the early stages of deficiency. B12 is found in organ meats, red meat, and some shellfish. You can also supplement with it. The form that’s best to supplement is generally the more active forms, like hydroxocobalamin, methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin. That’s also a pretty involved topic, because we start to get into methylation and genetic mutations that affect which form of B12 might be best for you. I think we talked about those a little bit on the show we did about methylation, so you can refer to that. But for a lot of people, taking 400 micrograms of methylcobalamin or something like that is a pretty safe bet. It’s nontoxic even at high doses. It’s a water-soluble vitamin, so it’s not really dangerous to take at that level.
Steve Wright: For methylcobalamin, do you like sublinguals or sprays over the pill forms?
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I mean, depending on your absorption, right? If you don’t have any significant gut issues, the pills are probably fine. But if you have SIBO or other gut issues, sublingual or liposomal forms are going to work better for sure. While we’re on the subject of methylation-related nutrients and nutrients that affect brain function, B6 and folate also have positive effects on memory and cognitive performance. They’re both cofactors in the methylation process as well. Folate is found in dark, leafy greens and in chicken liver primarily, and then in lentils. B6 is found in sunflower seeds, fish, chicken, turkey, beef, and avocados. It’s a little easier to come by in the diet, but functional deficiency is still somewhat common; I see it all the time in my practice. SIBO is a major risk factor for B-vitamin deficiency, because bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine will impair the absorption of those B vitamins. So we run tons of urine organic acids tests in our clinic on patients, and the ones with SIBO almost always have B-vitamin deficiency. As you know, Steve, SIBO is shockingly common. It’s a problem that affects a lot of people.
Steve Wright: Yeah. The one thing I also wanted to ask you about, Chris—and you might circle around to this later, but it fits here for me, in my head—if somebody’s under pressure to finish her project or complete a dissertation, the stress levels are going to be a little bit higher than normal.
Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.
Steve Wright: Would they want to think about doubling up on supplementation or doubling up on their organ meat consumption to get these B vitamins, to help out with the stress hormones?
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I mean, I would say this is kind of a situation of just optimizing generally throughout the next period of years that Julia’s doing her PhD. Most of this stuff could be obtained through diet. But then during times where the heat is on, like preparing for an exam or the dissertation or whatever, that’s when maybe supplementing, in addition to getting all these nutrients from diet, can be useful.
Choline has been shown to improve cognitive performance and memory and protect against neurotoxicity. That’s found primarily in egg yolks and liver. Very important nutrient. It plays an important role in liver function and liver detoxification. It also balances the effects of methionine, which is an amino acid found in the leaner forms of protein. So very important nutrient, not just for brain function, but for overall health.
Iron, of course, is required for adequate oxygen deliverability to the brain. The brain needs two things to function properly more than anything: oxygen and glucose (ketones). Iron deficiency is a huge problem around the world. It affects 2 billion people worldwide. It’s less common in the US, but it’s still a major problem, especially with women. So making sure you’re eating enough organ meats, red meat, oysters, and clams, which are the major sources of heme-based iron, is important. Heme iron is the form of iron that’s found in animal products. It’s much, much better absorbed than plant-based forms of iron. That’s important to understand.
Then vitamin D just seems to turn up in any discussion about nutrients that are important for X, Y or Z. It turns out that vitamin D plays an important role for preserving cognitive function, particularly as we age. Low vitamin D levels are associated with cognitive issues in the elderly. So that’s another reason to keep your vitamin D levels in an optimal range, which for me, is about 25 or 30 ng/mL to about 55 ng/mL, somewhere in that range. So those are the basic nutrients that are obtainable through healthy diet, a nutrient-dense diet.
Therapeutic Nutrients That Affect Brain Health
Then we can talk a little bit about therapeutic nutrients, which may not be things that you eat so much in your diet, but you can supplement—I mean, some of them do occur in the diet, but others are supplements that you would add to your routine. There are so many different supplements that affect brain function. You know, if you fire up the Internet, TV, magazine or whatever, you’re going to see promises of all kinds of supplements that will turn you into a genius. But here are some of the better ones that I’ve found in my work with patients and in my own experience.
One would be curcumin. Curcumin really has several remarkable effects on the brain. It protects the brain from oxidative stress. It’s anti-inflammatory. It improves memory. It protects against neurodegeneration and neurotoxicity. It also has some pretty profound immune benefits. It promotes T regulatory cell production. T regulatory cells really help balance and regulate immune health. Dosage would be maybe 400 to 600 mg per day. Some forms are better absorbed than others, so that’s something to pay attention to.
Acetyl-L-carnitine stimulates energy production in brain cells, especially in the frontal cortex, and it protects brain cells and even can help regenerate them, which is amazing. The dosage for that would be like 1,000 to 2,000 mg a day in divided doses.
Then we have phosphatidylserine, which is found in every cell membrane, but it’s especially prevalent in the brain. That determines what nutrients can enter the brain cells, how waste gets out of the brain cells, how brain cells communicate. And some studies, though not all, have shown that it can improve memory, learning, concentration, and mood. The dose for that would be 100 to 300 mg per day in divided doses.
Last is a traditional Ayurvedic herb called Bacopa. This has been used to boost memory and cognitive performance and to reduce anxiety in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Modern studies have shown that it improves attention, memory, and several other measures of cognitive performance. The dose for that would be about 200 to 600 mg per day.
The Paleo Cure Bonus Chapters and Supplement Guides
Now when I wrote my book—which is now in paperback as The Paleo Cure; it was published in hardcover as Your Personal Paleo Code—I wrote several bonus chapters for how to tweak and customize the Paleo diet and lifestyle for particular health conditions. One of the bonus chapters was on cognitive performance, anxiety, and depression. If you have the book, you can log into the website and download this bonus chapter. If you don’t have the book, you can purchase the book and then get access to these bonus chapters for free.
Then what I also did is created packs of supplements for each of these conditions, based on the recommendations that I make in the bonus chapters. Because I know there’s a ton of confusion out there about which products are the better ones, which ingredients you should get, what form you should take the nutrients in, and all of that. So I wanted to just make it easy for people and provide recommendation on products that I would use, based on all of these nutrients that I’m recommending. If you go to store.ChrisKresser.com, there’s a little green box there that says, “I read Chris’s book and am looking for supplements recommended in it.” If you click on that and then click on the “Cognitive” collection, there are a few supplements that have all the nutrients that I’ve talked about on this show here, to make it easy for you.
Steve Wright: I’d like to second the acetyl-L-carnitine for sure. I actually stack that with ubiquinol, the reduced form of CoQ10.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Steve Wright: I found that if I really want to rock out in the morning, 200 mg of ubiquinol twice, morning and noon, with the acetyl-L-carnitine and some curcumin, that’s my go-to.
Chris Kresser: Cool. It’s interesting how different it is. Some people have absolutely no response to CoQ10, whereas other people, it’s really like turning the lights on. So it goes back to this whole biochemical individuality principle that we’re always hammering on here.
Lifestyle Tips That Support Brain Health
Just a couple of other considerations to think about with brain health. One would be the gut-brain axis, something we’ve talked a lot about and I’ve written about. If you search for “Chris Kresser gut-brain axis”, you’ll find some podcasts and articles to read. The quick summary is that there’s a profound connection between the gut and the brain that works in both directions. So if you want to optimize your brain health, you really have to optimize your gut health. You could take all these other supplements we’re talking about, but if you’ve got SIBO, leaky gut or any other of the conditions that can affect digestive health, then these are going to have limited impact and value. So optimizing that entire axis is really important.
Another would be exercise. If you’re preparing for a PhD, Julia, that usually means spending a lot of time on your butt. You know, reading, writing, researching, and all of that. So I would definitely investigate something like a standing desk, or if you really want to go for it, a treadmill desk. For me, that made an unbelievable difference when I was writing my book. I mean, I’m sure a lot of people know this story. When I first started writing my book, after a couple of weeks of just sitting on my chair researching and writing, I was like, “This is going to kill me or shave a few years off my life.” That’s when I first got the treadmill desk. Then in the course of writing my book, I ended up walking over 2,000 miles. So writing became an extremely healthy, energizing experience instead of something that drained me. We know that sitting less is as important or possibly even more important than getting enough exercise throughout the week. So make sure you’re breaking up those sitting periods with standing and walking periods.
Then make sure you’re getting enough exercise as well, because that’s absolutely crucial for cognitive performance. Steve mentioned stress earlier in the show. Managing stress is vital as well. When you’re doing a PhD, there’s a lot of that. Things like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and meditation are—numerous, numerous studies show how powerful they can be in terms of affecting cognitive performance, focus, memory. I find my meditation practice is probably the single most important thing in terms of determining my daily ability to focus and produce.
Diet is right up there. Maybe they’re tied for first. But they’re both really, really vital. In 14Four, I of course provide exercise, a whole routine that you can follow along with at-home body weight techniques or stuff you can do even when you’re traveling on the road. But I also have stress management audios and videos. So I have guided meditations. I have mindfulness-based stress reduction, guided programs. I have some qigong. I find qigong to be really helpful for cognitive performance as well, because it’s like a moving meditation. You get the same kind of benefits in terms of awareness, focus, and concentration, but you’re also moving. That, especially when your mind is really busy and you’ve been using your brain a lot, I find that to be really restorative and rejuvenating. Then of course, we can’t talk about cognitive performance without talking about sleep.
Steve Wright: I knew it!
Chris Kresser: Yeah, you knew it. Everybody listening to this show knows how sleep affects cognitive performance. All you have to do is sleep poorly one night, and the next day, you’ll see how much your brain function torpedoes. It’s vital. Ironically, sleep is one of the first things that suffer when we get stressed or busy or when we’ve got a lot of work to do. So setting up your schedule in such a way that ensures you’re getting enough sleep, Julia, is really going to serve you well during the time that you’re doing this PhD. There’s probably a lot more we could say about this topic, but I think these are the really key suggestions. I hope they’re helpful to you. Good luck with your PhD.
Steve Wright: I think this is going to help a lot of people. And it sounds like we just stumbled on two new topics for shows: tea and coffee, and performance and productivity.
Chris Kresser: That’s right. That sounds good.
Steve Wright: We’ll have to continue with that. Just another reminder for you. Send your questions in to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. In the meantime, if you’re wondering about maybe what meditation Chris is using or what research he’s reading, he’s going to be posting that stuff on his social media typically. If you’re not following him on your favorite social media outlet, you’ll definitely want to do that—specifically, Facebook.com/ChrisKresserLAc and Twitter.com/ChrisKresser.
Chris Kresser: Thanks, everyone, for listening. See you next time.
Steve Wright: Thank you.