The pre-frontal lobes are the most advanced stages of development of the mammalian brain. To boost brain power, we need to feed the neocortex the right things that support its functioning and growth.
Why We’re So Hungry
Our brain is an incredibly complex organ and an expensive tissue to maintain. Comprising about 2% of our body weight, it demands up to 20% of our total energy expenditure. It’s the biggest reason why we have to consume so many calories every single day.
What’s more, it’s where rationality, language, abstraction and other forms of higher executive functioning occur. Therefore, the neocortex needs constant access to high quality fuel so that we could perform at our peak.
But it isn’t just any fuel we should use, as all food is not equal in terms of its caloric and nutritional value. Different nutrients cause metabolic adaptations to take place and influence the body-brain connection.
What the Brain Hungers For
The primary fuel source the body uses is glucose, which is sugar derived from carbohydrates, such as potatoes, rice, tubers, grains etc. However, the brain is made up of 60% fat and runs a lot better on it.
It’s not that carbs are better by any means and that the body has made a conscious decision of running on a sugar engine. Glucose is the main fuel because it’s quick to absorb and easy to store, thus it becomes the default priority to be metabolized.
Burning fat will boost brain power a lot more because of several factors.
- Fatty acids in the Krebs cycle get converted into ketone bodies, some of which, like beta-hydroxybutyrate, can create 25% more energy.
- The molecular by-products of glucose metabolism are advanced glycolytic end-products (AGEs), which cause oxidative stress and promote aging, amongst neurodegenerative disease.
- Fat molecules have 2 times more caloric density than carbohydrates and therefore provide you with long lasting energy. They’re also more satiating by the same token, whereas sugar makes you crave more of it.
In fact, the high amounts of fat found in animal products and meat were probably one of the driving forces of our increased brain size. By eating solely plant foods, we wouldn’t have managed to get enough excess energy for our neural network to improve itself.
Is Ketosis Safe for Brain Health?
One fear that ordinary physicians have about the ketogenic diet is that it can’t sustain healthy functioning of an organism. How will your body and brain survive if there are no carbohydrates?
An essential nutrient is something that’s required for normal physiological functioning and the survival of the organism[i]. It cannot be synthesized by the body and thus has to be obtained from a dietary source. Carbohydrates are non-essential, unlike amino acids and fatty acids, which we don’t actually need to live and can function very well without.
Amino acids and fat are essential building blocks of all the cells in our body. Protein is used to create new muscle tissue, whereas the lipids balance our hormones that instigate these processes in the first place and protect cell membrane.
Ketosis isn’t the same as ketoacidosis either. The former is an altered metabolic state, in which the ketone concentration in the blood falls somewhere between 0.5 and 3.0 mMols. Whereas the latter is a situation where it reaches dangerous levels, above 10 mMols. That happens only in severe diabetics and alcohol poisoning.
How Much Fuel the Brain Needs
After several days of keto adaptation, the brain will begin to use more fatty acids and ketones as fuel and decreases the demand for glucose. Up to 75% of its energy will be met by ketone bodies.
The brain can use only about 120 grams of glucose a day [ii], which means you still need at least 30 grams of glucose while running on max ketones. That doesn’t mean it ought to come from dietary carbohydrates.
During a process called gluconeogenesis (creation of new sugar), the liver converts amino acids found in food and glycerol, which is the backbone of triglycerides, into glucose. While in a deep fasted state, glycerol can contribute up to 21.6% of glucose production [iii]. It’s estimated that about 200 grams of glucose can be manufactured daily by the liver and kidneys from dietary protein and fat intake [iv]. Once you keto-adapt, your body and brain won’t even need that much glucose, as they will happily use ketones instead.
Being on a fat burning metabolism promotes the functioning of the neocortex as well, which will increase rationality, as ketones are more energy dense than sugar.
Nutrients that Boost Brain Power
It’s not the actual food that increases your cognition and makes you more rational. A lot more important notion are the micronutrients that are a lot more influential on brain health and performance than macros.
The idea is to promote neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells) and reduce inflammation and cellular damage to the mitochondria and the brain.
- Cholesterol is an essential nutrient for healthy cell creation and maintenance. It actually gets produced by the body every single day if not derived from diet in adequate amounts. 25% of the body’s cholesterol is found inside the brain, where it promotes membrane function and gets used for other hormonal production. It’s critical for learning and memory[v].
- Antioxidants protect cells from free radical damage and oxidative stress. We’re exposed to a lot of free radicals daily but antioxidants can protect our cells from excessive inflammation and aging.
- Vitamin D3 is the sunshine vitamin and governs almost every function within the body, starting from DNA repair and ending with metabolism. Vitamin D-3 fights cardiovascular, autoimmune and infective diseases.
- Vitamin B12 cannot be produced by the body and thus needs to be derived from diet. A deficiency can lead to neurodegenerative disease[vi]. Even slightly lower levels of B12 can cause poor memory, fatigue and depression[vii]. B vitamins also help neurotransmitter communication between nerve-cell membranes.
- Creatine is thought of only as a muscle building supplement but it also has enhancing effects on cognition. The body stores 95% of its creatine in skeletal muscle, but it’s also concentrated in the brain. Naturally found in red meat, supplementing 5 grams of creatine a day will make you physically stronger and mentally sharper.
- Omega-3s are great for the brain and heart. The counterpart to that is omega-6, which are pro-inflammatory. Omega-6 can be found in a lot of processed foods and vegetable oils, which we would want to avoid anyway. For our body to be healthy the omega-3’s need to be in balance with the omega-6’s. Unfortunately, that balance can be easily tipped off as every amount of omega-6 requires triple the amount of omega-3 to reduce the negative effects. Omega-3s can be found in DHA and EPA.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and is crucial for normal brain development. It’s thought that access to DHA during hominid evolution played a key role in increasing the brain/body-mass ratio (encephalization)[viii]. The best source of DHA is fatty fish, but it’s also found to a lesser extent in grass-fed meat.
What to Eat to Boost Brain Power
Based on that knowledge, it’s time we take a look at some of the foods that promote higher executive functioning and boost brain power.
- Wild caught oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines are abundant sources of DHA and omega-3s.
- Eggs are rich in cholesterol, DHA, EPA, choline and good quality protein.
- Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat and are composed of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that can be metabolized into ketone bodies very rapidly. This provides the brain with instant energy.
- MCT oil is the liquidized coconut oil but is an enhanced version of it. It gives you even more energy and does it faster.
- Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants.
- Butter is a great source of fat that promotes ketone production. It is the most easily absorbable source of vitamin-A, which is necessary for thyroid and adrenal health. It also contains lauric acid, which treats fundal infections and candida. The antioxidants protect against cell free radical damage and the lecithins are essential for cholesterol metabolism.
- Blueberries or any other low carb berries, such as raspberries, strawberries and blackberries, are packed with antioxidants. They also reduce inflammation.
- Leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, chard etc., are all full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that protect you against cancer as well as neurodegenerative disease.
- Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, Kimchi, Kombucha, are full of pre- and probiotics that feed the good microbiome. This maintains a healthy gut-brain connection and reduces inflammation.
- Sea vegetables, such as kelp, algae, spirulina, are full of iodine, zinc and selenium, which are great for gut bacteria and cognitive functioning.
- Red meat, such as beef, lamb, pork are full of B vitamins, other minerals and creatine.
- Organ meat, such as liver, kidney, heart, are more nutrient dense than the flesh.
- Turmeric, including ginger and cinnamon are powerful antioxidants that protect against free radicals and promote neurogenesis.
- Chaga is a mushroom growing on birch trees. They’re the most powerful antioxidants in the world and also promote thyroid and adrenal health.
- Cacao in its raw form or as dark chocolate is a powerful antioxidant. It’s also rich in polyphenols that boost brain power. They also stimulate the neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin and BDNF, which can increase your cognition.
- Nuts and seeds, such as Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Chia seeds, are full of omega-3s, antioxidants and other neuroprotective compounds. Some caution has to be taken though. Don’t eat roasted, moldy or produce covered with salt, sugar or wheat because they all promote oxidative stress and free radical damage. Peanuts are not nuts either, they’re actually legumes that aren’t good to consume in large quantities.
What Not to Eat for Higher Cognitive Functioning
On the flip side, eating these foods will not solely improve your cognition. Avoiding certain foods is actually more important, as the bad can easily surmount the good. It doesn’t matter how many superfoods you eat, you’ll still be inflamed and suffer brain fog if you continue eating the following foods.
- Processed carbohydrates, such as pastries, candy, cereal, regular chocolate, cakes etc. are all full of sugar that causes glycation and all the other bad stuff that ensue. Full of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that will make you obese and diabetic. They will also keep you far out of ketosis and make you inflamed in both your gut and brain.
- Grain products, such as bread, pasta, pizza, oatmeal etc. have gluten and phytates in them, that irritate the gastrointestinal walls, leading to leaky gut. All of the waste will then enter the blood stream, which causes inflammation and also brain fog.
- Vegetable oils and hydrogenated trans fats, such as canola oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil etc. are full of omega-6s and thus pro-inflammatory. Also, the bastard brother of butter, margarine falls into the same category. They cause cellular death, literally.
- Processed meat, such as sausages with wheat, bacon cured in sugar and other abominations. They’re the reason why meat is considered to be bad in the first place. What’s worse, they’re also carcinogenic that can potentially cause cancer. They’re definitely neurodegenerative.
Why Do the Ketogenic Diet…At Least Once
The secret to increased cognitive performance is feeding your neocortex the right things in the right amounts at the right time. This promotes higher executive functioning and bolsters brain power.
To give your brain the required energy in abundant amounts, it’s important to make it efficient at using fat and ketones for fuel. This won’t happen on a sugar burning metabolism. If you’re running on glucose, then you’re dependent of exogenous calories, whereas in ketosis you can create premium quality jet fuel endogenously (internally).
Keto adaptation alters your metabolism completely and creates powerful fat burning pathways within your physiology. This takes time and has to be accompanied by intermittent fasting and a well-formulated ketogenic diet, both of which promote neurogenesis and overall health.
I’ve been doing these practices for a long time now and have improved every aspect of my life, starting with enhanced physical performance, heightened cognition, bulletproofed health, augmented mitochondria and increased well-being.
All of my knowledge has been put together into a nutrition program called Ultimate Keto. It will teach you how to get into ketosis and also includes a 21-day meal plan. I’m telling you exactly what you need to eat, in what amounts and at what time. Starting a well-formulated ketogenic diet can be difficult and I can help you transform your life for the better.