Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Lifeby Max Lugavere, Paul Grewal
Genius Foods examines the chief causes of mental decline based on the clinical research available up until now. It guides the reader through top-notch academic investigations, detailing the practices that can help prevent it and providing a prescription to build a healthy brain.
Lugavere argues that an ancient balance has been lost in our contemporary world and that the prevailing dietary and lifestyle choices are damaging our brains. He uncovers how those choices affect myriad biological and chemical processes inside ourselves that hurt or heal our brains. He also sheds light on how our eating choices are especially crucial in determining not only our mental health but the health of our whole body.
The Invisible Problem
“The modern world is like The Hunger Games, and your brain is an unwitting combatant, hunted mercilessly and relentlessly from all sides.”
Understanding mental decline usually begins when our loved one starts to experience memory problems, depression, or mental “fogginess.” When they are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, or another mental illness with no apparent genetic predisposition, fears and feelings of powerlessness arise.
Phrases on the labels of prescriptions, such as: “No disease-modifying ability” or “Limited efficacy,” are disheartening. It’s being said that neurologists are not treating diseases but admiring them.
When genetic predisposition is taken out of the equation, diet and lifestyle become probable causes. Indeed, research indicates that certain internal and external environments allow our brains to thrive while others cause malfunction. These research findings provide a more hopeful view than most neurologists and “experts” in the field.
The discovery of neurogenesis also provides renewed hope; the creation of new brain cells has expanded the concept of lifelong neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change until death. This explains why neurological nihilism is now debatable.
The science of epigenetics has emerged from expanding upon genetic limits. It asserts that our choices impact DNA. That means gene expression changes in responses to our environment. The lifestyle choices we make, for example, can permanently alter our genetics. One such choice that greatly affects our brain is diet. Likewise, research has confirmed that psychosocial and cultural factors are important inputs in our brains' health.
Nonetheless, we are caught in the crossfires between warring factions, whether conscious or not. Our brains are attacked from many sides. Food companies driven by voracity for profits sell unhealthy food, poor in nutrients and loaded with toxic additives, explicitly designed to create addiction.
Contrastingly, the healthcare system and the scientific research community provide advice and policy that, though well-meant, is subject to numerous biases—from mild errors of thought to outright corruption via research studies conditioned by industry or private-interest funding.
Other factors beyond diet also contribute to the deterioration of our health. These factors include monotonous jobs, chronic stress, overfeeding and inflammation, exposure to toxins, lack of connection to nature, irregular sleep patterns, inactivity, overexposure to news and tragedy, and the replacement of our family and friend networks with online social networks. These all eventually lead to premature aging and decay of our brains.
To improve our brain function, we need to have the right combination of nutritious foods, exercise programs, healthy lifestyle changes, and social support.
Actions to take
Good and Bad Fats
“Cognitive catastrophe (and salvation) merely begins with fat.”
Our brains are almost entirely composed of fat. In fact, fatty acids account for 60% of their composition. The fats you eat daily dictate the immediate quality of your brain function and its susceptibility to disease.
Our body needs a wide range of fats. There are three types of it: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated. Man-made trans fats are not essential for the body and may even be toxic.
Monounsaturated oils such as those in extra-virgin olive oil and avocados are the most beneficial for health.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fats are found in polyunsaturated oils. It is speculated that our ancestors' diets integrated these in a one-to-one ratio. But we now consume omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a twenty-five to one ratio, resulting in harmful imbalances.
Why such predominance of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats? In its search for cheap oil to profit from, the food industry succeeded in creating oils chemically extracted from their natural food sources. However, these oils are biochemically mutated and contain vast amounts of hazardous compounds called aldehydes. Aldehyde impairs cells’ mitochondria’s ability to generate energy and influences the formation of plaques that muck up the brain.
Since the food industry’s patronage, chemical oils were promoted as ‘healthy foods,” while natural fats were condemned on TV and in magazines. Nonetheless, industrialized fats foster chronic disease by damaging the DNA and causing inflammation in the body. They also raise the risk of several types of cancers.
Canola, corn, soybean, cottonseed, vegetable, peanut, safflower, sunflower, rapeseed, grapeseed, and rice bran are ominous oils to watch out for. On the other hand, natural polyunsaturated fats, found in whole foods, are healthy when combined with antioxidants like vitamin E.
Omega-3 fatty oils are essential in fighting inflammation and nourishing the brain. However, westernized diets are severely deficient in these fatty oils. Omega-3 fatty oils are abundant in fish like salmon and sardines, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken eggs, nuts like walnuts, and seeds like flax and chia.
Saturated fats are essential to life as they support your cell membranes and act as precursors to various hormones and hormone-like substances. Saturated fats are the most chemically stable and the most appropriate to use for higher-heat cooking. Despite being demonized by the low-fat craze, they have been redeemed as good fats by research. Therefore, saturated fats such as coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and ghee should be included in the kitchen.
Man-made trans fats are highly inflammatory, promoting insulin resistance and heart disease. Consumption of trans fats was associated with a 34% increased risk of all-cause mortality. Margarine is one rich source of this dangerous synthetic fat. But with the industry endorsement, it became a “healthy” substitution for their condemned butter and coconut oils.
When combined with processed carbohydrates, westernized diets high in industrialized oils are linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, vascular dementia, multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson's, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Nonetheless, enhancing your diet with good fats in foods like extra-virgin olive oil, fatty fish, avocados, and eggs is incredibly beneficial. The fats in these foods also facilitate the absorption of critical fat-soluble nutrients.
Actions to take
Overeating but Not Nourished
“Given the obesity epidemic and the amount of food Americans and others around the globe routinely throw away (even slightly misshapen fresh vegetables get tossed out so your supermarket-going experience is as aesthetically pleasing as possible), it may surprise you to know that our bodies are still somehow.... starving.”
What starves the body starves the brain. Today, 90% of Americans are lacking in nutrients essential to their physiology. These nutrients are readily found in whole foods. So, why are their bodies starving?
Americans' diets favor foods made from processed grains, prominently corn and wheat. The grains mostly used come from genetically modified seeds (GMOs) which are far from their natural state. They’re grown with loads of toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They’re cultivated for maximum yield of starch and sugar.
In addition, the food industry combines these grain’s processed flour with salt, sugar, and fat to stimulate a “bliss point” that emulates the addictive properties of drugs like cocaine. To maximize profit, they add chemicals engineered in labs, making them hyper-palatable and creating insatiable overconsumption of junk foods.
Food companies spend billions of dollars annually to market junk foods. But more insidiously, they fund studies to downplay the role of junk food and shift the focus on the global health decline epidemic from diet to laziness and lack of exercise. They conclude that there is practically no compelling evidence that junk food plays a part in that scenario.
However, aside from not nourishing the body, research shows that processed foods are causing many health problems. These foods convert into sugar easily, causing elevated sugar in the blood. Our pancreas then releases the hormone insulin into the bloodstream, activating receptors on the surfaces of cell membranes to convert sugar into energy or store it. When cells are healthy, they require little insulin to respond, but repeated insulin stimulation desensitizes cell receptors and causes insulin resistance.
The advanced stage of insulin resistance is type 2 diabetes, where more insulin is required from the pancreas to accomplish its original work. Because the pancreas cannot keep up with the constant demand for insulin, blood sugar levels remain high.
Type 2 diabetes develops mostly in people over age 45, but more children, teens, and young adults also develop it. Elevated blood sugar has been shown to shorten the life spans of blood cells.
When blood sugar rises and stays up, it accelerates the sugar-protein bonding, known as glycation. One detrimental aspect of glycation is the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), known as gerontotoxins or aging toxins. Most AGEs are formed in the body by the high consumption of processed carbohydrates. The good news is that antioxidants and nutrients abundant in plant foods, like polyphenols and fiber, can neutralize these toxins.
In one experiment with laboratory rats, the breaking down of cognition was observed when blood sugar, triglycerides, and insulin levels escalated by feeding them sugar. Sugar disrupts the expression of genes in the brain, reducing neuroplasticity and impairing cognitive function, correlating high blood sugar with dementia. The good news is that the negative impact of sugar could be canceled by feeding DHA omega-3 fat to the rats.
What’s more, sugar also induces lipogenesis or fat production in the liver. Sugar and excess carbohydrate consumption are chief contributors to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Sugar and carbohydrate consumption are major causes of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD is estimated to affect 70-80% of obese and 10-15% of normal-weight people. When sugar overloads our liver with fat, it leaks into our bloodstream as triglycerides.
Insulin sensitivity can be restored with a low-sugar, low-carbohydrate diet by exercising and restoring the system's energy balance and metabolic flexibility. Once it has been restored, unprocessed carb sources can be reintroduced.
Actions to take
Heart, Gut, and Brain Health
“In other words, given the incredible complexity of our bodies and our relatively limited scientific tools, we should be intensely skeptical of any rapid, engineered change to our food supply.”
Our bodies are complex natural organisms. The knowledge of its systems and their interconnectivity is small and limited. Health research that takes a reductionist approach (i.e., isolates organs, functions, and inputs and is biased due to strong conflicts of interest) usually results in official policies that miss, omit, or downplay critical information.
Policies made by health agencies are routinely found to be flawed within years. For example, cholesterol has once been condemned as detrimental to the heart. But it turns out that it plays various roles beneficial in the body, including the optimal function of the brain.
Due to the interconnectivity of our body’s systems, it became evident that what is healthy or harmful for the heart, or other parts of our bodies, has the same effects on our brains.
High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in the liver have been found harmful to the heart's health. Remarkably, nutritional and lifestyle strategies helpful for the brain are found to also be beneficial to the heart by helping the liver recycle LDL or reduce liver fat. These include regaining insulin sensitivity, consuming a diet rich in monounsaturated fats and avoiding excessive saturated fats, eating fibrous veggies which slow the absorption of carbs and fat, giving the liver more time to process a meal, and integrating periods of intermittent fasting.
Likewise, what helps the heart also benefits the brain. A long microvasculature network feeds the brain nutrients, energy, and oxygen. Any block along this grid leads to reduced blood flow to the brain, contributing to diminished cognition. Through this web, our brains also get the vast oxygen supply it consumes. Oxygen is likewise required to support the many metabolic functions of the body. Some nutritional practices that promote vascular health and increase blood and oxygen flow through the body and brain are:
- Eliminating or reducing grains, sugar, and starch. Some researchers estimate that high-carbohydrate diets, which inhibit lipid metabolism (fat), may be the most detrimental aspect of modern diets.
- Consuming more potassium-rich foods such as avocado, spinach, kale, beet greens, Swiss chard, mushrooms, and salmon.
- Indulging in nitrate-rich foods dilates blood vessels and expands arteries improving blood flow. Arugula, beets, butter leaf lettuce, spinach, beet greens, broccoli, and Swiss chard are great choices. A single nitrate-rich meal may boost cognitive function.
Similarly, science has found that what affects the intestines is critical for the brain. Within the intestines, the gut lining is the environment where food absorbs nutrients. The gut lining also helps keep intestinal bacteria inside the intestines where it belongs.
This system houses an army of good bacteria essential for health. When the gut lining is impaired, it allows the leakage of harmful bacteria components into circulation. This is understood as intestinal permeability or having a leaky gut.
The outflow of these components into the blood can induce systemic inflammation and prompt symptoms of depression and anxiety as it switches the immune system to high alert. The wheat protein gluten may expand the “pores” in the gut lining, and low-fiber diets and additives in food can magnify this effect. Some things that impact both the gut and brain are: keeping healthy gut bacteria, eating whole fruits instead of juices, and avoiding foods with added gluten.
Actions to take
The Brain Messenger System
“But new research suggests that many common brain problems are not caused by deficits of neurotransmitters, but rather by neurotransmitters that are unable to work the way they ought to, due to an induced or underlying dysfunction.”
The brain's executive function is a broad set of cognitive abilities that includes planning, decision-making, attention, and self-control. The healthy functioning of the executive function is esteemed as more important to success than IQ or innate talent. Its role is one of many that relies on the healthy functioning of neurotransmitters.
The chemical imbalance theory is the view that our brains become dysfunctional due to unbalanced levels of neurotransmitters. Prescription drugs, from antidepressants and ADHD medications to drugs that reduce anxiety, fiddle with levels of these chemical messengers based on this theory.
However, these top-selling pharmaceuticals have no “disease-modifying” ability—meaning, they do nothing to solve the original problems that created those neurological diseases. These medications work by altering levels of neurotransmitters, acting merely as bandages. To keep neurotransmitters functioning optimally, we need to recreate the natural conditions they were designed for.
GABA, or what we call the γ-Aminobutyric acid, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. It has been dubbed “nature’s Valium,” because of its calming effect. GABA works to counter-balance glutamate, the brain’s chief excitatory neurotransmitter. Anxiety, panic attacks, palpitations, and insomnia are all attributed to dysfunction of GABA or excitotoxicity, i.e., too much glutamate.
Acetylcholine is known as the learning and memory neurotransmitter. A major drug currently used to treat Alzheimer’s disease work by increasing acetylcholine in the brain since low levels are associated with the disease.
Over-the-counter medications such as nighttime cold medicines, sleep aids, allergy pills, and muscle relaxants are common “anticholinergic” drugs that block acetylcholine. Research shows that regular anticholinergics lower brain glucose metabolism and poorer short-term memory and executive function.
Serotonin is called the mood neurotransmitter. But serotonin isn’t just for good vibes; it’s also greatly involved in executive function. Serotonin is synthesized in the brain from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Since 90% of the body’s supply of serotonin is found in the gut, not the brain, keeping our gut health is essential for this neurotransmitter. Serotonin is also affected by little sun exposure, which can contribute to the seasonal affective disorder, or SAD (depression).
Dopamine is the reward and reinforcement neurotransmitter. Like serotonin, dopamine is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter. It is mostly linked to motivation and reward.
Dopamine gets released when we do things that give us pleasure and joy. When this system becomes dysfunctional, individuals may attempt to normalize their low levels with substances, making them susceptible to addiction and “anhedonia,” or a pathological inability to experience pleasure in things previously found enjoyable. Others might attempt to raise dopamine with actions like music, sex, food, or sports, as well as new ventures, persons, or “likes” on social media.
Norepinephrine is known as the focus and attention neurotransmitter. Norepinephrine plays a vital role whenever focus is needed, especially in times of stress, where it can boost long-term memory formation. Chronic norepinephrine release, as caused by watching daily news, can harm your cognitive function just as much as the acute release can boost it. In Alzheimer’s, up to 70% of norepinephrine-producing cells are lost.
Actions to take
Sleep and the Brain
“At the end of the day, however, the best way to attain a spotless brain is just to get good sleep, consistently.”
Sleep helps to solidify memories, boost creativity, increase willpower and regulate appetite. It resets hormones, gives neurons a cleansing wash, and safeguards “all systems go” in the various areas of the brain.
Contrastingly, sleep loss creates a host of woes in the brain, like damage to the energy-creating mitochondria. This hinders the prefrontal cortex, which helps put emotional experiences into context to respond appropriately to circumstances (it becomes dysfunctional and reverts to the primitive fearful amygdala, aka the brain’s “fear center”), and hampers the glymphatic system, which disposes of waste and prevents amyloid accumulation.
Sleep deprivation affects numerous hormones:
Insulin (the storage hormone): As little as one night of partial sleep deprivation increase insulin resistance temporarily in a healthy person.
Ghrelin (the appetite hormone): Ghrelin's capability to tell your brain it’s hungry surges with a single night of sleep deprivation (fewer than six hours of sleep) and leads to intakes of an extra 400-500 calories on the next day.
Leptin (the metabolic regulator hormone): With sleep deprivation, Leptin, the satiety hormone that helps regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger, drops.
Growth Hormone (the repair and preserve hormone): Getting fewer than seven hours of sleep has been shown to disturb growth hormone production negatively.
Cortisol (the carpe diem hormone): Often thought of as a stress hormone, cortisol is also a master circadian regulator. It acts as a “waking” hormone, liberating energy from food to use early morning. While skipping breakfast may help cortisol fulfill its job, a morning meal should consist solely of fat, protein, and fibrous veggies—not carbohydrates.
Actions to take
Stress and the Brain
“Here on Earth, stagnation is associated with rot and decay, like a pond that has lost its inflow. For our brains, it is a death sentence.”
There are two kinds of stress—chronic and acute stress. Chronic stress is long, sustained stress caused by bad jobs, sour relationships, financial hardships, chronic noise, or even chronic cardio. This kind of stress is a major threat to our cognitive health as it hastens entropy and decay and leads to elevated cortisol, which robs muscles of strength, causes important parts of the brain to atrophy, and accelerates the aging process.
Chronic stress activates the immune system of the brain, producing inflammation as if the brain were responding to an infection. Inflammation is the cornerstone of many neurodegenerative diseases. Chronic stress activates the amygdala, the primitive survival region associated with fear. Repeated stress hurts the ability to control stress.
Acute stress, on the other hand, is a powerful weapon against entropy. This stress can be mental, such as when we’re learning to play an instrument, engaging in a challenging video game, or reading a textbook. It can also be physical stress, for example, when we’re exercising, brief fasting, and extreme temperatures.
The biological principle of Hormesis is the means by which small doses of stress like a robust workout, a good sweat in the sauna, or a temporary calorie restriction (intermittent fasting) can promote more efficient cells and greater long-term health. While large long doses of a stressor might harm you, small short quantities cause your cells to adapt and grow stronger.
Exercise is a virtuous stressor and a panacea for the brain. It is a medicine and tonic coating organs with powerful antioxidants. It is one of the greatest means of enriching cognitive function, mood, and neuroplasticity. There are two main energy systems—aerobic and anaerobic.
Aerobic exercise is analogous to a long bike ride or hike, while anaerobic would be weight lifting and sprinting. Aerobic is a fat and oxygen burner; anaerobic is a sugar burner. Research advises aerobic workouts should be longer and slower, while anaerobic workouts should be shorter and more intense. The aerobic low, slow movement, like a 90-120-minute hike, will move lymphatic fluid in the body and keep joints strong. Aerobic activity is the chief way to strengthen the brain with new cells, and anaerobic exercise keeps cells healthy and metabolically efficient. Stimulated by exercise, mitochondrial biogenesis occurred in brain cells in animal research!
Exercise should not be abandoned when busy or overwhelmed. When tested against numerous antidepressants, three days a week of moderate exercise was equally effective as the pharmaceuticals, with no negative side effects.