Five Key Habits for your Brain and Cognitive Function

Five Key Habits for your Brain and Cognitive Function

Brain health is influenced by many factors and we know there are a few habits that support long term function.


The inflammatory cytokine model of depression shows the influence diet has on cognitive function. Omega 6 oils are linked to depression and are pro-inflammatory. One in four adults experience mental illness in the US and the standard American diet is high in omega 6 oils. (1) Depression is increasing at an alarming rate of 20% each year.

1. Protein and Fat

Supplementing with omega 3’s is an option, however quality is an issue. Keep in mind that grass-fed dairy, meat and pastured eggs all are high in omega 3’s whereas conventional varieties are much higher in omega 6’s. Cold water, fatty fish that is wild is an excellent source of omega 3 oils as well as the important fatty acids EPA and DHA. DHA has been shown to support brain function particularly in depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD . Comparatively, vegetarians and vegans ingest 30-60% less EPA and DHA.

Monounsaturated fats like cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil increase the production of ACTH which is an important neurotransmitter. All neurotransmitters are built from amino acids in the gut. Glycine, a component of bone broth, reduces psychotic episodes and improves cognition by acting as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It will antagonize norepinephrine which helps regulate the stress response. Cholesterol nourishes the myelin sheath of the brain.

A staggering 30-40% of people do not respond to anti-depressants. One of the ways these function is to inhibit the stress response by lowering high cortisol levels. Although, it can’t be known if an individual has high, normal, or low cortisol without testing. As a result this may explain why so many don’t respond. Cortisol is anti-inflammatory and by lowering it without proper testing it could actually increase inflammation.

2. Caffeine has many benefits in moderation

Caffeine is known to exacerbate anxiety especially in the afternoon and evening. The resulting lack of sleep and improper light exposure disrupt circadian rhythm. Over 20% of people with insomnia develop depression. In addition, those at high risk are mother’s whose iron and fat intake is not optimal. Interestingly half the population are poor metabolizers of caffeine. There may be a link between those with a gluten intolerance.

3. Gut Health and Gluten

The number of people who have undetected celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity is growing. The connection between celiac disease and cognitive dysfunction has determined at least 22% of people are likely to experience both. An astonishing 57% of those with neurological dysfunction test positive for anti-gliadin antibodies. Clinically I’ve seen people who tested negative for gliadin which is the standard test and when I test other gluten specific antibodies they are positive. The disorders associated with gluten include: seizures, neuropathy, ADD, ADHD, autism, ataxia, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

4. B-Vitamins

Vegetarians and vegans are 68-83% deficient in B12. B12 deficiency is associated with alzheimer’s, dementia, cognitive decline, memory loss, depression, bipolar and psychosis. B12 absorption can be impaired by dysbiosis, leaky gut, inflammation, pernicious anemia which is autoimmune, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, low stomach acid and IBD.

Folate and B6 are needed for serotonin synthesis. Additionally, a deficiency of these also increases inflammatory homocysteine.

5. The Minerals: Zinc and Magnesium

Copper and zinc act as neurotransmitters in the brain. The ideal serum ratio is .7 copper – 1 zinc. Oxidative stress and inflammation reduce zinc and increase copper. Low zinc indicates inflammation.

Magnesium acts at the blood brain barrier to prevent stress hormones from entering the brain. Prevents anxiety and depression after a traumatic brain injury. Caffeine and stress in excess deplete magnesium. Too much calcium inhibits absorption. Calcium from food is enough for most people.

Magnesium is stored in our bones. Acid reflux, Crohn’s, colitis, kidney disease and alcoholism contribute to a deficiency. Proton pump inhibitors are used to treat reflux by masking the symptoms and these will also deplete the body of magnesium overtime.

The recommended dose between 500-700 mg/day. Food sources include: dark leafy greens, cacao, bananas, soaked nuts, seeds and legumes. Protein will be better absorbed with a diet higher in protein. Some pharaceuticals block absorption and create deficiency of magnesium including PPI’s, Lasix, digoxin, nitrofurantoin, anti-malaria drugs and bisphosphonates.

Symtoms and conditions associated with low levels include: muscle cramps, heart arrhythmias, tremors, headaches, acid reflux, increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, migraines, premenstrual tension syndrome, asthma and hypothyroidism.

I recommend magnesium gylcinate and suggest that people take one capsule at night along with eating a nutrient dense diet free of the phytates that bind magnesium. Loose stool results from too much and can be to help with occasional constipation. Taking magnesium before bed will help relax your muscles and supports good sleep.

Lower Stress, Increase Productivity

Lower Stress, Increase Productivity

Smart Ways to Work and Play

We all know that sitting a lot isn’t good.  You may have heard the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’.  Its true that blood sugar and cardiovascular risks go up significantly for people who find themselves in sedentary jobs.  How can we mitigate these health complications when life requires a certain amount of work at a desk?

Continual activity throughout the day is more beneficial for improving glycemic control than a single bout of structured exercise. Just meeting recommended levels of physical activity isn’t enough. By spending the rest of the day sedentary, people are still at risk for insulin resistance leading to diabetes and a disrupted gut microbiome.  Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid sitting for extended periods.
  • Engage in frequent light activity breaks throughout the day.
  • Set up a standing desk and alternate with sitting.
  • Treadmill desks can improve focus and productivity.
  • Ensure that your leisure activities do not involve screen time.

Skipping Meals, Caffeine and Stress

I love my work. When I have a lot to do I often can forget to stop and eat.  This in combination with sitting at a desk increases my stress.  On the weekend I have no trouble with blood sugar but this isn’t true when I’m sitting which confirms what the research is saying.

Packing enough of a lunch and starting my day with some movement helps tremendously.  I go for a walk, a swim or do some resistance training.  On my research days I also have a yoga mat out in my office so I can take creative breaks or do some push-ups.  Putting on dance music can also inspire me when needed.

I hear this from many of my patients about how caffeine is a contributor to stress.  The connection between memory loss, blood sugar dysregulation and caffeine addiction is very real for many people working in tech.  The rise in young people with memory loss is not separate from the rise in diabetes.

Life is better when you move

Activity breaks can include taking a walk outside over the lunch hour, or simply getting up to walk to the water dispenser every hour.  Include some social time as this helps to regulate our nervous system.  Having a fun activity to look forward to does as well.  This may be the most important part of your work day.

Of course activity breaks can’t be considered a replacement for other physical activity. Recent research recommends that activity breaks be used daily in the context of an overall healthy lifestyle.  Aiming for 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise is essential as a baseline.

Insomnia and Sleep Deprivation

Insomnia and Sleep Deprivation

Lack or sleep is associated with several health concerns. Depression, memory problems and metabolic issues are just a few.  Recent in-depth studies show that adults require between 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Younger people including college age people need more but unfortunately we are all getting significantly less.  We see an increase in inflammation, obesity and emotional stability in those who are chronically sleep deprived. If there is one thing you can do to improve your health getting more rest and sleep may be the most important.  Cardiovascular disease and cancers are also linked with insomnia.

Light exposure affects our circadian rhythm and our quality of sleep.  Waking up feeling rested and energized indicates a proper amount of deep sleep has occurred.  Black out blinds and a cool room are helpful.  So is reducing light exposure after dark especially from screens.  F.lux is a tool to reduce the blue light rays of screens if they must be used. Wearing orange coloured glasses is another option.  Turning down lights in the evening and using this time for quiet activities and rest is important.

With electricity we work longer hours and have less time outdoors.  Getting adequate daytime bright light anchors our circadian rhythm. Time zone travel and shift work are especially difficult for our bodies to adapt to.  Alternating shift work is the worst.  For travel you can take melatonin at the time you will go to bed in your new location.  This helps you adjust to the new time zone and mitigates the discomforts of jet lag.

Melatonin also has an important regulatory effect on immunity.  Those with adequate exposure to darkness are less likely to develop cancer than those with more artificial light. Anyone with chronic infection or autoimmune disease ought to focus on getting enough sleep as part of their treatment plan.

Allow more time to sleep than you need and wake up without an alarm whenever possible. Evening is not a time for stressful conversations but instead a time of unwinding from the day.  The bedroom needs to be kept clear of electronics of all sorts.

Diet plays a role in insomnia.  Studies show that not enough fat or carbohydrates contribute to poor sleep.  Carbohydrates are needed to increase tryptophan in entering the pineal gland.  Protein and fat are more satiating and this carries through the night. Often insomnia is a blood sugar issue.  Sleep deprivation can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain.

Caffeine can contribute to sleep loss days after it is consumed.  Fifty per cent of people don’t metabolize caffeine and for those with sleep problems reducing or removing caffeine completely is important.  Not consuming any caffeine after noon is best.

Aerobic exercise can help with deeper sleep, depression and anxiety. It protects against the harmful consequences of stress if not overdone. Signs of too much exercise include insomnia, muscle fatigue, waking up not rested, poor recovery and a decline in cognitive function and performance.

Tired? Stressed?  Find out what is going on and why is it not adrenal fatigue

Tired? Stressed? Find out what is going on and why is it not adrenal fatigue

Stress is a major contributor to nearly all disease but what is it exactly and how can you recover? Most people understand stress in the form of a time pressure, moving homes or financial worries but there are some physiological stressors that can outweigh these perceived stressors.

Anything that interferes with the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis can be a chronic stressor and will lead to an HPA Axis dysregulation. The major ones I see in clinic are:

Blood sugar issues leading to insulin resistance and metabolic disorders. Missing meals, under/overeating. Circadian rhythm disruption from improper light exposure, lack of real rest, play and sleep. Chronic inflammation from hidden gut infections, an elevated immune response, overwork and allergies.

Why is this not Adrenal Fatigue?

In the scientific literature adrenal fatigue is represented with just a few publications whereas the more accurate term HPA axis dysregulation has over 18 000 research papers. The reason is that this isn’t a case where the adrenal glands are tired and unable to function. In fact often cortisol is normal or high and the imbalance is occurring in how the brain and cells are responding to it. Cellular resistance to cortisol is one way the body responds to chronic stress. This is similar to insulin resistance which many people are familiar with.

Testing for Stress

The brain is the control tower for the HPA axis which stands for the hypothalamus, pituatary and adrenal axis. These glands work together in a series of negative feedback loops which maintain homestasis. When there is a disruption it can be tricky to see what went off track. This is where the right lab work can be helpful. Saliva tests for free cortisol which is the most potent form and has been used to diagnose “adrenal fatigue”. The problem with this test is that 85% of those with low free cortisol have normal or high overall cortisol. This is where the replacement model of supplementing creates more problems. I use a urine lab that looks at the cortisol levels throughout the day. It also shows all the sex hormones and their metabolites which gives important information for treatment.

Chronic stress of any kind creates physiological changes ranging in severity depending on how long its been going on. An important part in recovering health requires long-term stress management. When we are in a heightened level of stress we respond to world differently and can create a cycle of more stress. I promote gradual change because this is what lasts. Shift tracks gradually instead of trying to stop the train and begine making these changes before it derails itself.

Am I going NUTS?

The NUTS acronym can be helpful in understanding stress. Stress usually includes these components:

Novelty: a feeling of a new situation

Unpredictability: a sense of touching something unknown

Threat or perceived threat to either the body or ego: as in chronic illness or the end of a marriage

Sense of loss of control: we actually have little control but we can, at times, control our response

These components exist in activities that are positive stressors as well like: applying for school, going on a date or starting a new job. Recognizing that not all stress is harmful is important. Increase your sense of control by gathering information and making informed decisions. Expand your time horizon or put it in perspective by looking at what’s happening within the context of your whole life. For example having a new baby can mean a lot less sleep but only for a few years. And finally remember to question your thoughts. Say an social event goes poorly and by the end of it your internal dialogue is something like “I said dumb things and I always do…I’m a failure…am doomed to always be alone…etc etc”.

This is an excellent time to check your head, sit down on a cushion and watch your thoughts. Meditation is by far the fastest, yes the fastest, way to transform belief systems and calm the nervous system so new habits and neuro pathways can form.

Symptoms that point to an HPA Axis dysregulation

There isn’t one set of symptoms or stressors that define this kind of imbalance. That being said here is a list of possible symptoms:

poor memory

weight gain or loss

brain fog


cold hands and feet

low libido

frequent illness

hunger that comes quickly with agitation


waking with a rapidly beating heart

trouble falling or staying asleep

postural hypotension

Living a long life with Optimal Health and Vitality

In order to do this we must address the HPA axis and understand our own stress response. I know personally that the more joy and purpose I discover, the more I must look at how I manage my stress.

There will be times when stress becomes unmanagable. When this happens the best action we can take is allow for a period to recover. Listening deeply to the body for guidance is the most important resource. If accessing it on your own is difficult then reach out for support.


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