Inflammation & Cognition: Eating Well To Boost Your BrainJun 16, 2023
Chronic inflammation leads to cognitive challenges, but we can fight inflammation by changing what we eat. Here are our best anti-inflammatory diet tips.
Inflammation plays an essential role in our body’s natural healing process. But chronic inflammation hurts instead of helps - especially when it comes to our brains.
Today, we’ll discuss the link between inflammation and cognitive decline. Then, we’ll walk you through the basic principles of following an anti-inflammatory diet, so you can make nutrition choices that optimize your brain and your life.
Understanding the link between chronic neuroinflammation & cognitive decline
When we experience an injury or come into contact with harmful viruses or bacteria, our body’s immune system activates to stabilize, heal, and protect us from further harm. This can cause acute inflammation: swelling, flushed skin, or pain at the site of the injury. These symptoms disappear over time as our bodies heal.
But chronic inflammation occurs when the body activates inflammatory cells even when there isn’t a specific injury to respond to. Symptoms of chronic inflammation can be more difficult to spot, but include joint pain or stiffness, abdominal or chest pain, skin rashes, ongoing fatigue, and more. While acute inflammation plays a crucial role in our healing, chronic inflammation is linked to a number of health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
What happens when our brains experience chronic inflammation?
Our brains contain a couple different kinds of immune cells, namely microglia and astrocytes. Each plays an important role in preserving brain function. Microglia consume dead, defective, or infected brain cells, cleaning synaptic pathways and making our brain circuits run smoothly. Astrocytes build the blood-brain barrier, giving nutrients to neurons and helping protect against infection.
Normally, these cells act as housekeepers, tidying things up and keeping our brains running properly. However, neuroinflammation sends these cells into “attack mode.” Because inflammation usually means a threat to the body, the microglia and astrocytes work to contain or destroy the inflamed “problem area.”
In the case of acute inflammation - where there is a real injury to heal or threat to contain - these cells once again play an essential role in protecting our brain health. But in the case of chronic inflammation - where cells essentially become randomly inflamed without the presence of a real threat - it means that the inflammatory cells may attack healthy tissue, dispose of functioning cells, and close off synaptic pathways that should remain functioning.
This is why inflammation can significantly impact our cognitive function. Chronic neuroinflammation can contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety; neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease; memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; and general cognitive impairment, like brain fog, concentration problems, and slow mental processing.
Using nutrition to fight neuroinflammation
Clearly, neuroinflammation poses a serious risk to our brains. But there are quite a few ways we can fight chronic inflammation to keep our brains healthy and functioning at their best. One of the most effective ways to take control of chronic inflammation is through what you eat.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
An anti-inflammatory diet focuses on cutting out food and drinks known to cause inflammation, and eating more foods with demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties.
Next, we’re going to break down examples of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods. But as we help you explore your nutrition options, it’s important to remember that there isn’t one “anti-inflammatory superfood” which will simply “fix” chronic inflammation. A true anti-inflammatory diet isn’t just about eating one or two specific kinds of foods. It’s about creating and sustaining an overall pattern of nutrition beneficial to your body and brain.
What foods cause inflammation?
An anti-inflammatory diet begins by drastically reducing (and ideally, cutting out entirely) food and drinks which are known to have inflammatory effects. Here are some common inflammatory food types:
Refined carbohydrates, sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup
Beyond their link to other health issues like obesity and diabetes, excessive sugar and fructose-heavy diets can contribute to inflammation. Foods to watch out for include:
- Cookies and cakes
- Donuts and pastries
- Sugary cereals
- Soft drinks
- White bread
- White rice
- Anything made with refined (white) flour
- Table sugar
- Some salad dressings
Artificial trans fats & omega-6 polyunsaturated oils
Artificial trans fats (usually listed on food labels as “partially hydrogenated oil”) are linked to an increase in inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP). Additionally, certain vegetable and seed oils (corn, soybean, sesame) may also promote inflammation. Foods to watch out for include…
- Vegetable shortening
- Packaged foods containing “partially hydrogenated oil”
- Corn oil
- Sunflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Soybean oil
Red & processed meats
Processed meats contain higher levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which can cause inflammation when cooked at high temperatures. Red meat may also cause inflammation due to its high saturated fat content. Foods to watch out for include…
- Salami and certain deli meats
- Hot dogs
- Beef jerky
- Spam/canned meats
- Beef, pork, lamb, and goat meats
Alcohol is a neurotoxin best avoided by anyone looking to fight cognitive decline. But it’s also specifically tied to increasing CRP. Excessive drinking can also lead bacterial toxins to leave the colon and spread into the body, causing inflammation. Drinks to watch out for include…
- Liquor and spirits
The best anti-inflammatory foods
So, now that you know the biggest nutritional culprits promoting inflammation, let’s look at some anti-inflammatory options.
What makes food anti-inflammatory?
A few different qualities in food can contribute to their anti-inflammatory properties. These include:
- Antioxidants. Antioxidants lessen the effect of free radicals, which damage our cells, and boost our immune system.
- Fiber. High-fiber diets are associated with lower levels of CRPs.
- Omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids, aka “healthy fats”, help balance and neutralize omega-6 fats.
- Polyphenols. Polyphenols, found in plants, interact with proteins involved in cell signaling and have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Unsaturated fats. Saturated fats promote inflammation.
With that in mind, here are some specific foods to incorporate into your diet to fight chronic inflammation and keep your brain healthy and working at its best.
Fruits & Vegetables
- Berries high in fiber and antioxidants, such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and blackberries.
- Grapes, which contain inflammation-reducing anthocyanins and antioxidants.
- Tomatoes, which contain potassium, vitamin C, and the inflammation-reducing antioxidant lycopene.
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, collards, and kale, which contain sulforaphane. Sulforaphane helps neutralize toxins, reduce inflammation, and protect your DNA.
- Leafy greens, such as arugula, spinach, and endive, which contain Vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as carotenoid-antioxidants.
- Avocados, which contain potassium, magnesium, fiber, and anti-inflammatory compounds.
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, herring, tuna, mackerel, and anchovies.
- Nuts containing protein and healthy fats, like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts.
- Beans and legumes, a good source of fiber, protein, and minerals, including pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and lentils.
Spices & Cooking Staples
- Extra virgin olive oil, a great source of healthy fat that contains oleocanthal, an anti-inflammatory antioxidant.
- Turmeric, which contains curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory compound shown to reduce CRP.
- Ginger, which inhibits several genes involved in the body’s inflammatory response.
- Garlic, which contains diallyl disulfide, a compound that limits the effects of inflammatory cytokines.
- Green tea, which contains antioxidants and an inflammation-inhibiting substance called EGCG.
- Ginger or turmeric tea, due to the anti-inflammatory properties of the spices.
Mainstream anti-inflammatory diets
We always encourage you to discuss your specific dietary needs with your doctor. However, for those looking for further guidance in getting started with a more anti-inflammatory approach to nutrition, the following mainstream dietary plans serve as good jumping off points.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is based on traditional meals and cooking in the region surrounding the Mediterranean sea. It emphasizes whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, with fish and olive oil serving as the main sources of healthy fats. The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the most heart-healthy diets, but it also focuses on eating primarily anti-inflammatory foods.
The DASH Diet
The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It's designed to reduce high blood pressure, but can also reduce inflammation. Like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet focuses on whole foods and limits sweets and processed foods. The main difference between the DASH and Mediterranean diets is that DASH includes more dairy, and doesn't emphasize fish or olive oil as much.
KetoFlex 12/3 is a variation on the standard Keto diet. It's a high-fat diet that focuses on whole- and plant-based foods, while reducing carbohydrates to promote metabolic flexibility. Its main difference from the standard Keto diet is that it includes slightly more carbs, while also incorporating intermittent fasting.
KetoFlex 12/3 is specifically intended to not just be anti-inflammatory, but to reduce the brain's reliance on glucose for energy. This is also important to cognitive decline, because Alzheimer's disease causes neurons to develop insulin resistance.
The vegetarian diet may or may not be anti-inflammatory, depending on the foods you choose to eat. Vegetarian staples like fresh fruit and vegetables and non-animal proteins like beans and lentils are anti-inflammatory. However, many processed and high-sugar foods, like chips, cookies, and crackers, are vegetarian, but not anti-inflammatory. You may decide to reduce your meat consumption to aid in reducing chronic inflammation - just don’t fill the void with other inflammatory foods.
More tips for adjusting to an anti-inflammatory diet
Beyond incorporating anti-inflammatory foods and avoiding inflammatory ones, here are some tips and tricks to help you follow a more anti-inflammatory diet.
1. Eat fewer processed foods.
As a general rule, the best anti-inflammatory diets include as few processed foods, snacks, and beverages as possible. This is because most processed foods will contain inflammatory ingredients, like artificial trans fats, hydrogenated oils, and high-fructose corn syrup. If your go-to snack includes a long ingredients list, you’ll probably want to swap it for something else. Instead, focus on consuming whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
2. Make healthy swaps.
In addition to swapping processed foods for whole foods, consider what other substitutions you can make to make your diet more anti-inflammatory. For example…
- Swap red meat with lean poultry or fish, or non-animal proteins like beans and lentils.
- Swap refined carbs like white bread and white rice with whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat bread.
- Swap margarine and butter for healthier fats like olive oil.
3. Prepare your meals mindfully.
When cooking, pay attention to how you prepare your meals. Lower your salt usage, and add more anti-inflammatory herbs and spices like ginger, garlic, and turmeric. Avoid deep frying your food. Swap to an air-fryer to reduce your oil consumption, or better yet, opt to bake, broil, or braise your food instead.
4. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Increasing your fruit and vegetable intake benefits your nutrition across the board. But fruits and vegetables are also a key source of antioxidants, which support our immune system and help fight inflammation.
5. Focus on fiber.
High-fiber diets show lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which measures inflammation. So, eating fiber-rich foods like beans, broccoli, and whole grains will help you cut back on inflammation.
6. Try an elimination diet.
Everyone’s body is different, and we all process the nutrition we nourish ourselves with differently. If you’ve cut the typical inflammatory foods from your diet, but are still experiencing chronic inflammation, you may want to try an elimination diet.
An elimination diet focuses on removing common foods you eat from your diet one by one. This allows you to discover any specific food sensitivities or intolerances you might be unaware of. For example, you may have a dairy or gluten sensitivity that causes inflammation in your body, while others are not affected in the same way.
7. Consider the other factors of inflammation.
Though an anti-inflammatory diet is an important step to take to improve your brain health, nutrition isn’t the only contributing factor to chronic inflammation. Most notably, many people with autoimmune disorders will experience chronic inflammation. In addition, several other lifestyle factors can increase inflammation, including:
- Excessive drinking
- Chronic stress
- Excessive high-intensity exercise
- Lack of physical activity
- Exposure to environmental toxins (pollution, industrial waste)
If you find adjusting your diet doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on your chronic inflammation, discuss your lifestyle with your doctor to identify any other contributing factors you can address.
Remember, you can’t “cure” chronic inflammation just by eating a couple anti-inflammatory foods. To make a lasting impact on your cognitive health, you’ll need to commit to consistently removing inflammatory foods from your diet.
Want customized, expert advice on nourishing your brain?
Are you looking to revolutionize your nutrition, change your lifestyle, and optimize your cognitive health? If you know it’s time to not just work around your health challenges, but to do something about them, check out My RBI Academy. We’ll send you new tips and tricks for improving your cognitive health each month, all backed by our years of medical expertise and grounded in our holistic six pillar approach.