The Invisible Problem -Genius Foods_ Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life
Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant. It is the same thing which makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with fear, brings sleeplessness and aimless anxieties. . . . In these ways I hold that the brain is the most powerful organ in the human body.
Ready for the good news?
Nestled within your skull, mere inches from your eyes, are eighty-six billion of the most efficient transistors in the
known universe. This neural network is you, running the operating system we know as life, and no computer yet
conceived comes close to its awesome capabilities. Forged over millions and millions of years of life on Earth, your
brain is capable of storing nearly eight thousand iPhones’ worth of information. Everything you are, do, love, feel,
care for, long for, and aspire to is enabled by an incredibly complex, invisible symphony of neurological processes.
Elegant, seamless, and blisteringly fast: when scientists tried to simulate just one second of a human brain’s abilities, it took supercomputers forty minutes to do so.
Now for the bad news: the modern world is like The Hunger Games, and your brain is an unwitting combatant,
hunted mercilessly and relentlessly from all sides. The way we live today is undermining our incredible birthright,
fighting our optimal cognitive performance, and putting us at risk for some seriously nasty afflictions.
Our industrially ravaged diets supply cheap and plentiful calories with poor nutrient content and toxic additives. Our
careers shoehorn us into doing the same tasks over and over again, while our brains thrive with change and stimulation. We are saddled with stress, a lack of connection to nature, unnatural sleep patterns, and overexposure to news and tragedy, and our social networks have been replaced by The Social Network—all of which lead ultimately to premature aging and decay. We’ve created a world so far removed from the one in which our brains evolved that they are now struggling to survive.
These modern constructs drive us to compound the damage with our day-to-day actions. We convince ourselves
that six hours in bed means we’ve gotten a full night’s sleep. We consume junk food and energy drinks to stay awake, medicate to fall asleep, and come the weekend go overboard with escapism, all in a feeble attempt to grasp a momentary reprieve from our daily struggle. This causes a short circuit in our inhibitory control system—our brain’s inner voice of reason—turning us into lab rats frantically searching for our next dopamine hit. The cycle perpetuates itself, over time reinforcing habits and driving changes that not only make us feel crappy, but can ultimately lead to cognitive decline.
Whether or not we are conscious of it, we are caught in the crossfire between warring factions. Food companies,
operating under the “invisible hand” of the market, are driven by shareholders to deliver ever-increasing profits lest
they risk irrelevance. As such, they market foods to us explicitly designed to create insatiable addiction. On the opposing front, our underfunded health-care system and scientific research apparatus are stuck playing catch-up, doling out advice and policy that however well intentioned is subject to innumerable biases—from innocuous errors of thought to outright corruption via industry-funded studies and scientific careers dependent on private-interest funding.
It’s no wonder that even well-educated people are confused when it comes to nutrition. One day we’re told to
avoid butter, the next that we may as well drink it. On a Monday we hear that physical activity is the best way to lose
weight, only to learn by Friday that its impact on our waistline is marginal compared to diet. We are told over and
over again that whole grains are the key to a healthy heart, but is heart disease really caused by a deficiency of morning oatmeal? Blogs and traditional news media alike attempt to cover new science, but their coverage (and sensational headlines) often seems more intent on driving hits to their websites than informing the public.
Our physicians, nutritionists, and even the government all have their say, and yet they are consciously and subconsciously influenced by powers beyond the naked eye. How can you possibly know who and what to trust whe so much is at stake?
In the early months following my mother’s diagnosis, I did what any good son would do: I accompanied her to doctors’ appointments, journal full of questions in hand, desperate to attain even a sliver of clarity to ease our worrying minds. When we couldn’t find answers in one city, we flew to the next. From New York City to Cleveland to Baltimore. Though we were fortunate enough to visit some of the highest-ranking neurology departments in the United States, we were met every time with what I’ve come to call “diagnose and adios”: after a battery of physical and cognitive tests we were sent on our way, often with a prescription for some new biochemical Band-Aid and little
else. After each appointment, I became more and more obsessed with finding a better approach. I lost sleep to
countless late-night hours of research, wanting to learn everything I possibly could about the mechanisms underlying the nebulous illness that was robbing my mom of her brainpower.
Because she was seemingly in her prime when her symptoms first struck, I wasn’t able to blame old age. A
youthful, fashionable, and charismatic woman in her fifties, my mom was not—and still is not—the picture of a person succumbing to the ravages of aging. We had no prior familyhistory of any kind of neurodegenerative disease, so it seemed her genes could not be solely responsible. There had to be some external trigger, and my hunch was that it had something to do with her diet.
Following that hunch led me to spend the better part of the past decade exploring the role that food (and lifestyle
factors like exercise, sleep, and stress) play in brain function. I discovered that a few vanguard clinicians have
focused on the connection between brain health and metabolism—how the body creates energy from essential
ingredients like food and oxygen. Even though my mom had never been diabetic, I dove into the research on type 2
diabetes and hormones like insulin and leptin, the little-known signal that controls the body’s metabolic master switch. I became interested in the latest research on diet and cardiovascular health, which I hoped would speak to the maintenance of the network of tiny blood vessels that supply oxygen and other nutrients to the brain. I learned
how the ancient bacteria that populate our intestines serve as silent guardians to our brains, and how our modern diets are literally starving them to death.
As I uncovered more and more about how food plays into our risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t help
but integrate each new finding into my own life. Almost immediately, I noticed that my energy levels began to
increase, and they felt more consistent throughout the day. My thoughts seemed to flow more effortlessly, and I found myself in a better mood more often. I also noticed that I was more easily able to direct my focus and attention and tune out distractions. And, though it wasn’t my initial goal, I even managed to lose stubborn fat and get in the best shape of my life—a welcome bonus! Even though my research was initially motivated by my mom, I became hooked on my new brain-healthy diet.
I had inadvertently stumbled upon a hidden insight: that the same foods that will help shield our brains against
dementia and aging will also make them work better in the here and now. By investing in our future selves, we can improve our lives today.
Reclaim Your Cognitive Birthright
For as long as modern medicine had existed, doctors believed that the anatomy of the brain was fixed at maturity.
The potential to change—whether for a person born with a learning disability, a victim of brain injury, a dementia
sufferer, or simply someone looking to improve how their brain worked—was considered an impossibility. Your
cognitive life, according to science, would play out like this: your brain, the organ responsible for consciousness, would undergo a fierce period of growth and organization up to age twenty-five—the peak state of your mental hardware—only to begin a long, gradual decline until the end of life. This was, of course, assuming that you didn’t do anything to accelerate that process along the way (hello, college).
Then, in the mid-nineties, a discovery was made that forever changed the way scientists and doctors viewed the
brain: it was found that new brain cells could be generated throughout the life of the adult human. This was certainly
welcome news to a species heir to the flagship product of Darwinian evolution: the human brain. Up until that point, the creation of new brain cells—called neurogenesis—was thought to occur only during development. In one fell
swoop, the days of “neurological nihilism,” a term coined by neuroscientist Norman Doidge, were over. The concept
of lifelong neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change up until death—was born, and with it a unique opportunity to mine this landmark discovery for greater health and performance.
Flash forward just a couple of decades to today and you could almost develop whiplash from the progress being
made toward the understanding of our brains—both how we can protect them and how we can enhance them. Take the developments in the field of Alzheimer’s disease research. Alzheimer’s is a devastating neurodegenerative condition affecting more than five million people in the United States (with numbers expected to triple in the coming years); it is only recently that diet was thought to have any impact on the disease at all. In fact, though the disease was first described in 1906 by German physician Alois Alzheimer, 90 percent of what we know about the condition has been discovered in just the last fifteen years.
GIVE DEMENTIA THE FINGER
I had the privilege of visiting Miia Kivipelto, a neurobiologist at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet and one
of the foremost researchers exploring the effects of diet and lifestyle on the brain. She leads the groundbreaking
FINGER trial, or Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability, the world’s
first ongoing, large-scale, long-term randomized control trial to measure the impact that our dietary and lifestyle choicesb have on our cognitive health.
The trial involves over 1,200 at-risk older adults, half of whom are enrolled in nutritional counseling and exercise
programs, as well as social support to reduce psychosocial risk factors for cognitive decline such as loneliness, depression, and stress. The other half—the control group—receives standard care.
After the first two years, initial findings were published revealing striking results. The overall cognitive function of
those in the intervention group increased by 25 percent compared to controls, and their executive function improved by 83 percent. Executive function is critically important to many aspects of a healthy life, playing a key role in planning, decision making, and even social interaction. (If your executive function isn’t working up to snuff, you
might complain that you are unable to think clearly or “get stuff done.”) And the volunteers’ processing speed
improved by a staggering 150 percent. Processing speed is the rate at which one takes in and reacts to new information, and it typically declines with age.
The success of this trial highlights the power that a full ifestyle “makeover” can have on improving the way your
brain works, even in old age, and provides the best evidence to date that cognitive decline does not have to be an inevitable part of aging.
As a result of this shift in our understanding of the brain, institutions such as the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and
Memory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have sprung up, dedicated to filling in the gaps of our
collective neuro-knowledge. Other emerging specialties have followed suit, eager to explore the links between our
environments (including diet) and various aspects of our brain function. Take Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, which exists solely to study the link between diet and mood disorders. In 2017, the center revealed how even
major depression might be treated with food. I’ll detail these findings, and the exact foods that can boost your mood, in the chapters to come.
Still, many remain in the dark about this vast and rapidly growing body of research. A study performed by AARP
found that while over 90 percent of Americans believe brain health to be very important, few know how to maintain or improve it. Even our own well-meaning physicians, to whom we turn when we’re scared and confused, are
seemingly behind the times. The Journal of the American Medical Association itself reported that it takes seventeen years on average for scientific discoveries to be put into day-to-day clinical practice. And so, we move through the motions as the old narrative continues—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
A Genetic Master Controller—You!
Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.
Mistakes is the word you’re too embarrassed to use. You ought not to be. You’re a product of a trillion of them. Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.
–ROBERT FORD (PLAYED BY ANTHONY
HOPKINS), WESTWORLD, HBO
Our genes were once considered our biological playbook— the code that ran our lives, including how our brains
functioned. Understanding this code was the goal of the Human Genome Project, completed in 2002, with the hope
that by the end, the secrets to curing human disease (including cancer and genetic diseases) would be splayed out in front of us. Though the project was a remarkable scientific achievement, the results were disenchanting.
It turns out that what distinguishes one person from the next is actually quite insignificant from a genetic standpoint, accounting for less than 1 percent of total genetic variation.So then why do some people live well into their nineties and beyond, maintaining robust brains and bodies, while others do not? Questions like this have continued to perplex scientists in the wake of the project, and have given rise to the idea that there has to be some other factor, or factors, to account for the wide range of differences in health and aging displayed by the global human population.
Enter epigenetics, the phoenix to rise from the project’s ashes. If our genes are akin to the keys on a grand piano
with twenty-three thousand notes, we now understand that our choices are able to influence the song that is played.
This is because while our choices can’t change our hardcoded genetics, they can impact the layer of chemicals that
sits atop our DNA, telling it what to do. This layer is called the epigenome, derived from the Greek word epi, which
means “above.” Our epigenome affects not only our chances of developing whatever disease we’re most at risk
for, but also the moment-to-moment expression of our genes, which respond dynamically to the countless inputs
we give them. (Perhaps even more shrouded in mystery is the sheet music, the order and sequence and frequency of
activation of every gene in the development of a given organism—but that is for another book!)
While a treatise on epigenetics could span volumes, this book will zero in on one of the marquee maestros to play on
our genetic keyboard: diet. Will your genetic conductor be a Leonard Bernstein, or a fifth-grade student pounding the ivories for the first time? It may depend largely on your dietary choices. What you eat will determine whether you’ll be able to modulate inflammation, “train” a prizewinning immune system, and produce powerful brain-boosting compounds—all with the help of a few underappreciated nutrients (and lifestyle techniques) that have become seemingly lost to the modern world.
As you proceed, remember: nobody’s a perfect specimen. I’m certainly not, and neither is Dr. Paul (though
he’d argue otherwise). When it comes to genes, everyone has traits that, when thrust up against the modern world,
increase their risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and, yes, dementia. In the past, these differences may have
driven the evolution of our species, serving as advantages in our mysterious ancestral world. Now, these differences are why any person that makes it to age forty has an 80 percent chance of dying from one of these maladies. But, there’s good news: if there’s anything the past few years have shown us, it’s that genes are not destiny—they merely
predict what the Standard American Diet will do to you. This book will position you to be in the 20 percent as we
address how to keep your brain and vascular system healthy (and even check some boxes for cancer prevention and
weight loss while we’re at it).
In the next few chapters, I’ll describe an evidence-based antidote to the brain-shrinking Standard American Diet and
lifestyle, replete with nutrients to fuel your ravenous brain and physical and mental techniques to take back the
robustness that is your evolutionary destiny. Your primary opponents in the battle for your cognitive birthright are
inflammation, overfeeding, nutrient deficiencies, toxic exposure, chronic stress, physical stagnation, and sleep loss.
(If this sounds like a lot, don’t worry—they overlap, and tending to one often makes it easier to improve on the others.)
Here’s a brief overview of each of these “bad guys.”
In a perfect world, inflammation is simply the ability of our immune systems to “spot clean” cuts, wounds, and
bruises and to prevent the occasional bacterial tourist from becoming a full-blown infection. Today, our immune
systems have become chronically activated in response to our diets and lifestyles. This has been recognized in the past several years as playing a pivotal role in driving or initiating many of the chronic, degenerative diseases plaguing modern society. Widespread inflammation can eventually damage your DNA, promote insulin resistance (the underlying mechanism that drives type 2 diabetes), and cause weight gain. This may be why systemic inflammation correlates significantly with a larger waistline.In the coming chapters, we will definitively link these same factors to brain disease, brain fog, and depression as well.
We haven’t always been able to summon our food with a few swipes on a smartphone. By solving our species’ food
scarcity problem during the Agricultural Revolution, we’ve created a new one: overfeeding. For the first time in history, there are more overweight than underweight humans walking the Earth.With our bodies constantly in a “fed” state, an ancient balance has been lost, one that has set us up for low brain energy, accelerated aging, and decay. Part of this has to do with the fact that many foods today are specifically designed to push our brains to an artificial “bliss point” beyond which self-control becomes futile (we’ll explore this in chapter 3).
In Vanilla Sky (one of my favorite films), writer/director Cameron Crowe wrote, “Every passing minute is a chance
to turn it all around.” This is particularly true of our bodies’ ability to repair against the damages incurred due to aging, but only when we feed them the right ingredients. With 90 percent of Americans now falling short in obtaining adequate amounts of at least one vitamin or mineral, we have set the stage for accelerated aging and decline.
Our food supply has become awash in “food-like” products. These products directly contribute to the three
factors mentioned above: they are stripped of nutrients during the production process, they promote their own
overconsumption, and they drive inflammation. Most insidious, however, may be the “bonus” toxic additives—
the syrups, industrial oils, and emulsifiers that directly and indirectly contribute to an activated immune system, driving anxiety, depression, suboptimal cognitive performance, and long-term risk for disease.
Chronic psychological stress is a major problem in the Western world. Like inflammation, the body’s stress
response was designed by evolution to keep us safe, but it has been hijacked by the modern world. While chronic
stress is directly toxic to our brain function (covered in chapter 9), it also sends us reaching for unhealthy foods, thus compounding the damage done.
Our bodies are designed to move, and ignoring that fact causes our brains to suffer. The evidence on exercise is mounting to an impressive degree, validating it not only as a method of boosting our long-term brain health (enabling us to fend off diseases once thought unpreventable), but as a means of enhancing the way we think and learn.
Similarly, we’ve evolved with another type of exercise: thermal exercise. We are great at changing our environment
to suit our comfort levels, but the relative lack of variation in temperature we experience on a daily basis may undermine our peak brainpower and resistance to disease.
Last but not least, good-quality sleep is a precondition for optimal brain function and health. It gives you the ability
to make dietary and lifestyle changes by making sure your hormones are working for you, not against you. And it
purifies your brain and backs up your memories. Costco size gains for dollar store effort, and yet our collective sleep debt is rising.
As I’ve mentioned, any one of these villains has the power to wreak cognitive destruction, and they have formed an
unholy alliance to do so. But, if you allow this book to be your bow and arrow, sword and spear, you may just stand a
In the coming chapters, we’ll lay out a road map to circumvent the shortcomings of our discordant, high-stress
lifestyles as we marry evolutionary principles with the latest clinical research. We’ll use diet to reset your brain to its
“factory settings,” leaving you feeling and performing your very best. And we’ll even venture into the new and exciting science surrounding the microbiome—the collective of bacteria that live within us, working the knobs and levers of our health, mood, and performance in astounding ways. They provide a new lens from which to assess our every choice.
Up next, as you begin to reclaim your cognitive legacy, you’re going to learn about the nutrient that your brain is desperate for. May the odds be ever in your favor.
The Invisible Problem -Genius Foods_ Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life