The Mind Diet: Part Four of a Four-Part Series on Brain Health

Functional foods and diet tips for the 21st century brain.

Lots of things are hard to do on an empty stomach, and thinking is foremost among them. For one thing, you can’t keep your mind off finding something to eat. Worse still is that without the proper dietary nutrients in sufficient quantities, the brain will have trouble doing much at all, period. For this reason, consumers are looking to power up their brains while they chow down.

Lots of things are hard to do on an empty stomach, and thinking is foremost among them. For one thing, you can’t keep your mind off finding something to eat. Worse still is that without the proper dietary nutrients in sufficient quantities, the brain will have trouble doing much at all, period. For this reason, consumers are looking to power up their brains while they chow down. Modern lifestyles and professions often demand quite a lot of people. “They need the skills of analyzing, organizing and brainstorming. All of these require intense mental focus,” says Brett Lemker, director of operations at TrueToniqs, LLC, Longmont, CO.

Whether the brain boost comes from foods that naturally benefit cognition or products fortified with brain-nourishing nutrients, consumers are looking for noticeable results with little hassle. “When the milk and orange juice that you are already consuming have essential nutrients added, it’s a seamless way of adding nutrients to your diet,” says Jon Getzinger, chief sales and marketing officer for Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd., Dartmouth, NS, Canada.

When dealing with certain psychological conditions, it can sometimes help to take a look at adding or subtracting from an individual’s overall diet. As we’ll see, the Gluten-Free/Casein-Free (GFCF) diet is gaining traction as a tool for parents of autistic children, and several common foods have emerged as resources for improving attention deficit disorders.

Feed Your Head
Grocery shoppers’ eyes light up when they discover products with added value. Foods that offer support for one’s mental faculties stand out in particular because everyone wants a sharper noggin. In large part, it’s that cool, collected and ready-for-action state of mind that consumers are after, according to Julie Thibeau, director of sales and marketing for NutriScience Innovations, LLC, Trumbull, CT. “I believe most consumers are looking for products that help to calm mood and improve focus and concentration,” she says.

Stress is not only bad for the mind during the day, but it can also derail one’s ability to sleep and sleep well. This constitutes a vicious cycle that feeds more stress. Thibeau says that those under stress from a struggling economy, lack of job security, rising healthcare costs and other factors are finding it difficult to get their rest. Rather than relying on quick-boost energy drinks following a poor night’s sleep, these individuals may benefit from fortified foods that can sharpen focus during the day and ease one into sleep at the end of it.

One such fortifying substance is l-theanine. According to Thibeau, a branded version of this amino acid (Suntheanine) can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation, without causing drowsiness. Several studies have indicated that l-theanine works by increasing the activity of brain waves associated with mental alertness. In a recent trial, isolated l-theanine in combination with green tea extract (which contains l-theanine) improved scores on memory and attention tests in those with mild cognitive impairments (1). As noted, l-theanine can be found naturally in green tea, but it is also working its way into many fortified beverages and other foods.

Beyond working professionals and the sleep deprived, a key demographic for brain-supporting food is, of course, the aging population going through cognitive decline. Getzinger says that this group is increasingly reaching for products that may help stem memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The brain-support qualities of omega-3 fatty acids makes them a common sight in such products. “Research is suggesting that omega-3 EPA/DHA fatty acids help protect our brain cells, and, as awareness grows, we expect to see more and more consumers reaching for omega-3 fortified products,” Getzinger says.

DHA in particular, because of its special importance to brain structure at the cellular level, is used to enrich many food products, according to Andrea Martin, manager of brand public relations at Martek, Columbia, MD, a division of DSM Nutritional Products, Parsippany, NJ. “In infants and children, DHA is important for brain and eye development and may promote cognitive development. For adults, DHA is important for ongoing brain health and has been shown in a clinical study to improve memory,” she says.

Indeed, Martin cites a recent, groundbreaking trial in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, as the first large-scale, randomized, placebo-controlled study to show that DHA can improve memory in aging adults. Called The Memory Improvement with Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) Study (MIDAS), it saw participants receive a plant source of omega-3s that is growing popular as a food ingredient. “Study participants who consumed 900 mg of algal DHA for six months had almost double the reduction in errors on a test that measures learning and memory performance versus those who took a placebo,” Martin says.

Lemker describes two nutrients that underlie the ability of brain cells to communicate and for memory to function. Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), according to Lemker, can boost short-term and long-term memory while aiding concentration and reducing anxiety. “DMAE is a naturally occurring substance produced by the human brain through two cholesterol enzymes, and works primarily by speeding up the production of acetylcholine, a very important neurotransmitter responsible for carrying messages between brain cells,” he explains.

Acetylcholine, which is vital for memory function, has alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine (A-GPC) as a chemical precursor. Lemker calls these choline substances true nootropics, or cognitive enhancers, since acetylcholine metabolism mediates many aspects of mood, memory and intelligence. Both A-GPC and DMAE are components in a branded beverage product (Brain Toniq) that also contains two Russian roots. Eleuthero root extract and rhodiola root are both adaptogens, according to Lemker. “These adaptogens enable the body to maintain homeostasis and overall physiological balance during times of physical or mental stress,” he says.

Not all brain food products have something extra added in, and some of these au naturel options can offer strong nutritional and dollar value. “Today, in the downturned economy, we find that consumers are looking for high nutritional value for the lowest cost,” say Michael and Lynn Monroe, owners of FungusAmongUs Inc., Snohomish, WA. Mushrooms, according to the Monroes, fit the description of the high-value products just described.

Mushrooms remind us that brain health is not solely about the cognitive dimension. Enhanced verbal test scores, mental clarity and the like have been associated with the intake of some mushrooms, according to the Monroes. But the brain needs to function at a basic physiological level as well, like every other part of the body. Mushrooms can help stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent damage to blood vessels, helping to ensure a constant supply of oxygen to the brain and therefore a decreased risk of stroke.

Of course, the purely cognitive benefits mushrooms can offer are nice, too. One study showed that the consumption of whole Lion’s Mane mushrooms (yamabushitake in Japanese) for 16 weeks significantly enhanced verbal abilities in subjects with mild cognitive impairment (2).

Dietary Shifts
Once a mostly obscure option for trying to alleviate the symptoms of autism, the GFCF diet has many adherents and advocates today, among them Jay Bigam, executive vice president of Kinnikinnick Foods Inc., based in Edmonton, AB, Canada. After personally gaining an interest in the potential of the diet, Bigam’s company began to develop GFCF friendly products in 1999. Around that time, the company also attended its first autism conference and tradeshow. “It was an interesting experience, as out of the 500 people attending, only two or three had even heard about ‘the diet,’” Bigam says.

Bigam then became involved in the development of a GFCF diet survey. Parents of children placed on the diet were invited to share their results in an organized, though not scientifically rigorous, way. This survey, according to Bigam, made use of the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist, which includes questions touching on speech, sociability, cognitive awareness, health/behavior and more.

“This detailed checklist helps determine the overall effectiveness of any treatment for autism,” Bigam explains. A majority of respondents to that survey, Bigam notes, reported witnessing “good” to “very good” results from the diet (3). Bigam also points to the dozens of anecdotal success stories posted on The actual number of scientific studies on the subject, however, is quite low.

How is the GFCF diet thought to benefit those on the autism spectrum? “The basic premise behind the diet is that there is a subset of people on the spectrum that have problems digesting gluten and casein,” Bigam says. These two offending proteins are broken down into the peptides glutomorphin and casomorphin, respectively. These substances, which are classified as opiods, are thought to cross into the bloodstream due to a certain “leaky gut” condition that may be present in some autistic individuals. Then, they make their way to the brain and disrupt proper function there, causing a range of symptoms. The idea is that cutting out the original proteins short circuits this cycle.

Of course, such a large nutritional change as the adoption of a GFCF diet, or even a partial adoption aimed at reducing gluten and casein, should be made in consultation with a doctor and with an autistic individual’s therapist. Bigam believes a GFCF diet that includes meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables can be quite healthy if done properly, and one need not rely solely on the many GFCF-specific food products now on the market.

One popular option when going down the GFCF road is flax. Flax and flaxseed oil have been associated with improved attention in those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One study found a direct correlation between flaxseed oil consumption and reduced hyperactivity scores (4). Though it contains a moderate amount of gluten, spelt is seen by some as an important alternative to common wheat for those with more mild wheat-related digestive issues.

(Brain)Wave of the Future
Beverages fortified with all kinds of health-bestowing nutrients, not just those for brain health, may simply be the way the market gravitates permanently. For their value and convenience, it’s hard to beat drinks that do something more than hydrate. Often, this something more can be expected to arrive quickly, as Lemker notes that consumers report more or less instant effects from his company’s drink, with effects tapering off after one to four hours.

It is paramount that natural products in this category distinguish themselves from the glut of quick-fix energy drinks and shots found everywhere these days. One key to drawing this distinction, Lemker says, is the presence of a label that is easy to read and understand. Easily identifiable ingredients may help put more discerning consumers at ease about what they’re getting. “They’ve already done their caffeine, and intuitively know that adding more caffeine is not the answer,” says Lemker.

A general desire for a natural means toward an improved mental state is taking root among consumers. “With consumers looking for alternatives to expensive, habit-forming pharmaceuticals with negative side effects, there has been an increased interest in dietary supplements that can improve mood,” says Thibeau. Conventional supplements have a well-established role, but it’s clear where fortified food products may hold an edge in some consumer’s minds.

For one, it’s a way to make meal time more productive, allowing busy people to kill two nutritional birds with one stone, so to speak. With the use of fortified products, “A health-conscious mom might ensure that both her children and her parents increase their omega-3 intake,” says Getzinger.

In some cases, there is also a benefit to consumers’ wallets. “Purchasing these ingredients individually would be very expensive,” notes Lemker, adding that the light carbonation present in some fortified beverages “has been shown to increase vasodilation and blood flow to the brain, so it is one of the best and fastest methods for transmitting efficacious herbs into the blood stream and brain.”

On the whole food front, mushrooms and other brain food standbys may actually, in some cases, be more bio-available and contain more nutrition per square inch than their supplement counterparts. According to the Monroes, this is simply because they are naturally edible substances. As more evidence of their benefits piles up, the food decision-makers in many households will be loading up plates with these superfoods. Indeed, “We are seeing parents expanding their children’s palettes more than ever before,” say the Monroes.

Where should an alert retailer look for value-added products in the years to come? Which applications will wind up being most popular? “As an ingredient maker, we have noticed interest from milk and juice manufacturers who want to incorporate DHA omega-3 into their products,” says Martin. The shorter answer is that they’ll be in almost everything, and experts say that, in the case of fortified products, these brain-support nutrients remain just as effective as they are in isolation. WF

1. S.K. Park, et al., “A combination of green tea extract and l-theanine improves memory and attention in subjects with mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled study,” J Med Food. 14(4), 334-43 (2011).
2. K. Mori, et al. “Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial,” Phtyother Res. 23(3). 367-372 (2009).
3. “The GFCF diet survey,”, accessed July 26, 2011.
4. K. Joshi, et al., “Supplementation with Flax Oil and Vitamin C Improves the Outcome of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),” Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fatty Acids 74 (1), 17–21 (2006).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2011