A PLANT-BASED STORY BY DR. MATTHEW GALATI
Food is medicine! This is a concept that seems intuitive, but it is a relatively new, poorly understood concept at least amongst the western medical community. You would expect nutrition to be at the foundation of medical training, but, in truth, I remember there being very little teaching around diet during my medical school training. As fate would have it in 2013, a second year medical student at the time, my car spun out of control, colliding with a tree. I was knocked into a 3 day coma and tragically amongst other comorbidities, was left with a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). It was only through this terrible twist off fortune, that I became conscious (no pun intended) of & interested in how I was fuelling my brain and body.
As I have learned through my own recovery and research, a profound mind-body connection exists! 8 years ago this may have been an emerging concept, but with all of the mental health awareness these days, people are becoming more and more aware of this notion; however, what is not yet common knowledge is the reality that there is also a MASSIVE gut-brain connection!
The Gut-Brain Axis
Did you know that the gut is the second largest network of neurons (brain cells) outside of the Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord)!? Well if this is news to you, its called the Enteric Nervous System and it directly connects to the Central Nervous System via the largest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve! The vagus nerve is a major part of the autonomic nervous system, which unconsciously regulates the function of our various body organs. The vagus nerve drives the relaxation or “rest/digest” response in our body and is the highway for bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain. This is direct evidence that the brain impacts the gut and, vice-versa, the gut impacts the brain!
Dysregulation of the Gut-Brain Axis
I found out about the gut-brain connection the hard way! Unfortunately, TBI affects your gastrointestinal tract in a number of ways, which in turn can have further impacts on the brain. TBI causes impaired autonomic regulation through the vagus nerve, can change the movement of our bowels, throws off the balance of gut bacteria, and increases intestinal permeability. This increased gut permeability can lead to inflammatory particles crossing into the blood stream. Furthermore, the blood brain barrier, which protects your brain from unwanted chemicals, is often compromised with brain injury and ultimately inflammatory factors travelling through the blood stream can directly affect the brain! Suffering mental fog, cognitive fatigue and concurrent digestive issues, it became very apparent that in order to heal my brain, I also had to heal my gut.
Food is information to your cells
Anything we ingest has an impact on the way cells and organisms in our body function and communicate with one another. You don’t fuel your car with swamp water and expect its inner mechanics to run properly! Similarly, it stand to reason that if you ingest unhealthy foods, your body and brain will not function optimally. Thus, we should be conscious of what we put into our body as different edibles/drinks can either have positive or negative effects on our inner
workings. Healthy foods like vegetables, keep our body & brain cells content & calm; on the flip side, consuming unhealthy food, like refined sugar, can cause a flood of furious immune cells throughout our body, clog our blood vessels and ultimately lead to chronic disease (ie diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline). I implore you to ask yourself: What type of information am I feeding my body and brain? Become a conscious eater!
Eating for longevity
For tangible proof that the food we consume has huge importance to our longevity, we need not delve into laborious literature - Let’s look towards the Blue Zones. These are the five places in the world where people have been shown to live the longest: Loma Linda California, Nicoya Costa Rica, Sardinia Italy, Icaria Greece and Okinawa Japan. Amongst these various regions are evidenced-based lifestyle commonalities which have been studied by anthropologists, medical researchers, epidemiologists and demographers. These common denominators are as follows: Inhabitants of all Blue Zones have a strong sense of purpose, and belonging; they keep the right tribe and put their families first; they live in environments that encourage an active lifestyle through natural movement; and finally, they eat a very plant-slanted diet! Fruits, greens, beans, yams, sweet potatoes, seeds and nuts seem to be the foods most often consumed by Blue Zoners. Whole grains are ok too. Also of note, olive oil, a plant based oil, is used most frequently amongst the Blue Zones.
Eating for brain and cardiovascular health:
There are strong parallels between Blue Zone diets and validated diets to support
cardiovascular health. Two of these diets include the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. Interestingly, and inline with the intimate brain-body connection, researchers have adapted and combined the Mediterranean and DASH diet to create the MIND (“Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet - a diet designed to promote brain health, decrease cognitive impairment, reduce incidence of dementia8 and improve cognitive outcomes after stroke.
The MIND diet
The MIND diet outlines the servings of brain healthy foods that should be consumed in a week and the servings to which you should limit brain unhealthy foods in a week. Like the diet consumed by Blue Zone inhabitants, surprise, surprise, the MIND diet happens to be heavily plant-based. According to the MIND diet we should be eating ample nutrient dense, leafy green vegetables
such as spinach, collard greens and kale. Although these green leafy vegetables are the best for preventing cognitive decline, the MIND diet says other vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables (eg. broccoli, cauliflower), should be consumed as well. Colourful berries such as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are also staples of the MIND diet for their antioxidant, brain protective properties. Nuts high in omega-3 fatty acids (eg. almonds, walnuts) are also encouraged for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective potential. Of note,
omega-3 fatty acids are also the structural component from which majority of our brain is comprised. For this reason, fatty, omega-3-rich fish, like sardines, salmon and mackerel are also favoured by the MIND diet. Your are what you eat... literally ;)
Similar to the Blue Zones, olive oil, a monounsaturated (MUFA) fat containing lots of
phytonutrients, is favoured, but other MUFA sources such as avocado oil are important as well.
There is evidence that these oils are anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and protective against heart disease/stroke. Beans are encouraged as they are excellent prebiotics and feed good bacteria the live in our gut. These bacteria maintain balance in our intestines, support immune health and prevent inflammation from spreading throughout the body.
When it comes to carbs, the MIND diet approves of oats and whole gains which are high in fibre. Refined carbohydrates, found in white bread/rice, deserts and pastries should be avoided! The insulin spike caused by these sugars is damaging to the brain and is a big contributor to cognitive decline.
Fruits and vegetables are medicine
The health benefits of a plant based diet for cardiovascular and brain health are significant and cannot be ignored. Modifying my own diet to include an abundance of colourful fruits/vegetables, nuts, beans & healthy oils helped heal my gut and ultimately my brain following my severe TBI back in 2013. Through adopting a brain healthy lifestyle, I was blessed to make an incredible recovery and complete my medical training. Now a physician working in the neurorehabillitaiton space, I continue to practice brain healthy habits (including eating ample fruits/veggies). Although I consider myself back to baseline, I continue to live a brain healthy lifestyle to lead by example, but also because it makes me feel/function so much better. It’s important to note that being brain healthy is a culture that extends beyond illness and recovery. It’s fundamental to living a long, prosperous and cognitively intact existence on this planet.
Though much education is still needed to build awareness and recognition that food, specifically fruits & vegetables are medicine, the paradigm shift has already begun. In fact, in 2019 Canada made major revisions to it’s food guide - a reworking long overdue! ...And guess what? Health Canada has updated the guideline to recommended eating “plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods!” Oh and.. “Choose protein foods that come from plants more often.”
So It’s time for your awakening. Shift your mind and eat plants, support
your heart, feed your brain, heal your gut, live long, happy, and healthy.