Walnuts For Brains

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not eaten well ~ Virginia Woolf

A whole bunch of years ago I decided to take up snowboarding. On day one I refused the free helmet and got a minor concussion. Day two was a mandatory rest day and on day three I was back on the slopes without the free, strongly recommended wrist guards and broke my wrist. (I know.) On day four I walked to my favourite après food hut at the base of Whistler Mountain. I wolfed down a large order of steaming fries, eyeing my poutine-eating neighbours, wondering if I should order some of that… was that real gravy? My stomach groaned. When I got up to go my knees buckled and by head throbbed. I was sure I was going to vomit up those tasty frites. But not like ooh I ate too much too fast, more like my body was violently objecting to the food I just fed it.

In a stupor of hunger and pain I staggered across the village to the base of Blackcomb Mountain and into the old-school glam Fairmont Chateau. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t brushed my teeth or hair, and I know I didn’t shower that morning but the good folks at the swank lounge are used to serving sweaty mountain sliders. I plopped onto one of their couches and started on the ‘sharing’ platter. Paté spread thick on wafer thin bread, then cheeses shoved into my gob when all the meat was gone, olives and such were left untouched. I immediately felt better. The enraged body / stomach revolt was over. It would start up again in a few hours and I’d have to feed it more protein and calcium, every meal, every day until my wrist healed was like that.

This is how I figured it: my body was mending a bone and it needed building blocks: protein and calcium

Years later, after brain surgery I was hungry again. Not for paté and cheese, but something not hosptital food. (I know, me and every hospital patient ever) My mother-in-law sent me dinners she cooked at home just for me: every meal came with soup with Chinese greens and walnuts*. After I ate it, I always felt much much better. Not just yummy my tummy’s full, but better, as in my near debilitating headache abated, my breathing evened out and I could try things like focusing my eyes on objects or people instead of just staring at my IV line.

* The walnuts were important: in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or at least at its grassroots, any edible item that resembles a body part is good for that body part. Walnuts look like brains, ergo walnuts are good for brains. Walnuts-for-brainWith this logic my Chinese mother-in-law fed me walnut soup to heal my broken brain. (This also explains some of the illegal poaching of predators for their schwanzes.)

Strangely, or serendipitously, one of my rare university A’s was in neuroscience and I remembered (being an A-student and all) that the brain is mostly made of fats. It is in fact, the fattiest organ in the body at 60% fat. To maintain its fattiness it needs fats – OMEGA-3 essential fatty acids, to be precise – to build and maintain every component of neurotransmission: the hard-wiring of the brain that allows it to send signals, and increase the speed and accuracy of those signals. That recalled information + my mother-in-law’s soup + my broken wrist diet drove me to invent my own brain recovery diet…

…Four fish oil capsules three times a day, full fat yogurt, avocadoes, cashews, pecans, almonds, deep cold water fish like salmon, tuna and black cod. It was experimental, sometimes my food choice helped, sometimes it didn’t. Whenever I ate something that didn’t feed my brain’s need for building blocks, the scar that runs up the back of my head, cinched over the hole in my skull where the tumour was removed and it hurt. It was a dead accurate barometer for what food was helpful and what food was not.

As long as I consumed the helpful foods in robust quantities, my scar stayed silent and supple, otherwise it was Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter’s scar.

I’m guessing that not all of you have holes in your skulls with surgical scars running along them, so I asked Liane Wansbrough a holistic nutritionist  what foods would be most helpful for anyone building a healthy (recovering) brain diet. Here’s what she had to say about finding foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids:

Modern dietary practices and milling techniques have make the omega 3 fatty acids scarce. Here’s a list of foods that contain omega 3 fatty acids:

Alpha linolenic acid (ALA): flaxseeds and oil, hemp seeds and oil, chia seeds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, green leafy vegetables, omega 3 enriched eggs, grass fed meats, wild game (bison, elk), grass fed butter.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): salmon, cod, haddock, halibut, scallops”

Liane also suggests adding antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables and phytonutrients to convert the ALA foods to DHA Omega-3 building blocks for your brain and its neuropathways. ALA’s on their own don’t cut it…who knew? (not me) [But Liane Wansborough knows stuff like this and so much more — and if you need more, I strongly suggest seeking her out.]

In my experience, fueling up with the building blocks just before and immediately after an attempt at a new brain skill – any kind of physiotherapy or new brain adventure – gives your walnut what it needs to lay down or strengthen the pathways that promote brain health, resiliency and recovery.

Eat, drink and be merry!

The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook. ~ Julia Child







Vertigo is the conflict between the fear of falling & the desire to fall.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie either has vertigo or he loves roller coasters; because that is the most accurate and honest description of vertigo I’ve ever read. If you like roller coasters, you like vertigo. Like roller coasters, vertigo is fearsome (when you’re on a staircase, or driving) and also seductive. Like when you’re lying on your back about to fall asleep and you feel like you are actually falling…down through the mattress, floor, basement. But you can’t keep picking that scab; the wound won’t heal.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines vertigo as:

  • a sensation of motion in which the individual or the individual’s surroundings seem to whirl dizzyingly.
  • a dizzy confused state of mind.

So vertigo (a) causes vertigo (b).


            About a year after brain surgery and radiation, my hair was growing back and I was walking pretty well. There was a gala at a fancy ballroom and Tom (husband extraordinaire) was sure I was ready to return to the social side of life outside of our apartment. I like dressing up and getting all beautified. I even went out an got a new dress: a one shoulder, pin-tucked Greek goddess kind of dress. Very Marilyn.

The thing is, you can’t wear a bombshell goddess gown with ballet flats. I hadn’t worn heels since surgery, but – I told myself – I used to wear heels nearly every day, I’d be just fine. I wore my faves for good luck (gold peep-toe 2 1/2 inch heels if you must know).

The elevator doors opened and we stepped out into the atrium: sparkling chandeliers, plush regally patterned carpet, music and happy champagne glass clinking attendees. I knew immediately I’d made a mistake.

My heels sunk ever-so-slightly into the carpet, my brain sloshed and my stomach fluttered. The lights twinkled and the room faintly swayed. Tom threaded my arm through his and led me across the room full of people who’d been asking him how I was doing for the past year and now wanted to see for themselves…the floor did a little spin and I clutched Tom’s arm in panic. He led me to our table – in the dark dining room, illuminated by fake flickering candlelight. A band was cranking out gawd-awful ‘tunes’ and the carpeting was even more plush than the one in the atrium. I felt like I was walking a squashy tightrope in a Cirque du Soleil strobe-lighted tent. I needed help not just to walk, but to sit in my seat, I was so discombobulated.

A few minutes later one of Tom’s colleagues came over to say hello and introduce me to one of the top editors of Canada’s national newspaper. He’d read the little piece I’d written about being diagnosed with brain cancer and wanted to know if that’s what I wanted to do – write essays. Hell yeah! But my brain did sort of a stutter step, what? did he say write…I stared at him unable to find words. He asked again. I searched what was left of my mind and stammered, “um…yeah?” He blinked in that way that signals this conversation is over because it is a complete waste of time. He nodded and he was gone. And with him, the opportunity of my writing lifetime.

Messrs Merriam and Webster are right. Vertigo is both (a) a sensation of motion where the surroundings or person whirls dizzyingly and (b) a dizzy confused state of mind …and (c) often at the same time.

But what to do!?

Survival first: find something or someone to hold onto, or at least stop what you are doing. Good. Now take a breath. Okay… mind over matter. This is your brain — gone rogue, yes but it is still yours and you can influence its behaviour. Find the horizon, just like you were on a boat and seasick. If you’re indoors, look to the place where the ceiling meets the wall. Anything stable that you can focus on. Visualization also works for me: whenever I feel my stomach drop, or my head floating off my shoulders, I visualize a hot-air balloon landing in a forest clearing – I don’t know why it’s that image it just is, you can make-up your own or use mine — and as the balloon touches down, my vertigo dissolves.

Sometimes the vertigo is so bad that I get nauseous. I’ve never actually thrown-up but I get close. To prevent the barfiness I keep ginger lozenges, ginger ale or plain old ginger on hand. It’s a good idea if you’re at the beginning of battling the vertigo monster or, later on provoking the beast.

That’s right, provoking it – deliberately taunting it, luring it out of its hidey-hole so you can slay it. I started early,  spinning in my desk chair – the room always spun for longer than I did; after a few weeks it stopped when I stopped. Then standing with my eyes closed…walking and turning my head…yoga (always with ginger lozenges)…sometimes sprinting to the loo certain I was going to lose my lunch. It was worth all the discomfort. I’m not exactly as strong as I was (balance-wise) before surgery, but I’m leagues better that I was after surgery. I can skate, ride a bike, ski and I’m learning to tap dance — reawakening the beast with every new combination of steps.

This is your vertigo and your journey. Go as far and as fast as you want. And ,as I was told when I was lamenting the limitations of my vertigo, have patience and compassion for yourself…

…and carry ginger (and maybe barf bags).

I shall state silences more competently that ever a better man spangled the butterflies of vertigo.

Samuel Beckett