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






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