A few weeks back, at a small research meeting in Toronto, Ontario, my good friend Dr. Alan Logan handed me a book I hadn’t heard of before.
“What’s this, Alan…The Brain Diet? Doesn’t sound all that appetizing.”
Amused, Dr Logan went on to tell me that I was seeing a sneak peek at his new, soon to be released book discussing how nutrition can impact both brain and body health.
“Give it a read, JB. And if you like it, perhaps you could provide a quote for the back cover?”
At this point, I was excited – for two main reasons.
First of all, I’m interested in nearly everything that Dr Logan has to say on the subject of nutrition.
As both a seasoned practitioner and a well-published scientific author, Dr Logan is a wealth of knowledge – sort of like a walking encyclopedia.
Whether he’s talking about how nutrition affects the gut, how it can impact skin quality, or how it can impact stress and emotion, he’s always got something interesting to share – and I always learn something.
Sure, he’s a naturopath (and some naturopaths are pretty out there), but Alan is as well-referenced as they come and his strength is seeing connections between different fields of study.
It never ceases to amaze me when he somehow fits legitimate scientific references from psychology, neurophysiology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, microbiology, and nutrition journals all in the same breath.
Of course, the other reason for my excitement was the fact that I’ve never been quoted on the back cover of someone’s book before. That, in itself, is pretty cool.
However, I sorta had to like the book before offering a quote. So I spent the next week with the book, taking notes, and preparing questions for Dr Logan, hoping to goad him into an interview.
In the end, here’s what I ended up sending Dr. Logan for the book’s back cover:
“The Brain Diet offers some of the very best strategies for improving not only the health of the brain, but also the health of the entire body. Packed with well-referenced scientific strategies and user-friendly, real world nutrition suggestions, Dr. Logan’s book is a rare work that will give you the strategies to take control of your health – once and for all.”
And I meant every word of it. Seriously, this book is one of the best I’ve read on this topic and, as a special treat, I’ve cajoled Dr Logan into doing sharing some of his insights.
JB: Alright Alan, with this interview I want to cut through some of the nonsense that’s out there regarding nutrition, brain health, gut health, and more. I always love your mixture of common sense, healthy caution, and actual research support so let’s get right into some of the fundamentals of brain and body health.
For starters, I’d love it if you could explain to the readers your overall thoughts on how nutrition can impact brain health.
Dr Logan: A steady supply of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and dietary antioxidants are essential to brain structure and function throughout life.
For example, complex carbohydrates supply a steady stream of fuel, amino acids make up the brain communication chemicals called neurotransmitters, fats make up the structure of the nerve cell walls and vitamins and minerals work the machinery. Certain of these dietary items, particularly the antioxidants and good fats, also help protect the delicate nerve cells against the aging process.
We take for granted that these same nerve cells are responsible for intelligence, memory, motivation, mobility, attention, and so much more. Despite the wealth of research in the area of nutritional influences over behavior, mental and neurological health, and day to day mental edge, it really surprises me that the connection remains undervalued.
JB: So what might one expect to happen if some of these nutrients are out of balance? In other words, how can a poor diet impact brain structure and function?
Dr Logan: Emerging research is showing that even marginal deficiencies of certain nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids in particular, can influence intelligence, behavior (including violent acts), attention, depression and long term risk of cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Clinical studies using fish oil and multivitamins have shown decreased acts of violence within prison systems in the USA and the United Kingdom, improved test scores in those with learning disorders, and improved mood scores in those with depression.
A recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation (Nov 2005) showed that one month of taking fish oil supplements improved cognitive functioning and mood scores in otherwise healthy adults relative to the olive oil placebo.
Unfortunately, research shows that the very people who would do well with supplementation are those least likely to take them. In other words, those with the best background diets, those who are exercising, and those who have lower body mass index are the ones who are already supplementing.
JB: In your book, The Brain Diet, you discuss how a heart-healthy diet is also a brain-healthy diet. What’s the connection between the two?
Dr Logan: The two common threads in the promotion of heart disease and damage to nerve cells are oxidative stress (free radical generation) and inflammation – a heart-healthy diet of fiber-rich whole grains, antioxidants and essential fats can address oxidative stress and inflammation.
It is also true that maintenance of healthy blood flow to the brain is crucial to optimal brain functioning, so any diet which does that is ultimately good for the brain. Dietary antioxidants from deeply colored fruits and vegetables protect the blood vessel walls and omega-3 essential fats and certain culinary herbs dampen down the inflammation process which is known to promote heart disease. Preserving blood flow to the brain allows for delivery of these same nutrients which promote optimal brain functioning and defense of brain cells.
JB: One area of nutritional research that’s particularly interesting but often ignored is the research on culinary herbs. You do a great job of discussing them in your book.
Can you give some examples of culinary herbs and what sort of beneficial properties they might have for brain and body health?
Dr Logan: Ginger and turmeric are the two big guys, lots of research here – both are potent antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties as well. In fact, human research supports an anti-inflammatory effect of ginger in osteoarthritis. Experimentally, both herbs have anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties and have been shown to enhance longevity.
I’m not suggesting that this translates into ginger and turmeric being fountain of youth herbs, but incorporating some into the diet can definitely be described as healthy. In addition, cinnamon, oregano, thyme and coriander have very high antioxidant potential according to researchers from Tufts University.
JB: At this point, let’s take a step back. I’m about to start delving into some potentially controversial questions and topics so before I do, I want to talk about your background a bit. In other words, I want the readers to know that you’re legit and that they should listen to you.
So please share with them a little about your background.
Dr Logan: I’m really glad you asked because all naturopathic doctors tend to be painted with the same brush, and as you said, some NDs are way out in the outfield known as pseudoscience. Telling someone that you are a naturopath conjures up images of a cape covered in stars and half moons along with a crystal ball.
My CV goes something like this – graduated magna cum laude from the State University of New York where I completed my pre-med classes. Four years of full-time study at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine with close to 300 classroom hours of nutrition and many of my 1200 clinical hours devoted to clinical nutrition.
That wasn’t enough for me though, so I have taken hours of continuing education in nutrition, including Georgetown University’s amazing Food as Medicine program.
Since then I have collaborated with nutrition and mental health researchers at the University of Toronto and have had work published in journals such as Medical Hypotheses, Nutrition, Medical Clinics of North America, Nutrition and the American Journal of Hypertension.
More recently I have joined the faculty of Harvard’s School of Continuing Medical Education where I lecture on the placebo and dietary supplements. Out of all of it though, working with you, JB, has been a career highlight.
JB: Ha, ha…of course it has been.
Seriously though, that’s a pretty impressive resume. Next, I want you to impress me with some rapid-fire answers to some rapid fire questions.
Here’s how it’ll work. I’m going to throw out a topic and I want you to respond with a just a few sentences. Make them your most important thoughts on each topic.
Dr Logan: JB, I’m all about important thoughts, let’s go…
JB: (Playing jeopardy theme song)
First – the importance of antioxidants in brain and body health.
Dr Logan: Oxidative stress, free radical production, has been connected to most chronic diseases. Dietary antioxidants are our most important line of cellular defense in the brain and throughout the body.
Without adequate protection, the effects of free radical damage takes a toll on cells and it can affect the production of energy in the little battery packs within cells called mitochondria.
JB: Great stuff. Now that we know how important they are, how can we develop an appropriate feeding/supplement strategy to protect against oxidative damage?
Dr Logan: We need a strategy desperately because the very foods we need for protection are the ones we avoid. Deeply colored fruits and vegetables and whole grains contain our much-needed antioxidants, yet only 4 foods make up our vegetable variety – onions, processed tomato, iceberg lettuce and frozen potato. Also, only 3.5% of our dietary grains are whole grains.
The strategy begins with a colorful variety of plant foods and whole grains. Isolated antioxidants such as vitamin E or vitamin C offer little help because antioxidants work together like an orchestra. Research shows that dietary antioxidants (from food) or supplements of dried berries and green foods to be more effective in boosting blood antioxidant levels. So stick with these for your antioxidant protection.
JB: Next topic; inflammation. Why is it such a brain and a body problem?
Dr Logan: Chronic low level inflammation is like the modern day plague and is connected to most chronic medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, neurodegenerative diseases, even obesity.
Time magazine recently placed the topic on its cover and called it The Silent Killer. Chronic inflammation promotes the production of immune chemicals which can cause damage to cells throughout the body, including the brain, and it also promotes generation of free radicals.
JB: Ok, same as with antioxidants, how can we develop a feeding/supplement strategy to minimize inflammation?
Dr Logan: Same principles apply because the same deeply-colored fruits, vegetables and whole grains also contain plant-based chemicals and fiber which can dampen inflammation. Certain herbs such as ginger and turmeric and green tea are potent anti-inflammatories and omega-3 fatty acids represent one of the most important dietary anti-inflammatories known. Add in fish and seafood or fish oil supplements on a regular basis.
JB: You speak a lot about fish oil in your book – how it impacts both the body and the brain. Care to share with us fish oil’s greatest hits?
Dr Logan: Here’s a short list:
Well established benefits in heart health and arthritis.
It contains EPA which is a potent anti-inflammatory and is responsible for communication within and between nerve cells.
Fish oil also contains DHA which makes up the structural component of nerve cells.
Clinical studies are showing that fish oil can positively influence mood and behavior.
You may also be interested to know that fish oil has been shown recently to help with fat loss during exercise.
JB: Ok, this one is a doozy. What about fish oil contamination? Do we really have to be worried?
Dr Logan: This is more of a concern for fresh fish than supplements. Farmed salmon tends to be very high in polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and tuna is high in mercury. Independent studies at Harvard Medical School, Consumer Reports, and the watchdog group ConsumerLab.com have shown commercially available fish oil supplements to be free of toxins such as mercury, dioxins and PCBs. I recommend folks visit www.nutrasource.ca for a list of supplements which have been independently tested.
JB: Ready for another hot button topic? Let’s talk detoxification. There are a lot of wackos out there talking a lot of nonsense about detoxification. Let’s come clean on detox. What is it, do we need it, and do I really need to stick coffee up my butt?
Dr Logan: It’s true, you see ‘detox’ on the cover of about every pop magazine these days and it seems that everybody and their proverbial uncle has ‘the best’ detox plan. Colonics are a waste of time and money and can be downright dangerous, so let’s save the coffee for oral consumption. The truth is – we do have important physiological detoxification systems (primarily in the liver) to help remove environmental toxins that enter our bodies. However, these systems need nutritional support.
JB: So what’s your preferred detoxification strategy? I don’t have to fast for a week, do I?
Dr Logan: Fasting is actually counter-productive because our main detox organ, the liver, requires important amino acids from protein (e.g. glycine, cysteine, glutamine) in order to support detoxification pathways. Since the assault of man-made chemicals in food, water and our environment never lets up, we need daily detoxification, not some sort of spring cleaning with harsh herbal remedies once per year.
My preferred strategy is to nutritionally support liver detoxification with high quality protein (e.g. whey) which contains the amino acids which make toxins more water soluble for elimination via bile. Also important are antioxidants because the detoxification process in the liver can generate free radicals.
Also, since many of our toxins find themselves in the gastro-intestinal tract, dietary fiber (e.g. bran) can help bind them up for elimination. Probiotics, live beneficial bacteria such as that found in yogurt, can also help to transform toxic compounds in the gut and prevent their absorption.
JB: Ok, the hits keep coming. Speaking of gut health, there might be more wacky stuff on this topic than on detoxification. And that’s hard to believe. Alan, what are we talking about when we’re talking about gut health?
Dr Logan: There are so many preposterous myths and outlandish claims in this area. Simply put, gut health means normal transport of material through the GI tract, proper absorption of essential nutrients and appropriate elimination of waste. Signs of poor gut health include pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.
JB: What are some of the consequences of poor GI health?
Dr Logan: Problems in the GI tract can really affect quality of life because of the acute and chronic symptoms which it can cause. The bacteria which reside in the GI tract can have a profound affect on GI function and overall health because they can influence those same inflammatory immune chemicals involved in inflammation and mood.
Research shows that the influence of bacteria in the gut is widespread, that is, they are capable of influencing inflammation at locations way beyond the gut. Alterations in the type of bacteria which normally reside in the gut have been associated with pain, mood and even cognitive changes.
Lack of physical activity can set the stage for a migration of bacteria which normally reside in the large intestine up into the small intestine. The small intestine normally has only low levels of bacteria and when there is an overgrowth, there will be bloating after eating and problems with the absorption of nutrients.
JB: So how can we develop a feeding/supplement strategy to improve our GI function.
Dr Logan: Yes, it’s that old chestnut again – fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and whole grains – with a chaser of low-fat yogurt with live active cultures (beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria).
I would suggest a probiotic supplement too for general health, although it’s not easy to find the probiotics with strains of bacteria with published science which shows benefit in gut health and immunity. Many of the commercially available probiotics are marketed under the umbrella term acidophilus and are nothing more than pixie dust. I recommend a list of probiotics in The Brain Diet and on my website; readers should also visit www.usprobiotics.org for product information.
JB: You mention soil depletion in your book. Health experts are always harping on this topic but I wonder – how much depletion actually is going on?
Dr Logan: The limited research so far in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom does show depletion of nutrients within selected produce when compared to data over the last 25-50 years. A broad range of vitamins and minerals have been found to be lower, including vitamins A and C, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, magnesium, iron, zinc and copper.
JB: So is it true that we really can’t get enough nutrition from our fruits and veggies?
Dr Logan: No! You can still live a long and healthy life because, as I point out in The Brain Diet, our fruits and veggies are still loaded with those all-important nutrients. We just need to be sure we’re eating enough of them.
JB: What about organic fruits and veggies; should we stick with those? And what if we can’t afford the higher prices?
Dr Logan: Great question. From my perspective the decision to choose organic or not should be based on the potential contaminant risk. Not all produce is contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, and unless someone has tons of folding money, it makes no sense to pay big bucks for fruits and veggies which pose little threat.
It would be more prudent to follow the advice of the folks at the Environmental Working Group and choose the organic foods in cases where conventional counterparts are most contaminated. This is a non-profit group that monitors contaminant content in produce and they update the “most” and “least” contaminated fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.
I can tell you that strawberries are usually the most contaminated fruit in the marketplace today. See www.ewg.org for the list and make decisions around the data.
JB: Ok, that ends the rapid fire portion of the interview – great job! I do have a few more questions, though.
Although a lot of experts discuss different foods, nutritional interventions, and supplements for combating GI dysfunction, inflammation, oxidative damage, etc, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out which interventions should be prioritized over others.
For example, in one book I recently read, the authors had mentioned over 150 different supplements, at least 20-30 for each condition such as poor insulin management, chronic inflammation, poor arterial compliance, etc. As it’d be both impossible and undesirable to take all 150, how should one prioritize?
Dr Logan: It is ridiculous – there are now over 29,000 commercially available supplements and so-called natural products. Prioritize by filling in the nutritional voids which exist in North America – a multivitamin-mineral as a nutritional insurance policy (Harvard School of Public Health recommends a multi for that reason), an antioxidant formula of dried green/colored plants (phytochemicals), fiber (we are typically 10g+ shy of where we need to be), fish oil for our lack of omega-3 (we take in 130mg daily when experts recommend a minimum of 650mg), and a good probiotic.
Beyond this, condition specific supplements or those that might help promote endurance and lean body mass should be tried one at a time to determine if they are of any help.
JB: Here’s even a more pointed question, Dr Logan. In addition to your food intake (which I’m assuming is very good), what supplements are you taking daily right now?
Dr Logan: 1000mg of fish oil (o3mega, Genuine Health), daily multivitamin-mineral (multi+ daily trim, Genuine Health) with some additional green tea to protect my aging brain cells, and a probiotic (Align). That’s it.
JB: In your book, you discuss the Japanese quite often. Although I think Japanese women are some of the most beautiful in the world, there must be another reason.
Dr Logan: No, it’s strictly because Japanese women are hot. (Editor’s note: Alan’s wife is Japanese).
Well, there are some secondary reasons. The Japanese are not only the longest lived peoples on the earth, they also live well into their old age. The rates of chronic diseases, including brain-related conditions, are much lower in Japan relative to North America.
Scientists believe that certain elements of the Japanese diet may be protecting their brain cells, including fish and seafood, green tea, seaweed, fiber, moderate soy and a colorful variety. They also take in less animal fat and sugar than we do.
However, unfortunately, the rates of chronic diseases (and brain conditions) are on the rise in Japan. This rise is in parallel with a switch to our Western diet inclusive of its sweets, vegetable oils and animal fat.
As a result of the changing Japanese diet, average height and weight has increased rapidly (in just 30 years). For anyone who can’t see how nutrition can influence genetics, they need only look to Japan.
JB: Many readers prioritize muscle mass and strength. This means relatively high calorie diets, maximal testosterone concentrations, and a ton of training (often including weight training, cardio work, and interval work).
Now, I know that higher testosterone concentrations, chronic high calorie diets, and chronic training stress are likely to give us a few strikes in the longevity dept. So are there any special things the average reader would have to do from a nutrition and supplementation standpoint in order to strike a balance between big muscles, lots of training, and optimal brain and body health (as well as longevity)?
Dr Logan: Its true JB, there may be some strikes there, but on the other hand, low levels of testosterone, inactivity and body fat (as opposed to lean body mass) are associated with cognitive decline and risk of chronic disease.
Readers can have their cake and eat it too if they simply make an effort to incorporate fruits and vegetables wherever possible, choose whole grains, some fish and seafood and make some wise supplement choices.
Keeping abdominal fat off decreases the risk of most chronic disease and neurodegenerative diseases in particular. Having huge tris, bis and pecs and a pot belly does nothing to protect against chronic ill-health.
Take in the extra calories you need for the envelope-pushing workouts and if you see abdominal weight gain starting to occur, its time to lose that fat.
JB: Alright, Alan, let’s wrap it up here. I don’t want to spill all your secrets in one interview.
Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk with me. And feel free to pop by any time to help keep the readers on track.
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