Food for Thought: The Evolution of the Human Brain

By | April 16, 2016

Rewind some tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, and the various hominid species (our ancestors) are roaming around in the cradle of civilization. Two main species, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, are finding their way in this Paleolithic world. One finds most of its sustenance in the red meat of hunted wolves and hyenas. The other migrates towards the coast and begins feasting heavily on the marine food chain. The former eventually dies out extinct while the latter makes quantum leaps in intelligence and carries forth to become the modern humans that we all are today. What made the difference? Was it just luck or coincidence? Was it pathogenic disease that one spread to the other? Did Homo Sapiens defeat Neanderthals in some early version of World War I? Or was it the (sea)food?

I had gotten a request from someone to write about foods we can eat to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. You may or may not have read my earlier post entitled Alzheimer’s or Type III Diabetes. If you did, you have a little background on how personal of a subject Alzheimer’s is for me and my family. I wrote that post after reading some new and intriguing evidence that Alzheimer’s may in part be caused by a lack of insulin sensitivity in the brain brought on by over-consuming carbohydrates and junk-food sugars. I found that bit of information somewhat intriguing, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.

What that research did provide, though, was a gateway to a new understanding of degenerative diseases. I started to realize that Alzheimer’s is not so much a thing you caught like a virus or a parasite but a condition that developed over years and years of a person’s biology and genetics interacting with the environment around them, the light they see, the air they breath, and the food they eat. And while we cannot (yet) change people’s genetics, we can change our environment.

It would follow, then, that perhaps, through a bit of study, we could learn which environmental factors likely contribute to the progressive neurodegenerative process that inevitably leads to a condition worthy of Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Consequently, we could attempt to change that environment in such a way as to put the odds back in favor of keeping the brain healthy and functional for as long as possible. Perhaps we control more of our health destiny than we once believed.

The more time that I spend researching the subject of wellness and nutrition, as well as how it relates to Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases, the more it seems likely that we can alter our environment to improve our odds for a good health outcome. Focussing specifically on food as the environmental factor for today’s discussion, I believe there are three things most worthy of our attention: healthy fats, nutrient-dense vegetables, and seafood (DHA). 

What makes these three so special? My thoughts go back to the general idea that our body has the plan to keep us well (genetic DNA), and all we need to do is give it enough energy to implement the plan. With “diseases” of aging and degeneration, the body is essentially losing too much energy to the environment, unable to continue dissipating entropy (chaos), and thus losing the ability to maintain order. Moreover, the complex human brain is an energy hog that uses 20% of the body’s total energy balance. When energy supplies become scarce, more fundamental survival processes get prioritized over higher level brain function, and we start to see evidence of neurodegeneration. Let’s try to change that…

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats make the list because they have the most energy density of the three macro nutrients (electrons per calorie). Also, if you’ve been keeping up with the Paleo trend lately, it seems we all got it wrong with that whole low-fat diet idea. Not all fats are bad for you. In fact, some are actually quite essential. Oxidized and processed fats like trans fats in potato chips are not so healthy, but natural fats like avocados do wonders for our biology. Also, your brain is mostly made of fat.

My go-to healthy fats include avocados, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter. I also use a little duck fat in the winter for cooking along with extra-virgin olive oil. And when I eat animal meats, I’m not so afraid of the fat, skin, and dark meat. For dessert, I go after some extra dark chocolate. This list technically could also include DHA, but it’s important enough to get its own category here shortly (it’s that transcendent).

Nutrient-dense Vegetables

Vegetables make the list because of all the vitamins, minerals, fibers, enzymes, antioxidants, polyphenols, and on and on and on…but mostly because they’re stored sunlight energy. Plants capture sunlight directly and harness its energy via photosynthesis. We can access stored light frequencies when we eat the plants.

That’s right, food is stored sunlight and information about our environment, not just a bag of calories. One can only stomach so much fiber, though, so I try to go for the vegetables that are the most nutrient dense, things like spinach, kale, and broccoli, but a nice color collage for variety is great at times as well. I like going with the “big salad” to accomplish this goal, essentially a bowl of a variety of veggies with a good serving of meat and an avocado and topped with olive oil for dressing.

Seafood (DHA) – A Class All Its Own

And then there is probably the most important one of all, seafood. Seafood is most specifically important for the Omega-3 fatty acid it contains in abundance that goes by the acronym of DHA. Why is DHA so important? DHA is the most conserved and protected lipid (fat molecule) in all of evolutionary history. Why? It is a photoactive lipid (meaning it interacts with light) most efficient at converting photons (wave/particles of light) into electrons (electricity/energy) and back again into photons. One more time…DHA captures light and converts it into energy and back into light again.

DHA is the transducer for our body’s energy infrastructure. It’s what allowed evolution enough energy capacity to build something as advanced and complex as the human brain. The more of it we have, the more energy we are capable of harnessing, and the better we can maintain order and build complexity within the body. If our early Homo Sapien ancestors never started eating oysters, we wouldn’t be here today. We wouldn’t have the gift of consciousness. We wouldn’t be able to think, reason, and wonder. And just as DHA helped build this miracle of evolution that we call our brain, the loss of DHA can reverse the process and devolve our brains within our own lifespans.

More and more research is beginning to shed light on the importance of DHA in health outcomes of almost any kind. Likewise, researchers are beginning to find DHA deficiencies in many disease states, especially those of neurodegenerative nature (including Alzheimer’s). There are a couple of excellent PubMed summaries here, one discussing the health benefits of DHA, and the other providing a theory for the irreplaceable role of DHA in cell signaling throughout evolution. I believe that the most important thing we can eat, for our brains and the rest of our body, is seafood.

But What About Mercury Toxicity?

And other metals? And other toxins in the ocean, the pollution, the oil spills? Yes, I am a big believer in removing toxins myself because toxins and the process of detoxification are another “tax” on your energy levels. Ideally, yes, it would be wonderful to have completely clean oceans and clean seafood just as we did before we started throwing our garbage into the sea and accidentally spilling millions of gallons of oil.

That said, I would argue that in light of what we now know about DHA, it is a necessary nutrient and has been for about 600 million years of evolution. Given its roll in energy transfers, the risk is well worth the reward. If you were in the wild, dying of dehydration, would you not drink water from a stream simply because it might be contaminated with toxins?

And consider this: if DHA plays a critical role in energy transfers, and the body requires energy to detoxify itself, it seems silly to avoid DHA because it might have a small amount of toxins and heavy metals when you need DHA to support energy levels to effectively detoxify in the first place. Besides, plenty of folks out there are still eating vegetables doused in pesticides (though I still recommend eating organic vegetables when possible too), yet they are sometimes the ones warning everyone about the dangers of toxicity in seafood.

As far as the mercury issue goes, there is also an easy way to avoid that. Mercury density increases as you climb up the marine food chain. Each time an animal eats another organism, heavy metals get more and more concentrated within the tissues of the next predator. If you eat from the bottom of the food chain, things like shellfish and scallops, mercury is much less of an issue. If you are worried about mercury, avoid tuna or swordfish and stick with oysters, scallops, clams, or shrimp.

DHA Is Even More Important Today Than Ever

What makes DHA intake even more important in present times is the fact that we’re burning the candle at both ends. Our diets have gotten very low in DHA these days, AND our tech-driven environment is destroying the DHA levels we have via photo-oxidation from blue light (mostly within our eyes). That’s right, the blue light from your cell phone has the proper energy frequency to literally zap the DHA right out of your eyeballs.

Natural sunlight has very little blue frequency on a relative basis and also contains enough red frequency to offset this potential damage. We have created an indoor environment, though, that is heavy on blue light and almost completely excludes the other full-spectrum frequencies. Our bodies simply aren’t designed to protect against this blue light invasion. The more we live indoors with an altered spectrum of light, the more important seafood becomes to replace the DHA losses.

We also used to be able to get a little DHA from our land animals like cows, but that was back when they actually grazed on pastures of grass. Cows are able to make some DHA from grass but much less from corn and other grains. This is a big part of why grass-fed meats have become so popular within Paleo diet movements in recent years, but even the DHA levels of grass-fed land animals pale in comparison to seafood. It was also believed that humans could synthesize DHA endogenously themselves, but that ability is not nearly effective enough for optimal needs. Here is yet another great PubMed article on that issue and the evolution of the human brain as a result of DHA consumption.

But Isn’t Eating All This Stuff Difficult, Time-consuming, Tasteless, and Expensive?

Short answer? No, not really. I used to think the same thing, but it’s a complete misconception. I was very intimidated by the prospects of cooking seafood for fear I would ruin it, but it’s actually quite easy once you know how. It’s also probably the quickest thing to cook. I was also worried it would be difficult to come up with a variety of meals that have good flavor profiles, but I was way wrong there too. And expensive? Well, seafood can be a little expensive, but you get what you pay for in this case. That said, you don’t have to eat lobster every night for $30; you can get one-pound bags of frozen bay scallops for about $10 at most places, cheaper than good steak, actually.

Most seafood can be either boiled or pan-fried in five or ten minutes. I frequently cook scallops in a pan with some butter, coconut oil, or duck fat, about three minutes a side until a little golden brown. If you’re up for it, though, raw oysters contain the most DHA. Sushi is a good choice as well since cooking does destroy some percentage of DHA levels, so keep it raw if you dare!

My Go-to, Brain-healthy Meal

Basically any day that I cook at home, I make some variation of the exact same meal. I have some sort of preferred carbohydrate base, a seafood choice, a vegetable choice, an avocado on the side, and perhaps one of a few other toppings or sides and dark chocolate for dessert. It may sound boring and repetitive, but when you realize the different combinations that you can create by rotating the various components, you’ll see that there exists a plethora of possibilities, enough to keep your tastebuds quite happy.

Carbohydrate Bases: Some kind of potato or rice (numerous options available).

Seafood: Scallops, oysters, clams, shrimp, cod, sea bass, salmon, etc.

Vegetables: Broccoli, spinach, brussel sprouts, asparagus, kale, etc.

Sides & Extras: Avocado, grass-fed butter, seaweed salad, kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.

Dessert: Extra dark chocolate

For example, tonight I had an heirloom variety bed of rice, buttered broccoli, and pan-fried scallops with a side of avocado. I included a little kimchi on top of the scallops, broccoli, and rice (kimchi is a fermented vegetable concoction, a great probiotic that wonderfully enhances the flavor of seafood). And yes, I ate a few chunks of delicious, 100% cacao dark chocolate, which I think most people would quite enjoy. The entire meal was done in the time it took to cook the rice (which can be anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending upon the variety). What’s not to like about that? Seafood? Fat? Chocolate? Truly healthy eating is actually quite easy and delicious.

Despite the Wonders of Good Food, We Still Need Direct Sunlight

We all have to eat food, and this post pretty much sums up what I believe is best to consume. That said, since food really is stored sunlight energy, the best method for optimizing health is maximizing direct sun exposure (without excessive burning) and reducing the fake light sources around you, especially at night. When we optimize our light cycles first and then eat lots of healthy fats, vegetables, and especially seafood to compliment, I believe we have the best chance of keeping our brain healthy and functioning for as long as possible while we exist consciously on this planet.

If there is one food source we should prioritize as much as we do our light environment, though, it’s seafood. Since DHA, as we now know, is our energy transducer, it becomes an amplifier for the benefits of natural sunlight. The more DHA we have, the more sun energy we can capture and utilize. In that way sunlight and DHA work in tandem to drive exponential improvements in human health, wellness, and performance. DHA’s presence built this modern marvel of a human brain, and its disappearance is threatening to tear it down just as quickly.

If you have any questions about this post, about the food, about the light cycles, or about anything else you desire, please leave a comment below. Also, please share this post with as many others as you can if you believe, as I do, that this approach will help everyone lead not only longer, but healthier lives that allow us to fully enjoy every last minute we have in the physical world.

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Food for Thought: The Evolution of the Human Brain

  1. Eric H

    For those that don't like seafood or don't want to eat it that regularly. Is there any alternative? Maybe a supplement?

    Reply
  2. Brett Bloemendaal

    Next best thing is to get it from grass-fed animals that can synthesize DHA. Lamb happens to be the best at this, and grass-fed cows are okay too. Also breast milk is naturally very high in DHA since it's so critical for a baby's brain development, so if that's not too creepy or "on the fringe" for you, it's an option, technically!

    I've seen mixed research on supplements. For one thing, DHA is quite unstable when it's not in natural form within food. So you might be wasting money on something that no longer holds much benefit. Ordering in winter and then freezing them is best so you can avoid it being shipped in hot trucks in summer heat and try to keep it cool and stable once it arrives.

    That said, I've also seen evidence that the molecular structure changes enough when taking it as a supplement, so even if it is stable and doesn't oxidize, it may not have the same photoactive, transducer properties when taking as a supplement. You may get some benefits that you read about Omega-3 supplementation in general like for joint health and reducing inflammation, but it may not have that most important, photoactive property. It makes sense to me, but I'm not an expert. Most of my info there comes from http://www.jackkruse.com and some other references I've Googled along the way.

    If someone is allergic to seafood, I understand the dilemma. If someone doesn't like it, I'd venture to say there are varieties and cooking methods that you could find something you like. If it's money or availability, there are more options out there than one may think. Sardines in a can are quite cheap and high in DHA.

    Reply

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