In his mid 20’s, Silicon Valley wiz-kid and entrepenur Dave Asprey had accomplished everything he’d set out to achieve, but his high-stress (and high-PUFA) lifestyle cost him his health.
When the scale hit 300, he realized it time to take better care of himself. Ditching mainstream diet advice that had gotten him nowhere, he adapted a healthy, low-carb, natural-fat diet and lost 100 pounds. To his surprise, he discovered he’d also gained some serious brain power–initially somewhere around 15 IQ points.
IQ is rated on a standard, bell-shaped curve. The average IQ score is set at 100, meaning if your IQ is 100 you’re smarter than 50% of adults, and the other 50% are smarter than you. 15 points is equal to a standard deviation. That means gaining 15 points and going from 100-115 moves you from smarter than 50% of the population to smarter than 84%. Of course, just by taking IQ tests again and again, you can get better at IQ tests and can falsely raise your IQ. But a gain of 20 to 30 points is extraordinary and unlikely to be just due to practice.
Weight Loss Can Mean Brain Loss
IQ gains are definitely not a normal side effect of weight loss. In fact, many people who lose that much weight have PUFA-driven prediabetes, and therefore the weight comes off in an unhealthy, unsustainable way. Studies show that most people losing weight following the typical low-fat, calorie restriction, frequent small meal program actually lose brain mass, along with all the excess fat. While on a population wide scale brain mass does not correlate with IQ very tightly (Einstein’s brain was famously small when he died at age 76), in a individual a shrinking brain is associated with worsening memory and even dementia.
What did Dave do to avoid draining his brain?
I first met Dave way back in 2012, and he introduced me to the term ‘biohacking.” Biohacking involves finding tools and shortcuts for making yourself healthier using techniques that include optimizing your sleep, smarter workout routines, customized supplement “stacks” (combinations of pills) and, of course, diet. One of the most effective diet changes he found was adding more natural fats like coconut and butter to his diet. If you’ve heard of Bulletproof coffee, that’s Dave’s brand, originally describing coffee into which butter was blended with a Bullet blender.
The diet changes Dave advises in his new book, Head Strong, are in alignment with Deep Nutrition principles. Like many of my patients, Dave found that removing pro-inflammatory vegetable oils and including plenty of natural fats from dairy, meats, nuts and traditional oils like coconut dramatically boosted his brain power. Head Strong includes a review of scores of other strategies currently available for optimizing brain function, making for a great, user friendly and well-referenced resource for anyone hoping to become “head strong.”
Diet Can Affect IQ by Enhancing Neuroplasticity
We’ve come a long way in our recognition of the brain’s ability to grow, called neuroplasticity, in just the past few years. We now know that even though we can’t grown brand new brain cells as adults, the brain cells we do have are constantly undergoing changes in response to our habits and lifestyle demands.
Brain cells can form new connections and grow bigger, so we can make new memories and learn new skills at every age. Our brain cell’s ability to do this depends, in large part, on how much blood they receive. More blood, means better brain function. Less blood, means less brain function. And depending on what you eat, you’re either facilitating or reducing your brain’s ability to get the blood it needs for you to think.
We recognized decades ago that bad diet can reduce blood flow to exercising heart and other muscles by reducing the ability of blood vessels supplying the exercising muscles to dilate, a physiologic response called endothelial function. When exercising heart muscle is deprived of adequate oxygen you can get chest pain, called angina, which affects how active you can be. It turns out, that when a bad diet disrupts normal endothelial function to your brain, it affects how active your brain can be.
The new edition of Deep Nutrition includes a chapter on how you can boost your brain health. Here’s an excerpt showing the connection between improved endothelial function and improved performance on IQ testing:
Just as endothelial function is essential to normal heart health and male sexual function, we now have two different lines of evidence supporting the idea that better endothelial function in your brain enables you to think more nimbly and sustain concentration for longer.
First, from studies evaluating nitric oxide, the molecule (first introduced in chapter 7) that sends a message to the muscles surrounding arteries to slacken, thus permitting dilation. When fuel supplies in a cluster of cells are running low, they produce nitric oxide. The nitric oxide in turn signals to nearby blood vessels that they need to dilate now in order to deliver more of the oxygen, glucose, glutamate, and other raw materials your brain cells need to maintain focus on the subject at hand.
Studies show that nitric oxide signaling and the blood flow increases it stimulates play a central role in nerve cell maintenance, growth and repair., , Most pertinent to anyone looking to enhance their aptitude for learning, nitric oxide-induced blood flow also makes forming new memories physically possible as it plays a key role in what neurologists call long-term potentiation, a process required for assembling and reinforcing new synaptic connections throughout the entire cerebral cortex, striatum, and hippocampus.
Neuroscientists at University College, London, recently discovered a fascinating connection between an antioxidant enzyme system called CAT (for catalase) and several major markers of high cognitive functioning. They found “CAT activity correlated with . . . adaptability, stress management [and] general mood.”
On the heels of this and other discoveries linking blood flow to cognitive function, in 2014, a collaboration of scientists led by researchers at the California Institute of Technology hypothesized that the feeling of brain fatigue you can get from trying to learn something new or thinking too hard about the same subject for too long may simply be a failure of your brain to deliver those raw materials on demand—literally, the food for thought. “We present a model of cognitive cost based on the novel idea that the brain senses and plans for longer-term allocation of metabolic resources by purposively conserving brain activity.“ In other words, if there’s no fuel, there’s no thought. They continue: “We suggest that an individual’s decision of whether or not to incur cognitive costs in a given situation can be fruitfully understood as one of decision–making strategy: an agent will only commit limited resources in cases where the payoff is worth it.” In other words, reduced bloodflow to the brain reduces motivation for learning.
This research has powerful implications for your ability to complete mentally demanding tasks. When you’ve been working on a mental task for a while—be it reading or doing your taxes—and get to a point where you feel you just can’t concentrate any longer, it may be a direct result of blood flow failure. Very much in the same way that an overtaxed muscle will twitch briefly before giving way, nerve cells of the cerebral cortex involved in running the task appear to be forced, by lack of fuel, to simply tap out for the moment, leaving you no choice but to take a break.
In the future I believe doctors wanting to help their patients with brain degenerating disorders will use combinations of diet change and judicious evidence based supplementation. Of course, you don’t have to wait. We already know enough about diet to make many evidence-based recommendations. These ten steps will help you adopt a diet that protects brain health, naturally. And Deep Nutrition gives you the detailed explanation and evidence of how and why it works.