When Ray Griffiths suffered a brain injury it inspired in him a lifelong mission to discover how we can best nurture and support our brain health, in order to lead healthier, happier lives. He shares his findings with Female First on how we can all boost our brains.



The human brain is a highly evolved miracle of biological engineering. It is six times larger than it should be compared to mammals of a similar size, putting our brain right on the very limit of its energy producing capability. Incredibly, it weighs only 2% of our total body weight yet consumes 20% of our energy and 25% of our oxygen intake per day– think about it, a quarter of every breath of oxygen is reserved exclusively for our brain. Additionally, the energy hungry brain needs to extract 300-400 calories each day from our food, just to maintain our thoughts!

Our highly evolved complex brain gives us an enormous competitive advantage over other species–but this advantage can also become a curse. If our brain energy levels and nourishment are inadequate, then this can leave us vulnerable to low mood and depression. We now know that stress and poor diet and lifestyle are literally brain drains which deplete our energy hungry nervous system. There is a growing awareness that we need sufficient energy to maintain the structure of our brain and nervous system. This energy is vital to defend ourselves against depressive disorders.

The part of the brain most heavily associated with mental health, memory, emotion and mood is called the ‘hippocampus’ – keeping this part of the brain energized and nourished is therefore essential for our mental health and wellbeing. Hippocampus is the name used in biology for seahorses and it is the unusual seahorse-like shape of the hippocampus that has led to its evocative name. Just as the seahorse charms and enchants the depths of the sea, our own hippocampus (when supported and nurtured) can help to enchant our own lives.

During a depressive episode, the hippocampus actually shrinks in size. Sadly, stress, poor diet and lifestyle can all accelerate this shrinkage. However, unusually for the brain, the hippocampus has the ability to regenerate itself–and to be able to regenerate the hippocampus we absolutely have to eat great food, exercise and maintain rewarding social and environmental connections. My book Depression: The Mind-Body Diet and Lifestyle Connection is all about inspiring us all to eat and live well with the aim of supporting our mental health and hippocampus.

Every single day there are 700 new cells produced in the hippocampus, but these cells need a tremendous amount of encouragement to make it from fledgling cells to fully-functioning adult neurons. Healthy neurons are needed to keep our hippocampus working effectively, to help maintain our sense of mental wellbeing.

We used to think that antidepressant drugs elicited their action purely by increasing serotonin levels in our bodies. But we are now beginning to understand that one of the major modes of antidepressant action is via supporting our hippocampus, and so protecting it from harm during stressful times. It can take many days for antidepressants to take effect and this is likely to be because antidepressants are helping to support and rebuild the hippocampus and other neural circuits in the brain.

What is really exciting is that dietary components and lifestyle choices can act on the very same circuits that antidepressants use. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, our brain is at the very limit of its energy production capability and therefore needs a way of directing our energy resources to where they are needed. The brain does this by employing proteins called neurotrophins to manage our brain energy. Surprisingly, many plant-derived antioxidants and exercise can help direct this much-needed brain energy support.

The brain energy enhancing neurotrphins are also produced when we are around people we care about and love and when we in turn feel loved and appreciated. Exercising, being outdoors, in a green environment, by the sea, in forests and beside lakes and hillsides, can all dramatically improve our brain energy and protect us from depression. Increasing the variety of plants and animals can further improve our feel-good brain energy levels to help protect our hippocampus. Sadly, environmental destruction can and will undermine our mental health. For our sanity, we absolutely need our green spaces, which are for good reason known a ‘Green Prescriptions’.

My own journey into informing myself about brain health was through suffering several sport related head injuries. During my teens I was involved in Motorcycle Speedway, a sport where riders race around an oval dirt track at up to 80 mph–without any brakes! I didn’t realise at the time, but the chronic mental fatigue and mood swings that I subsequently experienced, were strongly linked to my early head traumas from racing accidents. Our humble hippocampus hates head trauma and inflammation, and I was therefore doing it no favours at all.

You might ask why a young emerging adult may have chosen to place himself at such risk. Well scratch under the surface and you’ll find a young man struggling to find his identity and way into adulthood. It was my rite of passage, but strangely the mental scars it induced have enabled a more nuanced and subtle rite of passage throughout every stage of my later life.

Around twenty years ago, when the mental fatigue and mood swings became sufficiently debilitating, and were making a working life almost impossible, I began to study nutrition. Many years of study culminated in my attaining a Masters degree in nutrition–specialising in the dietary support of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Little by little my own research and study had been leading me on an incredible journey to understand my own brain health issues-and also provided a window into the world of the mental health struggles of others. Presently, I nutritionally support several clients suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

So, going back to depression, what kind of diet and lifestyle choices can help support or hinder our humble hippocampus and mental wellbeing? For good reason, the most researched diet (with regard to mental and all health) is the Mediterranean diet. Not only is the Mediterranean diet a great source of nutrition for own brain, but the official United Nations definition of the diet also highlights the importance of communal preparation and eating, and locally sourced crockery and glasses. Our brain is nourished by more than just the chemicals in food – it is also nourished by our social connections and the way we live our lives.

Sugar and the western style diet are literally poison for our hippocampus. Our brain has evolved to be the miracle that it is over millions of years – we wouldn’t consider putting parts from a junk yard on a Ferrari sports car, so why do we put junk into our stomachs and brain?

The food that we eat has to replace worn out brain and hippocampus components twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. Sadly, junk food equals junk brain. Sugar is particularly problematic even though the hippocampus depends heavily on glucose. It may sound odd but excess sugar undermines the ability of the hippocampus to get the vital glucose it needs to function. Two cans of a sugary drink per day (or the equivalent sugar in other foods) are all it takes to significantly increase the risk of depression in many people.

The damage of sugar to the brain is even more insidious for women, due to the negative impact that sugar has on every female hormone related issue from puberty through to menopause. Worryingly, women experience twice the level of depression that men do during this period.

Stress is something that nearly everyone experiences as a regular part of their life. In short bursts, stress is absolutely vital to our brain and overall wellbeing. It gives us the energy that helps us get things done – and can be healing for our brain and hippocampus. On the other hand, chronic long -term stress is incredibly destructive to the brain and can be a major cause of the shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is seen in depression.

Surprisingly, looking after our gut can support our hippocampus. The gut and brain are connected by a long nerve called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve forms what is known as the gut-brain axis and provides us with another excellent reason to eat only good quality food. The gut and brain are in continual conversation and a diet such as the Mediterranean diet will provide all the nutrients to support the healthy gut bacteria that we need for a healthy gut-brain dialogue.

The brain and hippocampus supporting neurotrophins (mentioned above), act to direct nutrients and energy to where they are most needed. There are even some estimates that the neurotrophins can increase our brain energy by as much as 60%. A word of warning though - the neurotrophins are not keen on giving energy to bored and uninspired brains!

Our neurotrophins give our brain extra energy when we do the things that we love doing, such as being with people we love being with, eating well and exercising. Our brain thrives on passion in our lives – it absolutely feels that way doesn’t it? Think of all the things that you love to do and how energized you feel doing them. Evolution is trying to direct us to live a fulfilled and passionate life but, sadly, modern living is trying its best to undermine what our brain and hippocampus need to thrive.

Start the revolution now, nourish your hippocampus and defend against depression by following your life passions as much as you possibly can.

Depression: The Mind-Body, Diet & Lifestyle Connection by Ray Griffiths is published September 3rd by Clink Street Publishing, £8.99 paperback, £4.99 ebook.

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