The Upgrade your Brain Seminar – what we learned

In June, Healthright, and our sister shop Nature’s Harvest in Leighton Buzzard, co-hosted a seminar by Patrick Holford, with Viridian. Patrick is a leading spokesman, researcher and writer on nutrition and health, particularly brain health. He founded the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, which trains nutritional therapists to degree level, and the charitable Food for the Brain Foundation, which researches and advocates for better nutrition to improve brain health ( His pioneering initial research in the 1980s – which was the subject of a Horizon programme – proved that multivitamins can increase children’s IQ scores.

Patrick explained how our mood, anxiety and concentration are affected both psychologically, by life events or problems, and biologically by biochemical factors – for example nutritional deficiencies, excessive anti-nutrients such as alcohol, and the metabolic impacts of unmanaged stress, poor sleep or lack of exercise. He identified eight domains which “represent the key steps you need to take to optimise your brain function, and hence your ability to optimise your experience of life and traverse the tough times to find your way forward”.

Patrick’s eight domains, or key steps to optimise brain function, are:

  1. Eat a low carbohydrate and low glycaemic load diet
  2. Increase brain fats – omega 3, phospholipids and vitamin D
  3. Take B vitamins to keep homocysteine low
  4. Eat and drink antioxidants and polyphenols (plants)
  5. Maintain a healthy gut
  6. Exercise and keep physically active
  7. Keep yourself socially and intellectually active
  8. Sleep well, stay calm and live purposefully.

Patrick expanded on “how what is good for the brain is good for the body”, with these eight steps also being key to the prevention of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and arthritis and just about every prevalent 21st century chronic condition of ill health (so-called disease), including weight gain. If we look for the true causes of these chronic conditions we find the same fundamental drivers – the same deterioration of bodily processes, and all of these affect the brain and body equally. Very few, if any, chronic conditions are ‘in the genes’ or solved by pharmaceutical medicine. The crucial question is always “what is tipping my body and brain’s biochemistry into an inflamed state?”.

The critical bodily management processes are glycation (energy), oxidation (sugar), methylation (chemical waste), lipidation (fats), hydration (water), digestion (nutrition), and communication (central control by the hormones). Together they are our metabolism which maintains our life. Metabolic syndrome is a breakdown in these processes which inevitably leads to inflammation and systemic deterioration, and psychiatry is at last recognising the impact of this breakdown on our brain and emotional health.

Patrick describes how a systems-based approach to health management considers our body and brain to be a complex adaptive system, an ecology. The opposite of this is the reductionist approach, which has been the dominant approach in medical science for about a century. This studies (and medicates) individual organs and processes in great detail, but does not consider the whole body, its entire metabolism and all its vital interactions. Statins for example block cholesterol production, and benzodiazepine tranquillisers block adrenaline. Unfortunately this reductionist approach has not resulted in better population health – far from it.

Our job as humans is to create an environment that enables us to thrive, and then let our well qualified and “intimately intelligent” body and brain get on with it. This includes the final domain – ‘sleep well, stay calm and live purposefully’. It is fundamentally important for our health that we find harmony with friends and family, and our environment, we are connected with nature, and we have a clear sense of purpose and direction in our lives. 

In summary, you cannot separate your biology and your psychology. Everything you eat, drink, breathe, think and feel has an effect on both your body’s chemistry and your state of mind.  Your health is in your hands.

Patrick’s latest book ‘Upgrade your Brain’ can be bought at Healthright and Nature’s Harvest.