We've long since understood the role of food in providing energy and building material to our body. However, the power of specific nutrients in our diet and how they influence our brain function, moods, and emotions is what has sparked considerable interest and recognition in the past decades. Recent studies show exciting evidence that relate intake of certain foods to better alertness and improved cognitive health.
“Several dietary components have been identified as having cognitive abilities”, says author Fernando Pinilla, Department of Neurosurgery at Los Angeles School of Medicine in his article, ‘Brain Foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function.’ These nutrients show beneficial effect on various brain processes, neurotransmitter pathways, brain cell membrane activities, and our cognitive performances.
KEY NUTRIENTS THAT IMPACT BRAIN FUNCTION
Dietary Lipids - According to a recent study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry, “a diet high in monounsaturated fats alters the basic chemistry and electrical properties of the brain in such a way that learning is enhanced, age-related cognitive decline slows, and the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease is reduced.” This can be attributed to the effect of monounsaturated fatty acids (aka MUFA or good fats) and the subsequent release of a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine, which plays a critical role in building memory and learning skills.
Omega 3 fatty acid, another healthy fat, is critical for neuronal cell membranes and many biochemical processes in brain. Dietary deficiency of omega 3 is related to increased risk for dementia, bipolar disorders, and depression. In contrast to the positive effects of diets that are rich in MUFA and omega 3, studies indicate that diets with a high content of trans fats and saturated foods (such as ‘junk’ foods, fried foods, butter, red meats, and full-fat dairy) may cause a decline in brain performance, impaired learning abilities, and reduced alertness. Examples of MUFA foods include: olive oil, grape seed oil, walnut oil, flax seed oil, soybean oil, nuts and seeds, nut butters, avocados, olives, and dark chocolate.
Folic Acid – Adequate folate levels are essential to promote optimum brain development and reduce brain damaging homocystein levels in the body. Folic acid also helps protect against neurological disorders. Natural sources of folic acid include whole grains, fortified cereals, spinach, broccoli, sunflower seeds, and egg yolk.
Complex Carbohydrates - Complex carbs take longer to digest than simple carbs and thus help maintain steady blood glucose levels and a constant supply of energy to brain cells. As the preferred source of fuel for the brain and body, complex carbohydrates have a direct impact on our thoughts, mood, and attentiveness by triggering the release of the ‘feel good’ chemical serotonin. In order to get the most out of your carbs, limit simple and refined sugars such as sweets, candies, cakes, and white breads since they deplete vitamin B from the body, create sugar fluctuations, reduce mental clarity, and adversely affect brain functions. Stick to foods like whole grains, fruits, beans, and low-fat dairy.
Antioxidants - Our brain is highly susceptible to metabolic overload and oxidative stress. Luckily, vitamin C and E possess strong antioxidant potential and help ease stress put on brain cells by free radicals. Getting enough antioxidants in your diet is important for flagging memory and boosting brain power. Natural sources of antioxidants include: beans, berries, and apples.
Trace Minerals - The ‘anti stress’ mineral magnesium is particularly good for our grey matter. Magnesium is vital for the production and transfer of nerve impulses, growth and repair of brain cells, and protection against neurotoxins. Magnesium rich foods include green leafy vegetables, nuts, whole grains, soybeans, milk, and seafood. Other minerals such as zinc, selenium, and iron are also critical to improving concentration and memory.
BRAIN FOODS Nuts and seeds: Loaded with protein, unsaturated fats, fiber, magnesium, B complex vitamins, and vitamin E, nuts and seeds contain all of the ‘brain healthy’ nutrients. Add almonds, cashew, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds in moderate amounts to your diet to clear foggy thoughts and enhance focus.
Fish: High levels of omega 3 fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexanoic acid), vitamin B6, vitamin A, and proteins in fish promote alertness and reduces anxiety and depression. Wild salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel are the most ‘brainy’ fish.
Whole grains: Whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat, millets, rye, and oats are known to arm the brain with energy, magnesium, and folic acid.
Avocados: Although quite high in fat content, avocados are considered healthy because of their ability to lower blood pressure and improve healthy flow of blood across vital organs, especially the brain. ¼ to ½ an avocado is suggested per day as a side dish.
Beans: An excellent source of slow-digesting, non-animal protein, beans provide a steady flow of energy to brain cell, help ward of heart disease, and provide a healthy amount of fiber.
Green Tea: According to experts, sipping green tea promotes better blood circulation and improves your mood. Green tea contains catechins which exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Catechins also help the body deliver glucose, aiding the body in avoiding sugar lows that can lead to irritability and stress. Theanine in green tea is perhaps most responsible for the stress relief quality of the beverage. This substance has been shown to increase certain brain waves that promote a relaxed state of being.
Berries: Berries show strong antioxidant activity with a positive effect on neural function. Fresh, frozen, or freeze-dried berries all have these properties. Be sure to add at least one cup thrice a week for better brain health.
THE BOTTOM LINE Excessive intake of calories may negate the positive effects of brain healthy diets. So watching your total calorie count is as important to brain health as making sure you're getting the right kind of nutrients. The National Institute of Nutrition reports, “In general, the diet which is good for your body and keeps chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension away are also healthy for your brain. The cooperative action of correct nutritional choices and a healthy diet is the key to becoming brain healthy.
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