How Nutrition Affects the Brain
Your brain is an incredibly nuanced organ, and one where science is just beginning to penetrate its mysteries. The research is increasingly clear, however, on the fact that it functions best with proper nutrition. Conversely, improper or insufficient nourishment can derail your brain functions, imperil your mood and slow cognition.
People who wish to foster healthy, happy brains should therefore look first to what they eat. Luckily, most of the nutrients your brain needs to run at full capacity are easily found in a balanced diet composed primarily of whole foods. Below is a sampling of some of the most important nutrients for proper cognitive function, as well as suggestions on which foods to eat to maximize their availability to your brain.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and the foundation of your brain’s healthy function. When you lack proper nutrition or are simply hungry, you lack the amino acids that the brain requires to build the more than 50,000 different proteins it requires, including neurotransmitters and chromosomes, hormones and enzymes. Eat a variety of proteins, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts in order to foster a healthy amount of amino acids in your diet. And use caution with supplements, which supply a massive dose compared to those found in foods and may unbalance your system.
Recent studies have shown that rat pups who receive choline in utero have increased memory function for life, and other studies are backing up choline’s role in memory among humans of all ages. Good sources of choline include beef and chicken liver as well as eggs, and pregnant women are especially encouraged to watch their choline levels for the sake of developing fetuses.
Also called folic acid and vitamin B9, folate helps regulate mental and emotional health, boosts memory and aids the body in converting food to energy. Along with other B vitamins, folate helps to balance brain function, which in turn reduces the buildup of harmful metabolites such as the amino acid homocysteine, which can contribute to heart disease. To up your folate levels, go for leafy greens, fruit juice, legumes, barley, brown rice, cheese, chicken, lentils and fish, among others.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In response to their crucial role in health and brain function, Omega-3 fatty acids have made headlines for years. They affect both synaptic plasticity and cognition, and are known to decrease levels of depression in people of all ages as well as lower levels of ADHD in babies when given to pregnant and nursing mothers. Both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) help combat brain damage due to inflammation and oxidation, and can mitigate or stave off age-related and other mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, schizophrenia and depression. Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include fish, eggs from grass-fed chickens and flax.
Iron is a crucial element to healthy brain function, especially in children and teenagers whose systems are still developing. Iron deficiencies can cause impaired cognitive functions and delayed or damaged language and motor development, because iron is a key ingredient to healthy myelin, the tissue that wraps and protects neurons. Good sources of iron include meat, fish, shellfish, liver, beans, seeds, broccoli, spinach and rice.
Research indicates that caloric restriction can influence brain function. An overloaded diet creates more free radicals than the body can process, some of which overwhelm the brain’s ability to buffer itself, and therefore can cause damage to synaptic function. Eating less (of the right foods, but especially of the wrong foods) could therefore protect our brain by reducing the damage oxidants cause to lipids, proteins and nucleic acids like DNA and RNA.
For the same reasons, antioxidants can be very helpful to brain processes. Not only do they neutralize free radicals, they facilitate learning and enable the brain to put up with stress. Antioxidants are especially important in aging brains, but can up brain health in people of any age. Compared with people who at .2 pounds of fruit and vegetables per day, those who ate .9 pounds had higher cognitive function and less free radical damage. Many fruits and vegetables offer antioxidants, but among the best are berries, pomegranates, citrus fruits, artichokes, plums and leafy greens. Other sources of naturally occurring antioxidants include nuts, fish and green tea, as well as beans and potatoes.
Naturally this is not an exhaustive list of the brain’s essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients, but ensuring that you pay attention to their importance can increase your neural plasticity (your ability to learn and change), as well as improve memory and combat mental disorders. Since a healthy brain-boosting diet will benefit the rest of your body too, what’s not to like?
- Franklin VanOs