Our brain is the most important organ in our body as it controls and co-ordinates all the actions and reactions that ultimately make us human; our ability to think, feel, have memories and make connections with people around us. Our brain’s health impacts our lives daily and can also affect our interactions and relations with the people around us and the environment we are a part of. As a result, maintaining its health and well-being should be amongst our top priorities.
However, it’s a lot easier said than done as failing brain health is becoming a public health epidemic with as many as 3 out of every 5 Americans developing a neurodegenerative brain disease during their lifetime.
It has been suggested that a holistic approach is what optimizes the brain and overall health. What is good for the human body is ultimately what is good for the promotion of brain health. There are several elements that work together synergistically to promote whole body health and brain health and they include
- Stress management
- Social relationships
- Mental Activity
While all of the above play an equally important part, our focus will be on the impact that nutrition has on the brain and its various cognitive abilities along with the maintenance of overall health of the body.
How does nutrition affect the brain?
Food and the nutrients it contains affects brain on a molecular level. Meaning that nutrients have the ability to not only prevent and help against various brain diseases from developing but can also possibly inhibit the workings of the brain. Understanding these working on a molecular basis can help us determine what sort of nutrition is best for our brains and for the promotion of mental fitness.
For example, research has proven that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is essential for the promotion and support of cognitive processes in humans. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid is found in the cell membranes that make up the brain. However, we depend on dietary sources for it as the human body does not produce DHA in sufficient amounts. DHA is mostly obtained from fish and provides plasma membrane fluidity at synaptic regions which has the ability to affect synaptic function and cognitive abilities. It is also crucial for the maintenance of membrane health.
On the other hand, diets high in saturated fats are largely at fault for poor brain health and are quite notorious for the reduction of cognitive processing. They also increase the risk of neurological dysfunction in humans. Consumption of the saturated fatty acids, linoleic acid and trans fatty acids has increased dramatically in Western civilizations given the large amount of their diet being based around processed and fast foods. The rise in the incidence of major depression in Western countries may be attributed to this very factor.
Several studies have also shown an association between the abnormal or faulty functioning of the body’s metabolism with various psychiatric disorders. For example, in a large study of patients with manic depression or schizophrenia, the rate of diabetes was found to be higher than in the general population.
What nutrients promote a healthy brain?
Flavonoids: Found in cocoa, green tea, citrus fruits, and dark chocolate; they play an active role in the improvement of cognitive function in the elderly. Studies suggest that flavonoids are good for the aging brain, doing everything from increasing the number of connections between neurons to disrupting the development of amyloid plaques that clog the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients.
Vitamin D: Commonly found in fish liver, fatty fish, mushrooms, fortified products, milk, soy milk, cereal grains; it activates and deactivates enzymes in the brain and the cerebrospinal fluid that are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth. It also protects neurons and reduces inflammation.
Folate or folic acid: It is found in various foods, including spinach, orange juice and yeast. Folate is highly essential for adequate brain function and a deficiency is associated with neurological disorders, such as depression and cognitive impairment.
Antioxidants: Found in foods such as berries and green tea, antioxidants are known for their positive effects on neural function. The brain can be impaired by oxidative damage by the oxidation of components such as the poly-unsaturated fatty acids that form the plasma membranes of neural cells. Anti-oxidants are therefore extremely important for brain health. They also play an important role in mitochondrial activity that has been shown to influence cognitive function.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E is abundant in vegetable oils, nuts, green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals. It is important for adequate cognitive performance, as decreasing serum levels of vitamin E were associated with poor memory performance in older individuals. Vitamin E can affect cognition a by protecting synaptic membranes from oxidation thereby promoting synaptic plasticity.
Curcumin: It is a curry spice and a traditional food preservative and medicinal herb in India. Curcumin is a strong antioxidant that protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals and has been proven to have a positive impact on Alzheimer’s disease.
The above list is not exhaustive as there are many other food components that play an active role in promoting the brain’s overall health. It should be noted that single time or infrequent consumption of these nutrients are unlikely to have a lasting impact, instead lifestyle changes are needed. For example, studies comparing the traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to the present day typical Western diet and have found evidence for the claim that what we consume by way of food has an impact on our brain’s health. It was revealed that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet as compared to the Western diet. This difference is due to these traditional diets being high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood. They are also free of processed and refined foods and sugars, which form a huge part of the Western diet. Diets high in refined sugars, are harmful to the brain as they not only disrupt the body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation. Various studies have found a correlation between diets high in refined sugars and impaired brain function as well as the worsening of symptoms associated with mood disorders, such as depression.
We now know the potential impact of various nutrients on the brain and its cognitive abilities. Conscious effort to consume health promoting foods and being mindful of what goes into our bodies, while at the same time incorporating exercise, stress management and healthy social relationships will help an individual live a more fulfilled life; the only life worth living!