The brain is the most complex organ in the body. It is made up of a complex network of billions of nerve cells called neurons, as well as other kinds of cells, all protected by the bones of the skull. Ever wondered what you could eat and drink to make your brain function better for e.g. improve memory? This article discusses how nutrition can impact how well your brain works.

Omega 3 fatty acids

Unlike saturated fats whose main function is to supply energy, polyunsaturated fats (especially omega-3s) are vital components of cell membranes; they keep them flexible, allowing the proteins embedded in them more freedom to change shape. Evidence from epidemiological studies suggest that diets rich in long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, help to slow down cognitive decline. However, there is not convincing evidence that regular omega-3 supplementation can help to prevent or treat any type of dementia.

Rich food sources of omega 3 fatty acids

  • Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines
  • Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds

Saturated fat

Greater intake of cholesterol and saturated fat has been demonstrated to significantly impair memory and increase the risk for impaired cognitive function in middle-aged or aged populations. The daily recommended limit for saturated fat is less than 30 grams and 20 grams for men and women respectively.  Saturated fat is the kind of fat found in butter and lard, pies, cakes and biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages and bacon, and cheese and cream.

Water

Over 70 percent of your body is composed of water and every function in the body is dependent on water, including the activities of the brain and nervous system. The brain is approximately 85 percent water and brain function depends on having adequate access to water.  Your brain does not have any way to store water and due to this, when your body loses more water than you are replacing, dehydration will kick in and brain function will be affected. Evidence shows that dehydration can cause brain fog, focus issues, depression, anger, emotional instability, exhaustion, headaches, sleep issues and stress.

Glucose

As well as staying hydrated, the ability to concentrate and focus comes from an adequate, steady supply of energy – in the form of glucose in our blood to the brain. If there isn’t enough glucose in the brain, neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, are not produced and communication between neurons breaks down. In addition, hypoglycemia, a common complication of diabetes caused by low glucose levels in the blood, can lead to loss of energy for brain function and is linked to poor attention and cognitive function. One way to tackle this is to choose low GI (glycaemic index) foods such as wholegrain cereals, granary bread, rice and pasta as they release glucose slowly into the bloodstream, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day.

Vitamins and minerals

Certain vitamins and minerals have been linked to brain function. See the table below for more details.

Table 1: Vitamin & Minerals and Brain Function
Micro-nutrient type Good food sources Impact on brain function
B vitamins: B6, B12 and folic acid Poultry – such as chicken or turkey, fish; wholegrain cereals – such as oatmeal, wheatgerm and brown rice; eggs; vegetables, soya beans; peanuts; milk; potatoes; some fortified breakfast cereals.

 

These B vitamins are known to reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with cognitive impairment.
Vitamin C (Ascorbate) Fruit and vegetables especially bell peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits etc. Important for neuronal maturation and function and protection of the brain against oxidative stress.
Vitamin K Green leafy vegetables — collards, green leaf lettuce, kale, mustard greens, parsley, romaine lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard and turnip greens. Influences cognition and is part of molecules that play important structural and metabolic functions in the brain.
Vitamin E Seeds especially sunflower seeds, Nuts especially almonds, Spinach, Swiss chard, Avocado & Broccoli. By acting as an antioxidant, may help to prevent cognitive decline by protecting the brain from oxidative stress.
Zinc  Red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, certain types of seafood (such as crab and oysters), whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and dairy products. Zinc supply is important for brain functions such as neuronal activity and prevention of neurological diseases.
Iron Red meat, pork and poultry, seafood, beans, dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach.Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots. Iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas. A deficiency in iron also prevents adequate oxygen delivery to the brain, which can cause fatigue and poor mental performance.

 

Summary

In order to maintain optimal brain function, it is important to:

  • Drink adequate amounts of water for hydration. We are recommended to drink approximately 2 litres a day.
  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables as they contain vitamins, minerals and other substances (for e.g. phytochemicals) that help to protect the brain from oxidative stress and help the brain to carry out its normal functions.
  • The brain needs a steady supply of glucose for energy so choose foods with a low glycaemic index (GI). This will ensure that glucose is slowly released into the bloodstream, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day. Fruit and vegetables as well as wholegrains are good low GI options.
  • Consume a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids which can be found in oily fish, nuts and seeds.
  • Avoid consuming high levels of saturated fat.
  • Consume a diet that allows you to have an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. Take a multivitamin if necessary.

References

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