The Nutrition for Better Brain Health
We’ve known for a long time – at least your mother probably told you - that a balanced diet is essential for general health. However, recent scientific studies have given us a wealth of new knowledge of how certain nutrients benefit your brain. The growth of the supplement industry, which now even includes a category for brain-related chemicals (nootropics), is a testament to the number of people who are interested in treating their brains to the very best. However, many of those products are things you can get ample supply of by just eating the right nutrition, and may only benefit people with a certain genetic make-up. Since there are hundreds of molecules your brain needs, we will start with some of the most important ones and what foods to find them in. Hopefully this is just the beginning of your exploration into a truly fascinating subject - nutrition for better brain health.
Let’s get to know your brain better and what it wants to eat!
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish - especially salmon, flax seeds, krill, chia, kiwi fruit, butternuts, walnuts):
One omega-3, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), stimulates neuronal plasticity, integral to learning and memory. Lack of it is associated with higher risk of mental disorders (ADD, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.)1.
All the B vitamins are vital to mental health, but deficiencies in these three are most associated with neurological dysfunction.
B6 (fish, organ meats – e.g. beef liver, and starchy vegetables – e.g. potatoes) is involved in the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin (regulates mood) and norepinephrine (regulates stress), and the hormone melatonin (regulates sleep cycle). Serious deficiency results in anxiety, irritability, depression, lack of concentration, and short-term memory loss.
B9 (fruits and vegetables) affects serotonin and noradrenaline receptors in the brain, acting as an anti-depressant. It is vital for neural development, especially during pregnancy; deficiency is marked by depression and confusion; and it isn’t absorbed well by people with certain digestive disorders, such as celiac disease.
B12 (eggs, milk, meat – clearly an issue for vegans) is crucial for the synthesis of myelin, which insulates the axons of neurons, allowing them to send their signals (action potentials) around the brain, critical to all cognition. Even moderate deficiency results in lethargy, depression, and memory problems.
Vitamins C and E (found in many foods, including colorful fruits and vegetable) act as antioxidants, protecting your brain from free radicals, which damage DNA and cell membranes.
Vitamin A (liver, fish oil, milk and eggs) is important for vision, and Vitamin D (sunlight, fish, eggs, mushrooms) helps prevent cognitive aging.
Magnesium (dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, leafy greens and bananas) is involved in over 50 processes in the brain (including neural plasticity) and many people don’t reach the recommended daily intake of 400 mg.
Zinc (oysters, meat, spinach, seeds, nuts, dark chocolate, beans, and mushrooms) is critical for axonal and synaptic transmission and is especially important for neuronal development. Children with insufficient levels of zinc may have lowered learning ability, apathy, lethargy, and mental retardation.
Iron (lean meat, seafood, nuts, beans, and vegetables) is essential for normal neurological function, since it is involved in energy production (through oxidative metabolism) and synthesis of neurotransmitters and myelin (see B12).
Flavonoids (cocoa, green tea, Ginkgo tree, citrus fruits, red wine):
Their main role is neuroprotective, where they safeguard neurons from injury by neurotoxins and suppress neuroinflammation. They also promote memory, learning and cognitive function. Fun fact: the name comes from the Latin “flavus” meaning yellow (their color in nature).
There are many amino acids that are vital for brain function, so make sure you eat plenty of protein, as your body will break those down into amino acids, which will keep your brain fit.
One of the easiest and best things to do for your brain is to simply stay hydrated, as water is necessary for so many of your brain’s chemical reactions.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the chemicals your brain needs to function optimally, but hopefully it’s piqued your interest and you’ll be able to make the best choices when it comes to eating. Now you’ll have the added pleasure of knowing what’s in which foods and how it will help you and your brain excel!
When it comes to cognition, knowledge is power, and we can help you know more about your brain and how to keep it healthy than any time in human history. Whether you’re a parent, student, professional, or retiree, we’ll help you unlock your cognitive potential. Click here to see how.
Freeman, M. P. et al. (2006), Omega-3 fatty acids: evidence basis for treatment and future research in psychiatry. J. Clin. Psychiatry 67, 1954–1967