Food for Thought or How to Use Nutrients for Cognitive Health
As we age our bodily functions deteriorate. We might not be as flexible as we have been in our forties or fifties. Our brain is aging, as well. And while wisdom is generally attributed to old age, it is old age that often brings the undesirable loss of mental acuity and in worst cases, dementia.
The deterioration of the brain may seem inevitable to some people, yet we can slow it and prevent it with proper nutrition and supplementation. Human brain is a very complex organ and it has nutritional needs that have to be met on daily basis if we want to stay mentally fit until old age. Moreover, our brain needs challenge and exercise in order not to atrophy.
Some foods have the capability to boost the cognitive function. They deliver nutrients to the brain, help produce neurotransmitters and increase the oxygen flow to the brain. Consuming them daily will help you stay mentally fit and agile till old age.
Here are the best nutrients for brain support:
- complex carbohydrates
- healthy fats
- amino acids
- vitamins and minerals
Glucose delivers energy and is the most important nutrient for the brain and the nervous system. The brain consumes more glucose than any other organ in the body and needs a steady flow of it. It is vital to avoid insulin "spikes" and to keep the blood sugar at stable level. Avoid any form of sugar (saccharose) and all foods containing added sugar. Eat whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables to maintain optimal blood sugar levels and to secure a steady supply of glucose to the brain. Although fruits contain the simple sugar fructose, fructose is not immediately released into the blood stream as it has to be converted into glucose by the body. Moreover, fresh fruits contain fiber which slows dawn the release of sugar into the blood stream. While choosing your nutrition, watch for foods with low glycemic index (GI) and remember that combining carbohydrates with protein helps prevent insulin from spiking.
Our brain mass is about 60 per cent fat and it is absolutely necessary to feed our brains with the right fats if we want to maintain optimal brain function. Fats facilitate the circulation of neurotransmitters in the brain. Diet containing very little or no fat at all is detrimental to the brain and our mental health. The brain's fat tissue needs to be replenished constantly, and while saturated and monounsaturated fat, as well as cholesterol are synthesized by the body, essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, must be delivered through our diet. Our diet should include saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. However, fat should comprise no more than 20 per cent of our daily caloric intake. Hydrogenated fat should be avoided and the consumption of saturated fat reduced in favor of the mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The polyunsaturated omega-3 (especially EPA and DHA) and omega-6 (GLA and AA in particular), should comprise one third of the total fat consumption. Avoid fried and processed foods and reduce the consumption of saturated fat from meat and diary. Instead, eat plenty of seeds and nuts and cold water fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel. Include cold pressed oils such as olive or hemp oil and supplement with high quality, hexane free omega-3 and omega-6 capsules.
Our brain could not function without the phospholipids phosphatidylcholine (PC) and phosphatidylserine (PS). Phospholipids are the building blocks of all cell membranes. They constitute the myelin sheath of nerve cells and facilitate the communication between the brain cells. The body can make its own phospholipids, but we should also include foods such as eggs, butter milk, and organ meats in our diet.
It has to be mentioned that choline is a precursor to acetylcholine - the memory neurotransmitter. Posphatidylserine, the memory molecule par excellence, is needed to maintain the structural integrity of brain cells. It promotes memory and boosts the brain power. Supplementation with lecithin granules and a good PS formula will help you improve your memory and stop the decline of the brain. Studies have demonstrated that PS taken together with DHA is even more effective.
Amino acids are the building components of neurotransmitters which the brain uses for the communication between cells. There are hundreds of different neurotransmitters circulating in the brain and in the body, but the most important for the mind/brain function are:
Our mood, memory, and concentration depend on the levels of these neurotransmitters and therefore, our nutrition must provide all the amino acids which body uses to produce neurotransmitters. Enrich your diet with high quality protein sources such as cold water fish, turkey, chicken, nuts, seeds, pulses, and eggs. Supplementing with essential amino acids (isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine ) will help deliver everything your body needs to produce sufficient amount of neurotransmitters.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are the important catalysts in all processes that include the production of neurotransmitters or the conversion of glucose into energy for the brain. Without them the brain could not function properly. The most important for the brain function and development are:
- vitamins of the B group, especially B1, B3, B5, B12, and the folic acid
- vitamin C
Research shows that nutrition deficient in vitamins and minerals results in diminished IQ. Consume fresh fruit and vegetables daily. Eat nuts, seeds, pulses, mushrooms, and whole grains. If necessary, supplement with a high quality multivitamin and mineral supplement.
Like every other cell in the body, brain cells are subject to oxidative damage. Your diet should include foods rich in antioxidants such as dark leafy vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, berries, cherries, prunes, seeds and nuts. Avoid nicotine and stimulants, and reduce alcohol consumption. Limit the consumption of fried and processed foods, foods containing artificial sweeteners, colorants, and preservatives. Eliminate sugar from your diet. If necessary, supplement with a high quality antioxidant formula containing among others high levels of:
- vitamin C
- vitamin E
- CoQ 10
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
- Beta Carotene
Some plants and herbs have been identified as effective brain modulators enhancing cognitive health, improving memory and overall brain function:
- Bacopa monnieri
- Eleuthero root
- Ginko biloba
- Gotu kola
- Huperzia serrata, the source of Huperzine A
- Periwinkle plant Vinca minor, the source of Vinpocetine
- Rhodiola rosea
These plants contain active agents that are known to promote blood circulation to the brain, relaxation and resistance to stress.
Huperzine A is an alcaloid which inhibits acetylcholinesterase - enzyme that breaks dawn the acetylcholine which is, among others, important for the memory function in the brain.
Vinpocetine helps to improve concentration and memory by enhancing cerebral metabolic function.
Ginko biloba enhances the blood circulation to the brain.
Gotu kola is known to improve memory. This herb has the capacity to relax the nervous system while stimulating the brain at the same time. This double action results in enhanced concentration.
Rhodiola Rosea has the enormous potential to enhance brain function and mood. It helps to reduce stress which normally interferes with memory function. The herb is known to enhance cognitive function and learning ability. It also increases the resistance to physical and emotional stress and may help protect the brain and the nervous system from oxidative damage caused by free radicals.
Reishi mushrooms, also known as ganoderma or the mushrooms of longevity, act in the brain as a powerful anti-oxidant. The mycelium in various supplements has the capacity to reduce inflammation in the brain. According to recent studies, it helps to protect the brain from the damage done by Alzheimer's disease.
Like any other body part, brain needs exercise and challenge. Mental activities such as learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, solving puzzles, or reading, all promote the growth of new synapses and activate vast areas of the brain that otherwise remain "idle". Physical activity and exercise promote blood circulation to the brain and help to improve memory and concentration.
Your lifestyle may help you maintain your cognitive function and even improve your intelligence, or on the contrary, diminish it. Old age dementia, but also Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases are probably the most feared, but so are brain tumors. Human brain is a very complex organ. Healthy nutrition, mental stimulation, physical activity, socialization, stress control and relaxation, are the vital elements of a brain-supportive life style. Keeping this in mind and following few simple rules, will help us to retain mental agility until old age.
By Dominique Allmon
Also of interest
This information is for educational purpose only. It is not meant to diagnose or cure a disease. Please, consult your health care provider before commencing supplementation.
Nourish Your Brain by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.