If the things we feed our body has a substantial effect on our overall physical health, then what we feed our brain matters also.
While it is obvious that the body needs lots of nutrients to remain healthy, what is less obvious is that the brain needs them also, and maybe even more. We spend a lot of time worrying about our heart and skin and weight, with good cause. They are critical to our overall health and wellbeing. However, it is important also to nourish the most important organ in our body, the brain. The brain performs a lot of critical functions in the human body which is vital to every bodily process therefore it is not surprising that the brain requires certain nutrients to function at optimum capacity.
The important question now is what does the brain need to perform at its best?
Essential Fatty Acids
The fat content of the brain makes up about 60% of the weight of the brain and a fifth of this fat is made up of essential fatty acids such as Omega 3 and Omega 6. These acids cannot be made in the body and so have to come from your diet. Hydrogenated fats however, are bad for the brain. They affect the proper function of the essential fatty acids making them not to work effectively. Hydrogenated fats are found in many readymade foods such as biscuits and cakes. Omega 3 fatty acids are essentially important for building the cell membrane of the brain cells and are very good for mental health, focus and memory. These acids play a very important role in the health of the brain. Most of the foods we eat contain more of Omega 6 fatty acids such as eggs, nuts and avocado. To get more Omega 3 fatty acids, the foods such as these should be eaten as often as possible: Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, trout, sardines and tuna. Other sources of Omega 3 fatty acids include walnuts, flax seeds, olive oil and peanuts.
Apart from improving cognitive functions, Omega 3 fatty acids also have other advantages to the brain. For example, DHA and EPA, two Omega 3 fatty acids found in some types of fish such as swordfish, salmons and tuna are essential for a sharp mind.
In order to improve memory, we need to eat more of food rich in antioxidants. These fight against free radicals which can damage the neurons in the brain.
- Vitamin B: Vitamin B plays a vital role in cognitive functions. Homocysteine is an amino acid associated with clogged arteries which can cause decreased flow of blood in the brain resulting in impaired mental functions. Vitamins B such as B6, B12 and folate is known to assist in reducing homocysteine levels, while insufficient vitamins B has been linked to high homocysteine levels. Vitamins B6 and B12 is also essential for a sharp mind as deficiency of these vitamins have been linked with cognitive failures.
Leafy green vegetables, spinach, broccoli and avocado are sources of folate. Vitamin B 12 is only known to occur naturally in animal products especially salmon, shrimp, beef, milk, yoghurt and cheese. Vitamin B6 is also primarily found in animal products such as beef, seafood and poultry. It can be found in smaller amounts in legumes like black beans, nuts and whole grains.
- Vitamin C: Studies have shown that people with higher levels of Vitamin C antioxidants in their blood do better in memory tests. Food rich in vitamin C includes: citrus fruits such as strawberries, guava and pawpaw. Broccoli, tomatoes and bell peppers are also good sources of vitamin C. You may have heard that blueberries are good for the brain; this is because they have rich vitamin C properties and phytochemicals that improve brain function and memory.
- Vitamin D: Low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with poor memory and cognitive brain functions. Vitamin D is needed throughout the brain especially in the hippocampus, which is the seat of memory. Vitamin D also supports the growth of neurons and help in neurotransmission. Vitamin D is manufactured when your body is exposed to the sun for a few minutes each day. Which means getting enough sunshine is important for production of adequate vitamin D in the body. But for people with vitamin D deficiency, milk yoghurt and cheese provides the essential vitamins and minerals which also include vitamin D, unfortunately; many dairy products contain cholesterol and saturated fat, so you need to be careful with your intake.
Just like the rest of the body that needs fuel for energy, the brain needs fuel to get work done. The energy the brain uses come from one source and one source only: sugar. The brain needs a steady supply of glucose to carry out all its function every time of the day. Even at night, when the body is sleeping, the brain in awake, carrying out repairs, clearing out useless junk and making new memories. This type of activity requires energy to carry out. Even though the brain is approximately 2% of our total body weight, it uses up more than 20% of our total energy resources.
Studies have shown that people tend to do better in memory test and report less mental fatigue when they eat meals high in carbs.
Of course, we know that Consumption of excessive refined or processed carbohydrate can make a person fat; this is why we need to choose our carbs carefully. Place more emphasis on low glycemic carbs over simple sugar. Carbs such as whole grain wheat, brown rice and oats will help keep glucose levels normal while giving the brain all the energy it needs to work throughout the day.
A final note
It is important to point out that eating well balanced healthy meals will go a long way in boosting your brain, but that is not enough. A healthy amount of bodily exercises and brain games combined with a healthy diet will do much more good than a diet alone. Adapt a moderate regime of daily exercise and workout; it will also help keep your body fit.
If you want to determine how the right foods and exercises affect your mental health, memory and cognitive function, try tracking what you eat for the next couple of weeks along with how much sharper your brain gets. There are lots of apps on the internet to help you do this. You can then know if you need to add more or subtract.