When setting health and wellness goals, eating for brain health isn't often at the top of our priorities. However, given our brain is the control center of the body, working around the clock 24/7; with a role in almost all bodily systems, including processing sensory information, releasing certain hormones, and its vast array of cognitive functions, it’s no wonder it requires a hefty nutritional punch.
While there’s still much to explore and research on food and its effect on the brain, it is understood that certain nutrients are more beneficial for brain health than others. By ensuring our diet is rich in nutrients that support our clever organ, we can help optimise brain function, maintain and repair brain cells, and even prevent against cognitive decline - sounds pretty great right? The best place to start when eating for brain health is a diet rich in whole natural foods - these are foods that have not been processed, or have been as minimally processed as possible, and so are naturally nutrient-rich.
Here are the top nutrients for brain health, and which foods you’ll commonly find them in:
Unlike a car, our brain cells don't have their own personal petrol tank, and so require a constant stream of energy. This is typically in the form of glucose, which is found in carbohydrate-rich foods. Within the diet carbohydrates are in both processed and unprocessed foods - and when it comes to brain fuel, the type of carbohydrate is key. For a steady stream of glucose, select foods rich in complex carbohydrates, which includes starchy vegetables such as sweet potato, potato, pumpkin and corn, fruit, legumes, oats and rice (if tolerated). Complex carbohydrates, rich in fibre, are digested more slowly in our body, which means we get a more gradual release of energy - this is ideal compared to more processed refined carbohydrates, which can otherwise spike our energy and blood sugar levels, leaving us feeling not as flash.
When talking brain foods, salmon and other oily fish are often at the top of the list - and for good reason. They’re naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are used to help build both brain and nerve cells, with these kinds of fat being absolutely vital for cognitive function, including memory. There is also research to suggest they may help prevent mental decline as we age, particularly against Alzheimer's disease. Essential fatty acids, like omega-3 found in oily fish are deemed essential as our body cannot produce them itself, and so we must get them from our diet. Aside from oily fish, other sources of omega-3 to include on your shopping list are leafy greens, chia seeds and walnuts.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and are naturally-rich within animal products like chicken, eggs, fish, beef and lamb, as well as plant-based proteins like chickpeas, lentils, tofu and beans. Amino acids are vital for the production of neurotransmitters, which serve as chemical messengers that communicate signals from one brain cell to another. Common neurotransmitters include serotonin, which helps keep us feeling upbeat and is created from the neurotransmitter tryptophan; dopamine which has an important role in body movement and our reward system, and is produced from the neurotransmitters tyrosine; and GABA, which helps us stay calm and is derived from the amino acid glutamine.
Like essential fatty acids, certain amino acids are also deemed essential, meaning our body cannot make them itself and so we must get them from our diet. Therefore, ensuring we’re eating enough protein will provide the body with ample building blocks, assisting with keeping up our neurotransmitter production. While most of Australasia already eat a diet that is sufficient in protein, aim to enjoy around a palm-size of protein-rich foods at main meals to help ensure you reach your daily intake.
In response to everyday wear and tear, our body is constantly producing internal free radicals, which are rouge unstable compounds. We also encounter them frequently in the environment, whether from pollution, tobacco smoke and sunlight. Free radicals, if left unchecked, are damaging to the body, contributing to inflammation, premature aging and degenerative disease. To help fight free-radicals, antioxidants within our diets are key, as they alter unstable molecules, turning them into stable ones. Fabulous antioxidants for brain health include vitamin C, which can help fight off damage to brain cells, and is found in fruits and vegetables like citrus fruit, broccoli and capsicum. Another is anthocyanin, an antioxidant commonly found in berries, which has been associated with anti-inflammatory effects, increased communication between our brain cells, and improved memory.
B-vitamins are micronutrients which are extremely important nutrients, needed in smaller amounts for good health. They help drive thousands of biochemical reactions within the body, from assisting with the production of neurotransmitters, to energy production, to the repair of our DNA. B-vitamins are water-soluble, meaning our body does not store them, and so a daily intake is key. Great sources in our diets include leafy greens, as well as beef and starchy vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, corn and pumpkin.
Published with permission from Synergy Health Ltd