Nutritionists often speak of top foods for heart health and bone health, amongst other topics, but a topic that is under-discussed in my opinion is brain health. Here is some food for thought: the top nutrients/foods for that blob of grey and white matter resting in our skulls (geez, poetic much today?).
***B vitamins (especially B6, B9 and B12) are very “importanté” for cognitive function (as well as mood, energy and metabolism). They are naturally found in whole grains so choose non-refined grains whenever possible, dearest readers. Deficiencies in these nutrients can impair cognitive functioning. Also, during periods when we are very physically active or when stress levels are sky high (hello panic button), our B vitamin needs are upped quite a bit. Alcohol can be a pain in the butt and decrease B vitamin status as we tend to lose more B vitamins through our urine when we drink more alky. In the same line of thought, people lose brain cells as they get older, normally at a rate of about 0.5% per year. For people with Alzheimer’s, this atrophy is faster and is increased to 2.5% per year. This can be referred to as brain shrinkage. Studies have shown that higher doses of B vitamins could half brain shrinkage in older people with memory problems. Remember: whole grains, whole grains, whole grains.
***Omega-3 fats (walnuts, pumpkin seeds, edamame beans, avocadoes, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds): are great for the noggin. Human brains are composed of nearly 60% fat. Compelling research from the previous 4 decades is showing that healthy fats are among the most important molecules when it comes to brain integrity and ability to perform. High amounts of omega-3 fats are found in our neurons (the cells of our central nervous system). When our omega-3 intake is low, our nerve cells become stiffer as the missing omega-3 fats are replaced with cholesterol and omega-6 instead. Once our nerve cells become rigid, proper neurotransmission (cell messaging) from cell to cell and within cells becomes compromised – kind of like playing Chinese whispers or telephone – not good. Not only can these magnificent fats help for concentration, mental clarity, focus and memory, they are considered to be mood-altering (in a good way, tee hee) as they aid in reducing stress, anxiety and depression. All in all, if you want your brain to be at peak capacity, focus on (pun intended) fattening up your diet with these healthful fats.
When discussing brain health, it is important to discuss prevention of Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloid is a hallmark substance of Alzheimer’s disease, which is crucially responsible for the gummy plaques that build up and slowly impede brain function. Recent UCLA research has shown that omega-3 fats (they’re back again!) and vitamin D may help clear such plaques.
Also, preventing build-up of these beta-amyloids in the first place is key. To do so, one must cut down on saturated fats (red meat, dairy, chicken skin, transformed foods) as they increase levels of beta-amyloid in the brain. What’s more, high intakes of saturated fat and high intakes of refined grains (white rice/pasta/bread/flour) decrease the amount of apolipoprotein E (apoE) in our brains, which are helpful chaperones that carry beta-amyloid out of our brains. Basically, this all means that our diets can affect our brain chemistry. Sorry bacon, you can’t qualify as brain food. Better luck never.
***Turmeric: Respected ethnobotanist James A. Duke, Ph.D. carried out one of the most comprehensive summaries on turmeric, which was published in Alternative & Complementary Therapies. Reviewing some 700 studies, he concluded that turmeric appears to outperform many pharmaceuticals in its effects against several chronic, debilitating diseases, and does so with virtually no adverse side effects. This was seen for Alzheimer’s disease, as Duke found more than 50 studies on turmeric’s effects in addressing this disease. The reports indicate that extracts of turmeric contain a number of natural agents that block the formation of beta-amyloid.
***Increase your intake of protective foods. Current research suggests that the following foods appear to protect brain cells:
-Dark-skinned fruits and vegetables (have the highest levels of naturally-occurring antioxidants): kale, beets, red bell pepper, eggplant, prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes and cherries.
-Some vitamin-E containing nuts: almonds, pecans and walnuts.
Alzheimer`s Research UK: http://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/news-detail/10704/B-vitamins-slow-brain-changes-in-a-subgroup-of-older-people/ (Accessed May 6th, 2014)
Essential fatty acids and human brain: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590
Vitamin D, omega-3 may help clear amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer’s : http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/vitamin-d-omega-3-may-help-clear-242465
Suzanne Craft, Ph.D., professor of medicine, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C.; Deborah Blacker, M.D., geriatric psychiatrist and director, Gerontology Research Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, and professor of epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; June 17, 2013, JAMA Neurology, online