Your stomach is growling, and you yearn for that delicious sandwich or sizzling dinner in the oven that lures you to the kitchen, does it occur to you that your brain is hungry too? Of course not! We think of our stomach. It makes noises and often overwhelms us to the point of hunger pain until we satisfy its calling for food.
It’s not our stomach, the signals come from your brain!
When hungry, we feel tired, light-headed, irritable, cannot think clearly or concentrate, may sense a light tremor . . . you know the feeling. Hungry children cannot concentrate to do their homework; they are irritable, short-fused and easily fight.
Nutritional Needs of the Brain
The brain represents only 2% of an adult’s weight, but it uses 20% of the energy produced by the body. If energy supply is not enough, people may experience a variety of symptoms, including memory problems, fatigue and concentration problems. (Brain & Soine Foundation)
We know that a balanced diet is part of a healthy lifestyle. It improves heart and brain function and reduces the risk of many serious conditions, including strokes, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. But it is less emphasized that It may also help to manage neurological symptoms such as critical thinking, problem solving, responsiveness and overall keeping the brain sharp.
Research on Brain Nutrition
During the last two decades especially, research of aging and preserving cognitive function has advanced significantly. We know today that specific nutrients in our diet play a key role in preserving brain health and have significant benefits for intellectual and psychological health.
A study of older adults reported by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2016) described a linkage of consumption of a pigment found in leafy greens to the preservation of ‘crystallized intelligence,’ meaning the ability to use the skills and knowledge one has acquired over a lifetime.
Lutein is one of several plant pigments found in leafy green vegetables and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, or egg yolks. Lutein accumulates in the brain, embedding in cell membranes and is believed to play protective role to preserve cognitive function in healthy brain aging.
A cohort study (one or more samples) reported in MedPage Today (2015), Mediterranean Diet May Buy Time for Aging Brain:
Eating more fish, less meat put brakes on cognitive decline. Higher fish and lower meat intake may be the two key food elements that contribute to the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on brain structure, delaying atrophy of the brain which is associated with aging.
Special Focus on Brain Nutrition
Here is what your head is hungry for: a balanced diet that consist of three main components:
- Five portions of fruits and vegetables per day
- Carbohydrates from foods such as brown rice, potatoes, cereals and whole wheat pasta
- Protein from foods such as oily fish, eggs and meat.
In addition, limit your salt, sugar and alcohol intake and avoid processed foods.
Key Brain Nutrients
As with any organ, the brain needs a constant supply of various vitamins, minerals and amino acids. These are used to keep up with the ongoing process of repairing damage, maintaining every day functions and adapting to changing environments. Neurons also need a steady supply of raw materials in order to produce the numerous neurotransmitters necessary for cellular communications.
Essential Fatty Acids
Over 60% of the brain is made up of fats. In addition to being the basic building blocks of all cell membranes, fats play an important role in insulating neurons via myelin sheaths.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are a particular type of essential fatty acids that cannot be produced by the body so they have to come from the diet. They are involved in regulating mood, protecting neurons, improving blood circulation, preventing stroke and reducing inflammation.
Most of us eat much more omega-6 (found in poultry, eggs, avocado and nuts) than omega-3 (found in oily fish like salmon, herring and mackerel, seeds, especially flax seeds, and nuts, especially walnuts).
NOTE: Pay attention to eat more oily fish as a rich source of omega-3!
Neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin are made from amino acids. Serotonin regulates our moods, helps us feel content and is important for sleep. Some of these amino acids come from what we eat and drink is tryptophan.
Tryptophan is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat, spirulina, and peanuts.
NOTE: For a good night’s sleep, in lieu of an alcoholic beverage, choose food or drink rich in tryptophan!
Normal wear and tear combined with environmental sources of pollution create toxic molecules called free radicals. Radicals contribute to the biological equivalent of rusting by deteriorating and often destroying cell membranes.
The pigments which give fruits and vegetables their color often include powerful anti-oxidants.
NOTE: Consume plentiful of greens, fruits and berries rich in anti-oxidants to keep your cell membranes, especially brain cells, healthy to preserve maximum brain functions, stay alert and responsive, and prevent deterioration.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential for the functioning of the whole body, including the brain to help perform vital tasks. A vitamin or mineral deficiency (shortage) can affect your mood, as well as other brain functions.
Vitamins such as folate and B12 (types of ‘B complex’ vitamin) support the healthy function of the nervous system (the brain, the spinal cord and the nerves).
A deficiency in either of these vitamins can cause a wide range of problems, including:
- memory problems
- muscle weakness
- pins and needles
- psychological problems
- mouth ulcers.
Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal products such as fish, poultry, meat, eggs, or dairy); it is also found in fortified breakfast cereals and enriched soy or rice milk. Most people have plenty of vitamin B12 in their diets. The main concern is whether vitamin B12 is adequately absorbed.
Many foods are excellent sources of folate—fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, breakfast cereals, and fortified grains and grain products. Avoid foods that are heavily fortified with folic acid.
Water is needed for the elimination of toxins, the production of energy, healing, growth and every chemical reaction in the body. For a more in-depth discussion on water, refer to a previous post: Water – The 7 Wonders. Check it out for more in-depth discussion. A lack of water results in cognitive deficits: in attention, memory and processing speed.
NOTE: A general rule of thumb is to drink enough water to keep the color of urine a pale straw color.
Summary of Foods to Boost Your Brain
As mentioned above, a balanced diet is part of a healthy lifestyle will always keep your brain happy. It improves heart and brain function and reduces the risk of many serious conditions.
To make it easy and versatile, nutritionists and cardiologists always refer to the well-researched health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet being excellent for the heart and brain. It includes a . . .
- High consumption of extra virgin olive oil rather than other fats.
- High intake of fish.
- High intake of fruit, vegetables, cereals and legumes.
- Moderate intake of alcohol (usually red wine).
- Low intake of meat (in particular, red meat).
- Low to moderate intake of dairy products.
Foods specifically good for the brain are extra virgin olive oil & good fats (monounsaturated) in avocados, nuts; oily fish; deep-colored fruits, vegetables and berries; dark chocolate & green tea as rich sources of antioxidants.
Foods damaging to the brain are salty foods (high blood pressure), sugary foods and drinks (sodas), foods prepared with trans fats (hydrogenated fats or – oil); alcohol in larger amounts.
If we pay attention to our diet and keep it balanced, our heart and brain will reward us immeasurably over time!