We eat for many reasons. First and foremost, we need fuel to allow us energy throughout the day. Many of us eat a particular way for the benefit of our heart, our diabetes, our hypertension, our muscles, our weight, etc., however I rarely hear of individuals eating for their brains. The brain controls the body and our ability to think, communicate, move and function. Shouldn’t we then include foods that help our brains as much as foods that help our heart? The USDA school breakfast program officially began in the fall of 1975 and in 2009 over 11 million children were provided free or low-cost breakfast before their school day even started. Why is this important? It’s important because the school breakfast program has significantly improved children’s academic performance. Children who missed breakfast were more likely to make errors in their work and had more challenges with memory and recall. Further, children who skipped breakfast scored lower on cognitive tests than children who did not. Looking at the impact of the school breakfast program on children’s brains truly shows the importance that proper diet has on brain function.
The brain uses sugar in the form of glucose to perform just about any task it needs to do. It is, in fact, the only fuel that the brain uses. Since the neurons of the brain do not have the ability to store glucose the way the rest of the body does, it relies completely on the blood stream to provide it with this needed fuel. We’ve all had times where we have gone too long without food and we begin to feel weak or shaky. Many of us can recall a time when we simply could not “think straight” because we were hungry. These feelings occur because the brain is being deprived of the only fuel it knows and has no storage to draw from. Carbohydrates are great for the brain because they provide a rapid, steady stream of energy but it’s important to choose complex carbohydrates as opposed to simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates include 100% whole grains breads, rice, pasta and cereals as well as starchy vegetables and legumes.
Our mood, which is affected by neurotransmitters in the brain, can also be affected by the foods we eat. We choose certain foods when we are sad, depressed, or anxious and there is evidence that there is a chemical component that makes us crave and reach for certain foods over others. This is another great example of how the brain is affected by the foods we eat.
A number of foods affect our brain’s neurotransmitters:
- Dark Chocolate - In one study, scientists identified reductions in stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes in volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and ate dark chocolate for 2 weeks. The study provided strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams [1.4 ounces] of chocolate during a period of 2 weeks sufficiently modified the metabolism of healthy human volunteers. Final analysis: reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed.
- Omega 3 – flax seed, salmon – one study found that the omega-3 fatty acids in some fish may be a "brain food" that helps ward off depression because it increases gray matter in 3 areas of the brain that tend to be smaller in people experiencing serious depression.
- Lean chicken and turkey breast – helps boost dopamine and noraepinephrene levels that help elevate mood and make you feel more alert.
- Lentils – Low folate status was detectable in depressed members of the general US population. Lentils are a great source of folate.
- Brazil nuts – contain selenium, a trace element. Low levels of selenium have been associated with higher incidence of depression.
- Whey protein in dairy – A joint 2002 study by Dutch and Yale University researchers, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that whey increases the brain’s ratio of plasma tryptophan, which leads to greater production of the brain chemical serotonin and boosts mood. Researchers remarked that whey has the potential to enhance cognitive performance during times of stress; you are more alert and less frazzled.
There are also many foods that affect both how we communicate and the brain’s ability to protect us against unwanted materials and damage.
- Guacamole – is loaded with vitamin E which may help reduce cognitive delay in the elderly and improve coordination and balance. One large study found that it may help to decrease oxidative stress – a main culprit in brain related diseases.
- Curried lentils – curcumin (the active ingredient of turmeric) and has been widely used in India for thousands of years. Curcumin may help the brain by preventing Alzheimer’s. A major study found that turmeric may help to break apart amyloid beta in the brain (which may cause plaques). Lentils have also been identified to help with keeping the brain in optimal shape by providing a steady stream of glucose (the first fuel the brain utilizes for energy).
- Chia seed or salmon – are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and have been found to assist in keeping arteries in the brain clear of plaque. Omega 3’s also protect neurons and may prevent memory impairment as well.
- Strawberry, blueberry and spinach salad – a study in Journal of Neuroscience found that mice that were fed strawberry and spinach extracts had less of a cognitive decline than rats that were fed “regular” rat feed. The combination of these foods found a direct link to reversal of brain cell aging. Has a lot to do with how rich in antioxidants these foods are.
- Coffee – was found to protect to the brain in one large study by keeping the brain blood barrier intact and thus, helped to keep harmful cholesterol from damaging the brain. May improve short term memory as found in one study.
- Mixed nuts – not only contain healthy fats that help blood flow but also contain magnesium, which aids in signal transmission between neurons.
- Eggs/turkey – are great sources of B12. The B vitamins in general help prevent the buildup of homocysteine, which may decrease cognitive function. Turkey also contains tryptophan, an amino acid essential for protein synthesis.
Food can provide so much more than fuel. It heals us, it gives us energy and it allows us to do a math equation, swing a bat, take a shower or drive our cars. Our day-to-day actions are all controlled by our brain, isn’t it time we truly fed it the right foods!?