Our diet can have incredible implications on our health and performance. In fact, there is a significant amount of research across nutrition, behavior psychology, and disease research that supports this. If you’re running on an empty stomach, most likely you feel your energy waning as your body begins to divert its energy potential to vital organs. Just as you need a wide variety of nutrients and foods to give you a pep in your step, many of the nutrients you consume can also enhance your brain’s cognitive power.
With that in mind, how can we optimize our diet to promote better cognitive function and concentration?Whether you suffer from brain fog due to Lyme disease, have or want to prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, or simply depend on caffeine for increased focus and attention – this article can help guide you on how what nutrients will help you unleash your brain’s true potential.
Whether you suffer from brain fog due to Lyme disease, have or want to prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, or simply depend on caffeine for increased focus and attention – this article can help guide you on how what nutrients will help you unleash your brain’s true potential.
When creating a brain-boosting nutritional plan, it is important to focus not just on which foods to consume, but also on the quality of the source of the nutrient (i.e. organic vs. processed). Read on to discover the best quality nutrients that can help you focus on whole-body health.
According to Goyal et al. (2018), the human brain accounts for 20-25% of our body’s total energy consumption – that’s a lot for an organ that makes up only 2% of an adult’s total body weight. This is why it is crucial that we consume foods that meet the brain’s needs. Though glucose is the brain’s primary source of energy, there are essential nutrient requirements that must be met to establish and maintain normal brain function (Goyal et al., 2018).
Omega 3 Fatty-Acids
Omega-3 isn’t a single nutrient but a whole family of fatty acids. DHA is one of the two most biologically active members of the omega-3 family (the other is EPA) and is the one that contributes to the development, structure, and function of the central nervous system cognitive functions (Forbes et al., 2015).
Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein)
Antioxidants, as described by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH, 2013), are “man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage.”
How? Antioxidants decrease the damage to cells made by volatile molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are naturally formed in your body when you exercise and convert food to energy, but they can also cause excess oxidative stress which damages cells. Oxidative stress has been shown to play a part in chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and in neurocognitive diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s) (NCCIH, 2013).
Fruits and vegetables are foods that are rich in antioxidants, as are many spices. These are your best sources for getting a variety of powerful antioxidants into your body for protecting your brain and nervous system from overwhelming levels of oxidative stress.
Supplements of some antioxidants can also be taken but research studies have found little to no health benefit to antioxidant supplementation. The NCCIH theorizes that this may be due to the differences in the chemical composition of antioxidants in food versus supplements. For instance, there are eight different forms of vitamin E found in food, but only one form is found in supplements. Therefore, caution should be used when taking antioxidant supplementation (NCCIH, 2013).
All of the B vitamins are excellent sources of antioxidants. B vitamins also play a huge role in the production of energy in the body, and since the brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, B vitamins are vital to a healthy brain (Kennedy, 2016). There are 8 essential B vitamins and they all contribute to the production of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that transmit signals from brain cell to brain cell) essential for the normal functioning of the brain (Forbes et al., 2015), among other functions.
Thiamine aids in the synthesis (construction) of fatty acids and steroids and contributes to the structure and function of cell membranes.
Riboflavin is integral to the synthesis of three other B vitamins: niacin, folate, and B₆; as well as that of all of the iron-containing proteins (such as hemoglobin). Riboflavin also aids in the metabolism of essential fatty acids in the brain, the absorption and use of iron, and the regulation of thyroid hormones.
Every aspect of brain and body cell production relies on niacin and its derivatives NAD and NADP (more on these rock stars below). Niacin is key to the production of cellular energy (adenosine triphosphate, or ATP), DNA metabolism and repair, modulation of the inflammatory cascade, and folate conversion.
Pantothenic Acid (B₅)
Pantothenic acid is needed for the synthesis of coenzyme CoA. CoA contributes to oxidative metabolism and the structure and function of brain cells as well as the synthesis of steroids.
Pyridoxine, Pyridoxal, Pyridoxamine (B₆)
These vitamins are a cofactor in the folate cycle and metabolize amino acids that synthesize the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and the hormone melatonin. As such, they are so essential in the regulation of sleep, behavior, cardiac functions, and glucose metabolism that even a mild deficiency can throw you off.
Biotin is a key player in glucose metabolism and uptake by the liver as well as hemostasis (blood coagulation and vessel repair). Biotin deficiencies are rare, but lower circulating levels can occur with Type II diabetes.
Folate (B₉) and Cobalamin (B₁₂)
These two B vitamins are interconnected, a deficiency in one leads to a deficiency in the other. Folate and cobalamin are essential cofactors for converting amino acids into nitric oxide and neurotransmitters serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Actual or functional folate deficiency leads to decreased DNA synthesis and repair and gene expression and transcription. Therefore, folate is crucial in the healing process. (Kennedy, 2016)
Sources of Vitamin B
With the exception of cobalamin (B₁₂), your body is not able to store B vitamins for long. This means that it is important to keep replenishing them in your diet. Here are some foods that are excellent sources of vitamin B.
Magnesium is key to optimal brain function.
Magnesium plays a crucial role in the transmission of nerve signals and neuromuscular conduction. It also protects nerve cells from over-excitation. Magnesium’s main function occurs at glutamate receptors, particularly those for the neurotransmitter N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA). At these sites, magnesium blocks calcium channels thus preventing over-excitation and protecting synaptic plasticity (the ability of a synapse, a gap between cells, to strengthen and weaken based on its activity) which is essential for learning and memory (Nadovim, 2019) .
NDMA is also an active contributor to the transmission of pain impulses and research has demonstrated pain-relieving effects of magnesium, particularly in those experiencing migraines and in those with chronic pain associated with conditions like fibromyalgia. Over-excitation of glutamate receptors like NMDA has also shown that it facilitates the loss of dopaminergic nerve cells seen in Alzheimer’s disease. A meta-analysis of research studies found that magnesium levels in people with Alzheimer’s disease were deficient (Kirkland et. al., 2018).
Iron, Zinc, Copper, Selenium, Iodine
Iron is required for oxygen transport and for the protection of neurons (nerve cells); zinc aids in the delivery of neurotransmitters and contributes to brain development; iodine is essential in the production of thyroid hormones, which mediate metabolism in the body and brain. Selenium and copper contribute to the activity of antioxidants (Goyal et al., 2018).
Ultimately, Quality is Key
When you devote yourself to providing your brain with proper nutrition, it is vital to consider a few other factors to ensure that the quality of the food and nutrients are not compromised. For example, eating lots of leafy greens is one of the top recommendations for optimizing brain health, however, its benefits can be outweighed by its drawbacks if the food is not organic or if it’s laden with pesticides.
Omega 3 (DHA), antioxidants (vitamin E), B vitamins (B6, B12, folate), elements (iron, zinc, copper, selenium, iodine), are all vital to maintaining healthy brain function. Whether they increase cognition, attention, and focus or contribute to the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases (Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s); these nutrients pack a powerful punch in the quest for optimal brain health.
“Brain food” is not just about reaping immediate effects; they have a cumulative effect over time that will either accelerate or protect against cognitive decline. Given how long we live these days, taking action to maintain brain health should be all the more “front of mind” to help ensure that you remain sharp for years to come.
Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products or treatments mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a licensed medical practitioner for medical advice.
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