Slimming diets come and go like a fad, but we seldom hear of brain diet. The brain consumes approximately a fifth or 20% of the body’s energy. For such a small mass of barely 2% of the body’s weight, it gobbles up so much. When one considers, though, that the brain is the most complex and one of the most highly active organs of the body, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Without doubt, what the body consumes or does not consume, affects how the brain performs. Does superior brain depend on lowly guts after all? Let’s find out.
Bundle of Nerves
Around a hundred billion neurons make up the brain connected together by synapses. Proper nourishment is necessary in building neural tissues and repairing damaged ones. Substances and chemicals sourced from food are responsible for building and regeneration of brain tissues, providing energy and ensuring neurotransmission. As a result the brain performs its cognitive work, stores memory and recalls it as needed, keeps its alertness and manages moods, and regenerates when necessary.
Food for Thought
Every so often, a particular food or food group becomes a trend for the results that they purportedly benefit the brain. The brain does need food to be healthy and to function optimally. Before promoting certain brain-healthy food, however, let us go deeper to the substance level and see what nutrients and chemicals cause the brain to function a certain way. Then perhaps we can proceed what food or food groups are rich on this particular substance before we hype that food as a brain super-food. Studies have strengthened the old adage that says “you are what you eat.”
The Beneficial Substances
When it pertains to the chemical substances and nutrients that go to the brain, there are basically 4 major groups that affect the brain positively: glucose, fatty acids, amino acids, and antioxidants.
• Glucose – the energy booster
No brain work is possible without glucose, the fuel of the brain. It is converted from the body’s energy sources, such as fats, carbohydrates and sugars. Candies and sugar are quick fixes to dipping energy, but it is highly recommended to source out glucose from slow-release carbohydrates spread out through the day for optimal mental functioning. The best sources are beans, bananas, and whole-grain pastas. Eating carbohydrates (say, whole-wheat bread) with protein (say, a slice of roasted turkey) is recommended because it results in slow-release glucose as compared with eating whole-wheat bread alone.
• Essential Fatty Acids – the building blocks
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are necessary in strengthening the brain’s synapses which are responsible for the memory functions of the brain and for developing the brain tissues. The human body cannot synthesize EFAs, so it has to be ingested from food. These fatty acids are called essential because man and animals need them to survive. Essential fatty acids are brain tissue builders and damaged-tissue repairers.
1. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – ALA is the foundation of the omega-3 fatty acids which are essential brain building materials. The brain needs them in large quantities but the body cannot manufacture them. Instead, they have to be provided by food rich in these essential fatty acids, such as mackerel, trout, salmon, sardines, walnuts, flax seeds, sea weeds and green leafy vegetables.
2. Linoleic acid (LA) – LA is the foundation of the omega-6 fatty acids and is responsible for building a healthy brain, improve intelligence, and stabilize hyperactivity, depression and other brain problems. LA is found in the oils cold-pressed from sunflower, corn, sesame and safflower seeds.
3. Docosahexonoic acid (DHA) – DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid responsible for developing brain tissues, revitalizing neurons and enhancing flexibility of synapses. This improves memory, learning and brain health. Experiments conducted in Oxford University showed that DHA improved learning and literacy skills. DHA is found abundantly in salmon.
• Connectors and transmitters
Amino Acids (AA) – AAs, which are building blocks of protein, are responsible for keeping you quick-witted by ensuring optimal neurotransmitter synthesis. Some even act as neurotransmitters or precursor to neurotransmitters. They are chemicals and substances that are responsible for carrying information from one nerve cell to another, with a unique ability to pass through the brain barrier.
1. Dopamine controls the nervous system. It is also called the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It lifts your mood, makes you enthusiastic and bring you pleasure. Sugar and fats are quick dopamine boosters but protein-rich foods are much preferred for sustained “feel good” dispositions. Chocolates, beets, soybeans, meat, grains, eggs and almonds are sources of dopamine and its precursors.
2. Norepinephrine controls alertness and concentration.
3. Serotonin controls mood, memory, sleep and learning. It helps a person handle anxiety and achieve contentment. Carbohydrates are quick sources of serotonin. Eggs, almonds and meat are rich in tryptophan, which are required in the manufacture of serotonin.
4. Acetylcholine is responsible for memory storage and recall.
Antioxidants – When the body converts glucose to energy, oxygen is produced. The excess oxygen combines with substances to form free radicals in a process called oxidation which is a major cause of ageing and destruction of brain cells. Loss of memory and decline in cognitive processing are some of the effects of free radicals to the brain. Antioxidants combat oxidative stress to lower every day damage and ageing effects. These oxidation-inhibitors take many forms, mainly vitamins and minerals, and each substance is discussed below.
1. Vitamin C is required in the brain at especially high levels. It is a very important antioxidant because of its ability to neutralize reactive oxygen species. It is found abundantly in blueberries, guavas, red hot chilis, bell peppers, broccoli, kiwi fruit, kale, papaya, strawberries and oranges.
2. Vitamin E is a lipid-soluble antioxidant which helps neutralize free radical chains and counteracts the ill effects and decline of mental faculties due to aging. Researches are being carried on to study how Vitamin E can help to reverse the symptoms of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Vitamin E can be found in many fruits and food, e.g. avocado, whole grain, sunflower seeds, almonds, cooked spinach, dried apricot, taro and pickled green olives.
3. Betacarotene works in tandem with Vitamin E.
4. Flavonoids are found in green tea, artichoke and celery.
5. There are minerals that combine with other substances to produce anti-oxidizing effect, too. Selenium is necessary in the production of the brain antioxidant glutathione peroxidases. It is found in abundance in oysters, nuts and seeds, liver and fish. Zinc combines with vitamin C. It also has a major role in several processes of the brain including neurotransmission. Zinc is abundant in oysters, veal liver and pumpkin seeds.
Several vitamins and minerals do not directly act as antioxidants or combine with substances to produce anti-oxidizing effects, but still redound to the overall benefit of the brain. Some of these are folic acid (reduces brain inflammation), vitamin B1 or thiamine (abundant in legumes and prevents neurological beriberi), vitamin B3 or niacin (prevents pellagra, exhibited by hallucinations, memory loss and poor concentration), vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid and vitamin B6 (needed for glucose conversion and biosynthesis of neurotransmitters), vitamin B7 or biotin (prevents depression, numbness, lethargy and hallucinations), vitamin B12 (prevents damage on the myelin sheath), vitamin D (aids in cognitive abilities), calcium (abundant in green leafy vegetables, cheese, yogurt, cabbage, tofu, okra and are found to help prevent degenerative brain disorders), iron (abundant in oysters, liver, whole grain, nuts and seeds and are necessary in the synthesis of neurotransmitters and production of myelin), and magnesium (necessary in many brain processes and is abundant in spinach, nuts, brown rice, bananas, dark chocolate, and avocados).
The harmful substances
• Too much caffeine
Caffeine offers some level of antioxidant effect to early-stage Alzheimer’s and known to improve short-term alertness and memory by stimulating the prefrontal cortex. Too much of this good thing, though, is harmful. It can cause heart rate abnormalities and muscle tremors. People stay awake longer and perform at productive levels with high caffeine doses; however, excessive coffee intake can stunt creativity, disturb a person’s normal rhythm and impair long-term performance. It also sends the wrong message to the pituitary gland and results to nerviness and inability to think clearly. Limit your cappuccino and you will be fine.
Trans Fatty Acids (Transfats) are downright bad for the brain. They get incorporated with the membranes of the brain and replace DHA. This leads to cellular degeneration and disrupts neural electrical activities, and diminishes mental performance as a result. Transfats are found in margarine, cake mixes, ramen and cup soups, frozen pizzas, breaded fish sticks and frozen fries.
• Too much glucose
Too much of a good thing is bad. It is so true with glucose. Glucose from fruits is the best source of brain energy. Generally, though, high sugar intake is bad news for the brain. It stimulates release of adrenals and adrenaline hormones which are responsible for brain cell destruction. High-sugar diets dulled learning abilities and caused memory loss. These ill effects are somehow mitigated by combined sugar and omega-3 diets.
The brain is a very powerful organ, if not the most powerful. But it takes the humble gut to determine how and how long it will continue to be powerful. Next time you put food into your mouth, be very sure it’s good food. It just might go to your head.
Netflix enthusiast, horrible speller, jiujitsu hobbyist, weekend drinker, and occasional poker player. Favorite quote is “[o]ut of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”