The brain is our central control system, it regulates cognition (thoughts and memory), orchestrates movement, controls the function of organs and is the significant component of our nervous system.
Jordan Higgins, our Nutritionist here at MENTOR360, discusses the brain and how the food we eat can positively affect it in many different ways.
Similar to our physical self, the brain experiences a natural decline as we age. This decline of health and function is greatly influenced by diet and nutrition. All processes that occur within the body begin with a chemical reaction. All of these reactions require water, oxygen and nutrients (micro- and macronutrients) to take place. Therefore, when we look at the brain in more detail, we can clearly identify the relevant nutrients playing a role in cognitive processes.
Happy Chemicals in the Brain
An example of this would be the clear relationship between the B vitamins and depression. The B vitamins are used in the chemical processes needed to produce more of the brains ‘happy chemicals’, dopamine, serotonin etc. We are now starting to understand that nutrition and food choices can affect the likelihood of developing depressive symptoms. This is because within the brain many metabolic processes take place; even forming thoughts require chemical reactions. These specific reactions utilise oxygen, water and nutrients (fatty acids, b vitamins and carbohydrates). The importance of selecting the correct foods for cognitive performance and health can no longer be debated.
Researchers have investigated the impact of breakfast on subsequent cognitive performance in a day. Breakfast is the first meal of the day; however, studies have shown that up to
31% of the adult population skip breakfast on a daily basis.
Researchers have assessed the impact of differing breakfast compositions and subsequent cognitive performance. In 2018 investigators looked at the brain’s performance following a low-glycaemic index breakfast, a high-glycaemic index breakfast or no breakfast at all.
- Glycaemic index = a measure of how quickly blood glucose and insulin is released into the bloodstream.
Results show that when individuals have a low-glycaemic breakfast, attention and short-term memory are significantly improved compared to skipping breakfast or following consumption of the high-glycaemic meal. Low-glycaemic index foods such as porridge oats, release energy/carbohydrates into the bloodstream at a slower rate for a more prolonged period. In other words, the brain has a longer more sustained supply of energy allowing optimal function to continue for greater time periods.
Low-glycaemic foods include green vegetables, most fruits, raw carrots, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and bran breakfast cereals.
Medium-glycaemic foods include sweetcorn, bananas, raw pineapple, raisins, oat breakfast cereals, and multigrain, oat bran or rye bread.
Another nutrient of interest is fat, specifically polyunsaturated fats. Fat is another crucial fuel source for the brain. Studies have again assessed the impact of a high-fat meal and its impact on cognitive performance. It was shown that a meal consisting of a hearty amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids improved the performance of short-term memory demonstrated in a word recall test. The research discussed leads us to some good practical advice for anyone preparing for stressful cognitive tasks such as exams, important meetings or presentations.
Examples of foods with polyunsaturated fatty acids include soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts and flaxseed.
Examples of foods with monounsaturated fat include avocados, nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans (nut butters like peanut butter), and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds
Breakfast should contain low-glycaemic index carbohydrates with polyunsaturated fats. Examples breakfasts include
- Porridge topped with nuts/seeds and berries
- Bircher muesli topped with peanut butter and fruit
Keeping Hydrated and Your Performance
Performance is often isolated to short-term nutritional strategies, however, promoting long-term brain health should also be considered. This can be addressed through subtle daily changes to your nutrition with the aim of supporting growth, development and repair. Hydration status has a large impact on the volume of different brain structures, including grey matter, white matter and cerebrospinal fluid.
Research has now shown that dehydration causes a shrinkage in white matter and an increase in cerebrospinal fluid. Over time this can cause cognitive impairment and early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Getting your Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids are a ‘go-to’ nutrient with regards to brain heath, with benefits shown to span across the lifetime of the brain. At birth they are used for the development of the young brain, with further benefits shown through to adulthood. Omega-3s are used to transport nutrients into the brain alongside aiding in several biochemical processes. As we age further, omega-3 fatty acids are used to reduce cognitive decline through activation of certain pathways.
Getting your B Vitamins
We are also aware of the importance of the B vitamins and brain health. Vitamins B9 and B12 play a significant role in brain function through their impact on neurotransmitter activity and production. Research has shown diets containing adequate amounts of both B9 and B12 can be protective against age-related cognitive decline and dementia. The B vitamins are predominantly found in green leafy vegetables and many animal products:
- liver and kidney
- meat, such as chicken and red meat
- fish, such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon
- shellfish, such as oysters and clams
- dark green vegetables, such as spinach and kale
- vegetables, such as beets, avocados and potatoes
- wholegrains and cereals
- beans, such as kidney beans, black beans and chickpeas
- nuts and seeds
- fruits, such as citrus, banana and watermelon
- soy products, such as soy milk and tempeh
- blackstrap molasses
- wheat germ
- yeast and nutritional yeast
Avoiding Fast Food
Emerging evidence is beginning to show the negative impact of highly processed food consumption and brain health. Higher intakes of ultra-processed foods increase the likelihood of depressive symptoms and
are linked with accelerating age-related cognitive declines – another reason to avoid fast-food restaurants.
Overall, we have only scratched the surface of nutrition and the brain. With regards to brain health and performance, it is suggested to address short-term and long-term strategies. In the short term we can carefully select ingredients for meals to encourage better performance in the hours that follow. Nutritional changes to promote long-term brain health will naturally increase performance and support the longevity of cognitive function, while also managing the natural decline associated with age.
University of Leeds, The importance of Breakfast in Europe Survey.
Alvarez-Bueno, C., Martinez-Vizcaino, V., Jimenez Lopz, E., et al. (2019). Comparative effect of low-glycemic index versus high-glycemic index breakfast on cognitive function: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients, 11, 1706.
Streitbürger, P-D., et al., (2012). Investigating structural brain change of dehydration using voxel-based morphometry. PloS one, 7, e44195.
Kaplan, R., et al. (2001). Dietary protein, carbohydrate and fat enhance memory performance in healthy elderly. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 74, 687-693.
Shakersain, B., et al. (2016). Prudent diet may attenuate the adverse effects of western diet on cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s and Dementia, 12, 100-119.