Feeding the Mind

Nutrients for the brain are often overlooked in the discussion of health and wellness. It’s more likely to be concerned with fiber for digestive health or avoiding trans fats for cardiovascular health than to consider B vitamins for the nourishment of the brain. However, the brain requires vital nutrients to control the other biochemical processes of the body as well as being the director of thinking, learning, reasoning, attention, and memory. Providing the brain with nourishing foods now not only contributes to present cognitive function but is also beneficial in cognitive function later in life.

As a metabolically active tissue, the brain depends on a constant supply of glucose. When there is an imbalance supplied to the brain, fatigue, irritability or aggressive behavior, dizziness, insomnia, poor concentration and memory, forgetfulness, depression, even blurred vision may be experienced. The majority of carbohydrates should be from whole foods — vegetables, lentils, beans, fresh fruits, and whole grains (organic brown rice, millet, oats, quinoa). Refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, processed cereals and sugar should be avoided. Although refined carbohydrates may provide a quick surge of energy, it will shortly be followed by a rapid drop in energy. It’s important not to skip meals or wait until noon for your first meal. Regular meals throughout the day keep a steady flow of fuel to the brain. Avoid sugar substitutes such as aspartame — memory loss, nausea, irritability, depression, and nightmares have been associated with use.

Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA are essential for cognitive function and brain health. These healthy fatty acids are building blocks for brain cell membranes. The cell membrane at the synapse is where brain cells, or neurons, interact with each other and neurotransmitters are exchanged. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation in the brain, which inflammation has been linked with depression. A deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids is associated with mental health disorders such as depression, ADHD, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia as well as fatigue and memory problems. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as salmon and sardines or by taking a high-quality supplement. 

The B vitamins, particularly B12, B6, and folate, play a key role in a healthy brain. Vitamin B12 is required in the methylation process, and methylation is needed in cell communication, neurotransmitter production, and the production of myelin, which is insulation for neurons to fire efficiently. Vitamin B12 protects against age-related atrophy of brain cells and damage to the brain’s white matter. A deficiency in vitamin B12 affects cell communication and may lead to symptoms including fatigue, memory impairment, inability to concentrate, and over time may lead to dementia. Sources of vitamin B12 come mainly from animal products such as meat – especially liver, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. Two other B vitamins, B6, and folate are also necessary for brain function. These B vitamins work together with vitamin B12 to regulate homocysteine, which can inhibit the methylation process. Folate can be found in leafy greens, citrus fruits peas, and beans. And vitamin B6 is found in potatoes, bananas, chick peas, and oatmeal. 

Phytochemicals such as flavonoids are also important to protect the brain. Flavonoids are chemicals derived from plant sources and are responsible for many aspects of brain function such as repairing damage by influencing neuron communication. Flavonoids increase the brain’s ability to form new neurons and protect against oxidative damage. Extracts from blueberries, strawberries, spinach, and blackberries may reverse memory decline from aging. Flavonoids particularly found in cocoa increase blood flow to the brain. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables with deep and bright colors for a range of phytochemical and antioxidants.

Vitamin D, the “sunlight” vitamin, is also essential for a healthy brain by protecting against age-related cognitive decline. Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with depression by affecting the brain’s inflammatory response. Although sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, beef liver, egg yolks and mushrooms, vitamin D is better obtained from direct sunlight or supplementation.