Food is a very important aspect of our lives. It does not only supply us with energy and nutrients for growth, cellular repair and immunity, but it is also important for our brain functions. The brain controls all the processes happening within our body; our cognitive capabilities, performance and our mood. Research shows that nutrition, as early as fetal development, impacts not only the way that the body develops and the brain structure / functioning, but also with brain health in older age. If one takes a look at the brain, it can be noted that 60% of our brain volume is made up of fat, myelin sheaths which form a protective layer around the nerves and spinal cord are also made up of fat. The brain works by creating chemical signals and transmitting these to the target organ. This requires a large percentage of oxygen and diverse chemicals which leave a by-product of metals and oxidative stress which cause cell death and tissue damage. These by-products are reduced by antioxidants. As we grow older, our brain composition and brain membranes decrease in their lipid content, and cellular death increases, making us more susceptible to certain diseases such as Parkinsons, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Another aspect to our brain functioning are neurotransmitters, such as serotonin which regulates sleep, appetite and mood. Serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract which is densely lined by nerve cells. The production of this hormone is affected by good bacteria in the intestine since these bacteria protect the lining of the intestine by providing a strong barrier against toxins and other harmful bacteria, they limit inflammation and aid the absorption of nutrients from the food. Apart from this these good bacteria activate the neural pathways between the brain and the gut.
The following list of foods shows how they are beneficial for our brain:
- Essential Fatty Acids are the main components of the brain and as such they need to be replaced over time since the body doesn’t produce them. These can be found in oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel), avocado, seeds, olive oil and nuts.
- Antioxidants can be found all in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, such as strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, artichokes, spinach, carrots.
- Vitamins are required for the production of enzymes and neurotransmitters and these can be found in dark green vegetables such as kale, spinach, peas. Dairy products and beans, eggs, fruits and nuts.
- Minerals rich sources include spinach, shellfish, whole grains and nuts. These are important to support brain metabolism, learning and with the mood.
- Fiber slows intestinal absorption of sugar which is important in regulating the production of insulin. It also feeds the good bacteria in our intestine, which in turn helps with immunity, mood and cognitive activity. Fiber is present in vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
- Glucose, from carbohydrates, is the energy required by the brain to carry out all functions. This can be supplied from healthy whole grains (quinoa, barley), beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes. By consuming unprocessed sources of carbohydrates, the body benefits as these sources would also provide fiber and vitamins.
- Amino Acids / Protein are important sources for the central nervous system and these can be found in lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, soya products and seeds.
- Probiotics are important to keep the good bacteria in our gut healthy and these can be found in yogurts, fermented vegetables and soft cheeses.
- Caffeine in dark chocolate, teas and coffee (consumed in moderation) are stimulants which help being more alert, the production of neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin and also other brain functions such as mood, reaction time, attention, learning and general mental functioning.
- Water is not really a food, however it needs to be included in this list as it is very important for brain functioning. 80% of the brain content is water, and as such brain cells and the chemical reactions taking place need to happen in the presence of water. Dehydration would lead to headaches, loss of attention, mood swings and even difficulty with memory.
Abigail Church is a Humanistic Integrative Counsellor who works with adults and children through counseling with Willingness. She can be contacted on email@example.com or call us on 79291817.
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Uauy, R., & Dangour, A. D. (2006). Nutrition in brain development and aging: Role of essential fatty acids. Nutrition Reviews, 64(5), S24-33, discussion S72-91. Retrieved from https://ejournals.um.edu.mt/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/nutrition-brain-development-aging-role-essential/docview/212272745/se-2?accountid=27934
Lee, K. H., Cha, M., & Lee, B. H. (2020). Neuroprotective Effect of Antioxidants in the Brain. International journal of molecular sciences, 21(19), 7152. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21197152