The link between nutrition and the brain is a powerful one! The brain is the most complex organ in the body and it weighs over 3lbs, it plays a crucial role in controlling our behaviours and moods, learning, cognition and motor skills.
Nutrition plays a fundamental role in delivering nutrients required to support the everyday functioning of the brain and support the maintenance of chemical processes. More recent evidence shows there may be a link between the food we’re eating and our learning and cognition. Furthermore, with our growing understanding around the gut-brain axis displays just how the nutrients we absorb through the gut and how the bacteria housed within the gut can influence our brain function, memory and mood.
When we’re thinking specifically about nutrition the first thing we need to be aware of is energy provision to the brain. The brain utilises between 20-25% of total energy intake ever day. For an average individual on a 2000kcal per day diet, this means the brain is using around 400-500 calories each day to function! The food we eat also influences the release of hormones such as insulin, IGF-1 and GLP-1, these hormones reach the hypothalamus which contributes to the support of learning and memory, when food intake is low there is an increase in the hunger hormone Ghrelin which feeds back to the hypothalamus and can have an impact on cognitive function and our ability to concentrate. These are just a few examples out of thousands of ways which our food influences the brain function.
Evidently, the food which we eat is vital to supporting and optimising brain function. As a result, we’ve put together our top tips and key nutrients for optimising brain health:
- Ensure adequate carbohydrate intake – carbohydrates are converted into glucose in the body which is the brain’s primary fuel source. Low glucose concentrations can influence brain function, concentration and cognition. Simple carbohydrates are converted into glucose and delivered to the brain much faster than complex carbohydrates. However, this also means that they’re depleted faster too. As a result, complex carbohydrates are the preferred sources to deliver sustained and constant fuel following a meal. Complex carbohydrates include: wholegrains, fruits and vegetables and beans and pulses.
- Omega-3 – omega-3 is a type of polyunsaturated fat which promotes the transmission of chemical signals around the body and supports cell membrane integrity. Omega-3 has also been associated with the protection of the brain cell structure and improved memory and cognitive performance. The best sources of omega-3 include: oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring).
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D along with omega-3 has been shown to help reduce the risk of the build up of amyloid plaques. Amyloid plaque build up is a common cause for dementia. Whilst we are by no means suggesting that diet can protect against dementia it may play a role in helping to reduce the risks.
- Vitamin K – this is an important nutrient in supporting brain cell structure and cell communication. Vitamin K can largely be found in green leafy vegetables and combining these with a source of healthy fats such as olive oil can help to increase the absorption of Vitamin K.
- Vitamin E – tocopherols and tocotrienols are two types of Vitamin E which are most associated with brain health. These are potent antioxidants which help to reduce the free radicals in the brain. Antioxidants donate an electron from their outer circle which in turn helps to stabilise the free radicals and prevents them causing cell damage and cell death within the brain. The best sources include: green vegetables, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
- Choline – this is a micronutrient which receives very little airtime considering it’s huge input on brain health. Choline helps to produce acetylcholine which plays a crucial role in learning and memory. We can make small amounts of choline in the body but nowhere near enough and therefore consuming dietary sources is key. These include: egg yolks, dairy, cod, prawns and peanuts too!
We all know the power and importance of the brain and therefore focusing on the nutrients it needs to function optimally is not only important but an essential area of nutrition. We’ve just scratched the surface here so nail these tips and we will be back with more information on how you can keep your brain as healthy as you possibly can!
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Bekdash, R. A. (2019). Neuroprotective effects of choline and other methyl donors. Nutrients, 11(12), 2995.
Layé, S., Nadjar, A., Joffre, C., & Bazinet, R. P. (2018). Anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain: physiological mechanisms and relevance to pharmacology. Pharmacological reviews, 70(1), 12-38.