Valsa Madhava, MD
Why Good Brain Nutrition Is Important For Optimal Brain Function
Brain is the most vital organ in the human system and is the command center of the nervous system. It regulates the abundant quantity of information that the body needs for functioning properly. The brain enables memory, thoughts, movement, and emotions by a complex of biochemical reactions that is the highest result of biological evolution. Maintaining a healthy brain during one’s life is the first goal in pursuing health and longevity. As we age and with increasing exposure to environmental challenges, preserving brain health becomes vital.
The brain is a complex organ and has at least three levels of functions that affect all aspects of our daily lives:
Interpretation of senses and control of movement
Maintenance of cognitive, mental, and emotional processes
Maintenance of normal behavior and social cognition
Brain health is therefore defined as preserving optimal brain integrity and mental and cognitive function at any given age while overcoming challenges that affect normal brain function.
How does nutrition affect the brain?
The brain requires sufficient nutrients and needs lots of energy to function optimally. The brain, though it only represents 2% of total body weight; it uses 20% of the oxygen and 25% of glucose available to maintain adequate energy production. Proper nutrition is essential for normal cognition or thinking skills. A healthy diet is one that has optimal levels of different kinds of fatty acids and also optimal levels of all essential nutrients. Thus, there are many essential elements such as protein, magnesium, zinc, antioxidants, and minerals that must be present in the diet on a daily basis to boost up the brain function.
Proteins are essential building blocks for the neurotransmitters that send messages throughout the brain. Most research points to fish, poultry, eggs, and plant-based proteins such as legumes and nuts as the healthiest sources. It is imperative to ingest adequate amounts of protein for maintaining good brain health.
Eggs have gotten a bad rap for their cholesterol content, but the newest research shows eggs are fine for most people. Eggs are a rich source of choline, essential for brain function and vital during pregnancy. You can also find choline in peanuts, beans, cauliflower, and spinach.
Human brain consists of 60% fat and most of these fat molecules belong to the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) categories. Omega-3 fatty acids are a category of PUFA’s that are essential for nerve signal transmission and almost all operations related to the brain and nervous system.
All the different kinds of fats are essential for proper brain function including optimal levels of cholesterol, phospholipids, and PUFA’s. PUFA’s which are essential, can found in fish such as salmon and sardines and also from vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
Carbohydrates are starches and sugars that supply most fuel to our body, including our brain. The type and quality of carbohydrates eaten make a big difference. Focus on complex carbs, which are high in fiber and their natural form – think 100 percent whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These nutrients fuel the brain and protect brain cells against damage from free radicals released from pollution, stress, and just being alive. Complex carbs take longer to digest, providing a steadier source of brain fuel than simple carbs such as candy, cookies, and sweetened drinks.
One other note about carbs – the healthier ones have lots of fiber. Fiber feeds good gut bacteria, which also appears to play a role in brain function. There’s a lot of new research about the gut-brain connection and how our microbiome affects our ‘second brain’ in the gastrointestinal tract.
Dehydration can cause serious adverse effects on parts of the body, and the brain is no exception. When you don’t drink enough throughout the day, your brain functions at a lower level. It’s essential to prioritize hydration for both your body and brain.
Whether we’re just busy, lazy, or simply thinking we are drinking enough, many people probably aren’t getting the right amount of water for their bodies and brain to function at their highest potential. Water helps your brain cells communicate with each other, clears out toxins and waste that impair brain function, and carries nutrients to your brain. This all falls apart if your fluid levels drop.
Your body needs to be well-hydrated to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (essential chemicals that regulate your mood) and also to ensure the proper functioning of these neurotransmitters and chemical processes.
Vitamins and Minerals
Nutritional and vitamin deficiencies have been shown to contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders, age-related cognitive decline, and developmental disorders. Human and animal studies show that increased intake of brain-supporting nutrients improves cognitive functioning, such as learning and memory. You must ensure your brain is getting the proper nutrients for all these reasons. Here are some of the many essential vitamins and minerals for a healthy brain.