Your brain works all round the clock – whether you are active or asleep.
Yes, in certain stages of sleep, your brain is as active as it is when you are awake. It is obvious, therefore, that it needs vital nutrients to constantly perform well.
It’s surprising how many of us understand how to eat in order to achieve a good physique but don’t understand how to keep our brains nourished.
So lets delve into the details of a few nutritious foods that are responsible for keeping us mentally happy and healthy.
Important nutrients for the brain
Think of your brain as a chemical factory that creates chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters pass messages between neurons in our brain.
Different neurotransmitters have different effects on our brain, impacting our mood and behaviour 24 hours a day.
Some neurotransmitters that you may have heard of include serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, GABA and endorphins.
The aim is to balance these chemicals in your brain so you you don’t suffer from intense mood swings; therefore, a balanced diet is important, not only for an Adonis-like physique but also for a healthy mind.
So what does a balanced diet include?
- Essential fatty acids – A lot of research has been done on omega-3 fatty acids in recent years, suggesting that they have positive effects on the brain but research is still ongoing into what types of fatty acids (EPA, DHA or DPA) are most beneficial. Regardless of this, omega-3’s are accepted as the major building blocks for neurons, providing enough of a reason to include them in your diet. Great sources of omega-3 include oily fish like salmon, mackerel and herring, and also fatty nuts, seeds and grains. More on this later.
- Amino acids – Amino acids are not only important building blocks of proteins (structural tissue and compounds that make up our bodies), they are also needed to make neurotransmitters. Foods rich in certain amino acids, including Tryptophan and Tyrosine, can affect brain chemistry and improve mood due to their production of specific neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin. Such amino acids can be obtained through the consumption of fresh poultry, fish, nuts and dairy; but that’s not enough. Neurotransmitters can only be created in the presence of enough oxygen and specific vitamins and minerals (depending on what neurotransmitters you are trying to make)…
- Vitamins and minerals – Vitamins and minerals are cofactors (helper molecules) that assist in the creation of neurotransmitters in our brain. A few vitamins and minerals important for brain functionality include folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), vitamin C, vitamin D, magnesium, calcium and zinc. Again, a varied diet is the key to boosting brain power and keeping problems at bay.
- Polyphenols – Polyphenols (PPs) are natural compounds that are present in plant-based foods, which typically act as antioxidants (chemicals that protect your cells from harm). Several studies have reported positive effects of PPs on brain function and anti-ageing due to their antioxidant capabilities but the verdict is still out on this one!
- Water – Although water is not technically a food, it is well worth a mention here because (a) depending who you ask, the human brain is comprised of around 70 to 80 percent water (consensus – 78%), and (b) cells (including brain cells) require water for energy, just like a plant… More energy, better brain function!
What foods are packed with brain-friendly nutrients?
Are you wondering what foods you can adorn your plate with for a supercharged brain? Read on for a few suggestions.
Harness the berry power
Otherwise known as ‘brain-berries’ by author, Steven G. Pratt M.D., blueberries are reportedly full of antioxidants, helping shield the brain form oxidative stress.
A study involving people with mild cognitive disorders showed that their condition improved with a daily dose of blueberry powder.
Other berries such as strawberries and cranberries are also known to be rich in antioxidants, so make sure you get your dose of berries each day to help your brain (and other organs) fight those damaging free radicals (atoms that cause damage to cells, proteins and DNA).
Why not try our pancake recipe and top with some fresh blueberries, cranberries and/or strawberries for your daily brain-berry fix?
Get brainy with fatty fish
Oily fish like salmon, tuna, and herring are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are very healthy for your brain and eyes.
Modern diets, which include high concentrations of processed foods (vegetable oils, muffins, cookies, bread, fast food) and excessive meat (chicken, pork, beef), are full of omega-6 fatty acids.
Again, it is important that we balance our diets so that we can consume omega-6 and omega-3 in the ratios accepted by our bodies.
So what is the ideal ratio?
Well, there is no one-size-fits-all answer here, it just depends on you as a person and/or type of illness you are suffering with.
For instance, this study found (ratios shown omega-6:omega-3):
- In the prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4:1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.
- A ratio of 2.5:1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer, whereas a ratio of 4:1 with the same amount of omega-3 had no effect.
- A ratio of 2-3:1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
- A ratio of 5:1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma, whereas a ratio of 10:1 had adverse consequences.
So it is up to you to do your own research and speak with your doctor!
Some more figures that may help you understand omega-6 to omega-3 ratios include:
- Pre-industrialised diet – between 4:1 and 1:4
- Hunter gatherer – between 2:1 and 4:1
- Inuit – around 1:4
- Evolving humans – estimated 1:1
- Current Western diet – between 15:1 and 17:1
The key point here is that a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is more desirable in reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.
Oily fish is one of the main dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Aim to have at least 2 portions in a week if you can.
Try our delicious honey glazed salmon this week for that all-important dose of omega 3.
Go whole or go home
If you are into your nutrition, then you must have heard that whole grains are much healthier and more natural than the refined varieties.
Well, their benefits are equally valid for brain health.
Whole grains are packed with nutrients and vitamins that give you energy and reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes – more energy and a healthier body, equals better brain function!
Whole grains release glucose gradually into the blood stream, providing adequate energy for your brain to stay active for longer. This long lasting energy also allows your heart to distribute blood to your brain more efficiently and effectively.
The word “whole” is important here. You want grains to be fully intact when you consume them to ensure they’re still full of natural goodness – read the label!
For example, oats have stages of processing; in order – groats, steel cut, stone ground, rolled, “quick” and finally “instant.” The more processes that oats go through to get to the final product (e.g. cut, ground, flattened, toasted, dehydrated, etc.) the fewer nutrients left in them when it comes to consumption!
Terms like “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “pumpernickel,” “bran,” “multigrain” and “organic” may sound healthy but they don’t necessarily mean the product is whole-grain.
Some good options include brown rice, wholegrain bread, quinoa and groats.
Check out our eggs Florentine recipe with wholegrain toast.
Enjoy buttery avocados
Although avocados are fatty fruits, they are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), which help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and blood flow, reducing risk of heart disease.
Avocados also help to prevent high blood pressure because of their potassium content.
Once again… All of these effects lead to a healthier body, which leads to improved mental health because the cardiovascular system is more effective and efficient at delivering vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals (in your blood) to your brain.
Eggs and avocado on toast is a favourite of ours for that morning fix of healthy fats.
Brain-shaped nuts to the rescue
Nuts and seeds are a crucial part of a balanced diet.
A U.S. study, analysing 76,464 female and 42,498 male health professionals for up to 30 years, concluded that eating nuts was associated with a reduced risk of death and that the more frequently nuts were eaten, the lower the risk of death.
You can read an independent review of this study here: NHS UK
From the perspective of brain health however, not all nuts are created equally.
Walnuts (brain-shaped nuts) have a significant concentration of DHA (a type of omega-3 fatty acid), whilst almonds and hazelnuts are two of the most concentrated sources of vitamin E (an important antioxidant that protect your cells from harm).
Peanuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, chestnuts and Brazil nuts, all are useful in reducing the risk of mental illnesses, along with seeds such as pumpkin, chia, quinoa, flax, hemp, sunflower, sesame, poppy and pomegranate.
You’re going to get tired of hearing this now but a balanced diet of nuts, seeds and any other natural foods is the best policy. This allows you to obtain all the fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and polyphenols you need!
To get some nuts try our dried fruit with nuts recipe.
Grab a serving of greens!
Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, sprouts, broccoli and Swiss chard are full of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols, vitally important for overall health, and also brain health.
A 954 person study concluded that those who routinely consumed one or two servings of leafy greens every day were less likely to have dementia when older and also “demonstrated the mental capacity of someone more than a decade younger, compared with those who never ate leafy greens.”
All this “even after accounting for gender, age, education, smoking history, exercise, and any heightened Alzheimer’s risk (such as a family history).”
There’s no doubt that leafy greens are good for our bodies and, as we have found out in the sections above, if something is good for your body, it’s generally good for your brain!
Get your daily fix of leafy greens – it could make you feel younger!
Don’t forego your eggy breakfast
Egg yolks are rich in the nutrient choline which, like amino acids, is crucial for the proper functioning of our cells and healthy growth.
Choline, again like amino acids, is also needed to create neurotransmitters, most namely acetylcholine.
Eggs also contain B-vitamins that collectively impact numerous aspects of brain function, including energy production, DNA/RNA synthesis/repair and the synthesis of numerous neurochemicals and signalling molecules.
Thus, eggs aid brain functionality. In simple terms, they give our brains energy (amongst other things)!
Try our feta and tomato omelette to get your daily egg fix.
A few other brain-friendly foods:
Some other foods that are good for the brain include:
- Coconut oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Green tea
- Probiotics (yogurt)
Foods to steer clear of:
Over-consumption of the following foods have been scientifically proven to cause harm to you overall and brain health:
- Food and drinks containing a high amount of processed (not natural) sugar
- Processed and fast food
- Oils rich in omega-6 like sunflower oil and corn oil
- Most things that are white (because they have been overly processed or bleached) – white rice, refined flour, white sugar, salt, etc.
- Excessive alcohol
The key word here is OVER-CONSUMPTION!
We’re not saying you can’t have the occasional celebratory cake or beer but it is absolutely critical that you understand nutrition and have a good grasp of your nutrition needs and goals.
Only then can you make smart decisions!
The bottom line:
It is evident that the food on your plate has a direct impact on your mood.
So feel good with a balanced diet that suits your needs using our nutrition goal setting article.
Developing well balanced meals including lean protein, healthy fats and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables will put you and your brain on the road towards an overall healthier existence.
If, for any reason, you feel unable to meet certain dietary needs, consider supplements including multi-vitamins, vitamin D and omega-3.
Check out our eating well to reduce illness article for more important information on foods to eat and foods to avoid when you have certain illnesses.