Q What foods are most beneficial for the brain – and what is best avoided? WC
A SALLY-ANN CREED REPLIES:
Brain food is found in various places. Sunshine is one interesting source – the vitamin D3 your body forms when you are in the sun contributes to better memory and an improved mood, quite apart from the health benefits raised vitamin D3 levels offer. Where actual nutrition is concerned, nothing beats fresh, wholesome food for stimulating and improving brain function.
SOME UNSURPASSED BRAIN FOODS
Fresh cold-water fish has to be the most popular of all brain foods because of the docosahexanoic acid (DHA) it contains. This is not only needed by adults, but helps to develop a baby’s brain. There have been over 3 000 studies on the enormous benefits of fish oil for the human body, not least of which is the impact these oils have on the brain.
Eggs have been shown to be an outstanding brain food due to the choline in the yolk. They also contribute a superb amount of protein, without which we cannot function optimally.
The outdated theory that eggs cause raised cholesterol or heart problems has been thoroughly debunked by many new studies, and it won’t hurt to have an egg a day – more if you need to. Children especially will benefit from eating eggs regularly.
Animal protein is important for brain function. However, try to ensure that you eat organic protein to avoid pesticides, antibiotics, growth promoters and steroids. Good organic animal protein will give your brain a boost nothing else can. Animal protein is the best source of vitamin B12, without which our cognitive function seriously declines. Apart from all the other problems caused by vitamin B12 deficiency, the brain relies heavily on B vitamins, in particular B12.
Nuts and seeds are wonderful lubricators of the brain. Eat the seeds rather than the oils. This is the most natural way to obtain healthy fibre, minerals, oil and other nutrients, as the oils are extremely unstable once pressed and go rancid very quickly. Nuts and seeds in a raw state – again preferably organic to avoid chemical additives – are highly beneficial brain foods. It’s worth noting that ‘roasted’ nuts have been subjected to very high heat and in fact are usually deep-fried rather than roasted, in undesirable vegetable oil of questionable origin. This makes them lose all their goodness, plus the fats will now be oxidised and cause free radical damage rather than acting as a beneficial food.
In general, brightly coloured fruit and vegetables advertise their potent antioxidant benefits to us – so eat a variety of ‘colours’ every day. These antioxidants are powerful brain boosters, enhancing memory, preventing oxidation of the brain and generally improving mood. Green foods such as watercress are high in folic acid, known to help boost brain power. It’s best not to exceed two portions of fruit a day (eat fruit after meals to avoid a sugar/insulin spike), and really get down to eating a lot of brightly coloured vegetables.
One exception to the fruit ‘rule’ above is blueberries. They are an amazing food with powerful antioxidant benefits – and anything that has a glycaemic index (GI) as low as this fruit does, plus powerful antioxidants, will be especially beneficial to the brain. The phytonutrient levels of blueberries are particularly high.
Green foods such as lettuce, spinach, kale and watercress are full of chlorophyll, folic acid and powerful protective antioxidant nutrients. They are bursting with goodness that can only stimulate brain activity. Green tea prevents brain oxidation – a major cause of depression – and is a recognised brain food. Green tea offers many other important benefits, so it will do more than improve mood and memory.
Water is something we need to stimulate brain activity. Have you ever felt headachy, listless and sleepy, and had a glass of water? If so, you’ll know the dramatic effect that it can have on your mood and state of alertness. Dehydration can severely interfere with brain activity, so water is an essential for proper brain function.
Eating foods as they appear in nature rather than when man has interfered with them is generally the rule of thumb if you want the best from your food. That’s not to say you shouldn’t cook food – while still having a good quantity of raw food daily – as certain foods only release their goodness once cooked (e.g. tomatoes and carrots). Eating food both cooked and raw offers the best all-round benefit to optimise and promote good health.
THINGS TO AVOID
Beware – some things are notorious for interfering with brain function.
Stress has to be the worst! Have you ever found that you ‘can’t think straight’ when you are stressed? Learning to relax and take some ‘me time’, learning to forgive readily and live serenely with one another, greatly affects how your brain will function. Be kind to those around you, be gentle with others, and be kind and gentle to yourself as well!
Not getting enough sleep is an under-rated cause of cognitive decline. You need seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night, with at least two hours before midnight, if you want your brain to function effectively the next day. Unfortunately, we can’t ‘make up’ sleep – we need it daily, just like we need air.
Hydrogenated oils and trans-fats contribute to the oxidation or ‘rusting’ of the brain. They are found in vegetable oils, margarines, pastries, and processed and refined foods. Always read labels, and if you see these words, put the product straight back on the supermarket shelf. If you prepare fresh food daily and only eat ‘real’ food you won’t encounter these damaged fats which damage the brain. In fact, junk food in general tends to lead to low-level depression, and of course oxidation of brain tissue.
High sugar intake. This is a huge one … virtually everyone living in modern society either has a high-sugar diet, or fights against it constantly. Everything is sweetened, and if it’s not sweetened with sugar or damaging fructose, it’s poisoned with artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame or cyclamates. Try avoiding all forms of sugar for a while, and see how your brain will thank you! A high-sugar diet will promote high insulin release, which can have a very destructive force on the brain, causing damage and oxidation. If you have a really sweet tooth, try stevia or xylitol instead – they are harmless and tasty.
Nutritional supplementation is also vital for brain health. Some good ones include:
- Fish oil capsules or oil are particularly useful if you are unable to get fresh fish regularly; take around 3 g daily of a high-dose fish oil.
- Choline is found in eggs, but it’s wise to supplement if you are allergic to eggs or have an intolerance. Choline is a powerful brain food.
- Rhodiola has been shown to be a great brain food – it is most commonly available in capsule form. Often very helpful for mild depression, it’s also food for the brain, lifting mood and generally improving mental acuity.
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) can be valuable if you are experiencing panic or depression. GABA is an important neurotransmitter involved in regulating moods and mental clarity. Tranquillisers used to treat anxiety and panic disorders work by increasing the GABA in our brains. GABA is made from the amino acid L-glutamine, which crosses the blood-brain barrier and helps provide the fuel needed for proper brain function. A shortage of L-glutamine can reduce IQ levels, and supplementation has been shown to increase IQ levels in some mentally deficient children. L-glutamine is brain fuel, it’s as simple as that – it literally feeds the brain cells. A deficiency can result in ‘foggy thinking’ and fatigue. As this is an amino acid found in animal protein, vegans are often deficient in it.