Nourish Your Noggin: Keeping the Brain Healthy With Food, Exercise, and Mental Stimulation

“Cognition: the ability to use simple to complex information to meet the challenges of daily living” (ARS).

There are many ways to define brain function, but I think the definition above hits pretty close to home. When we think about getting older, it’s hard to ignore how our brains will fare. After all, isn’t getting older synonymous with memory loss and other undesirable side effects? While some age-related degeneration is normal, there is a lot to say for how nutrition and exercise can protect our brains over time. This topic is broad, but let’s cover some key issues: Alzheimer’s and mood disorders.

The basics: brain function is the way that our neurons are communicating. This happens via the neurotransmitters and electrical signals they produce to send messages chemically and electrically to one another. These neurons create a network of communication in our heads, which literally runs our entire body. There are some key nutrients that help maintain our neurological integrity.

Antioxidants and Alzheimer’s

I know, you’re tired of hearing about antioxidants. But bear with me through this. Eating fruits and vegetables is good for more than just your waistline, and there is some key Alzheimer’s research to show it.

Antioxidants are just what they sound like: chemical compounds that stop the effects of oxidation. Oxidation is what happens every single second inside our bodies. Our cells produce free radicals just by conducting normal cellular reactions to keep us alive. Free radical production just happens to be one of the cons of being an oxygen-user rather than an oxygen-producer. You could say that antioxidants act as bodily martyrs–they sacrifice themselves, and allow the free radicals to bond to them instead of to our tissues and other cells, which can cause inflammation and damage over time. You’ve probably heard about the cancer-preventing effects of antioxidants. That’s because excessive inflammation is one of the causes (among many others, some a mystery) of cancer. Vitamins E and C and beta-carotene are known antioxidants, in addition to selenium, a mineral found in meats and nuts.

Make sure you’re ingesting your antioxidants from natural sources. It may sound easy enough, but popping a pill to reap the effects of antioxidants may not have the same effect as eating plain old fruits and vegetables every day. Plus, you would miss many other benefits of fresh fruit and veggie munching. Always aim to provide your body with the nourishment it needs from natural sources.

So what to eat, then? Which fruits and veggies are better? Check out the “oxygen radical absorbance capacity” — ORAC — chart. This is a tool that has been developed to show how the plentiful, effective, or easily absorbed, the antioxidants from a food source are. For example, they weren’t joking about blueberries. They’re one of the highest-rated sources of antioxidants you can put in your mouth. Some food labels even have ORAC values listed, so keep an eye out for them when you shop!

If you’re a science geek like me, you’ll like this next bit: today while researching for this post I read about some of the work Dr. James Joseph has done in his study of neurological health. Unfortunately, Dr. Joseph died in 2010, which is a great loss to the community. His work includes his studies on rats and mice and how their diets affected their cognitive function over time. In a nutshell, here are some of his results.

1) Rats fed a diet supplemented with vitamin E, strawberry extract, or spinach extract, “did not experience the age-related cognitive performance losses seen in control rats” who were fed typical “chow”.

2) Middle-aged rats who were previously fed standard chow and then switched to a high antioxidant-extract diet showed a reversal of age-related deficits and “far outperformed their peers” in cognitive tests.

3) Mice who were genetically engineered to have a propensity for “brain plaque,” which scientists have noted in Alzheimer’s patients, were fed blueberry extract from the age of 4 months. Brain plaque results from an decreased ability of the brain to break down and recycle the protein fragment amyloid beta, which ends up resulting in a “hardening of the brain” that Alzheimer’s patients routinely show. At 12 months (the equivalent of middle age for humans), the brain-plaque mice fed blueberry extract were tested for cognitive performance, and performed as well as the healthy control mice.

If you are interested in Dr. Joseph’s work, click here.

Let me note: brain degeneration is a complex issue, and there is a reason scientists are working so hard to figure out how we can prevent, and treat, diseases like Alzheimer’s. But the effect of certain nutrients on brain function is hard to ignore.

Mood disorders

This is another intricate and complicated realm of the human body, but the effects of food upon our moods and behaviors are undeniable. Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the US for ages 15-44, according to the NIMH, which estimates that 26.2% of Americans ages 18+ suffer from a diagnosable disorder every year.

That’s more than a quarter of Americans who are suffering from mental illness.

There’s no direct cause of depression or other mood disorders, but a clinical sign is usually a shortage, surplus, or imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that can be affected by food, exercise, and other activities. Let’s go through some nutrients to focus on:

1) Complex carbohydrates and B Vitamins: Grain products have been fortified with B vitamins in the US since World War II, and B vitamins are absolutely essential for brain health. Vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, is required as a mechanism to produce serotonin and norepinephrine. So when you’re low on your whole grains, your brain may suffer. Interestingly, the Mayo Clinic notes that a minor deficiency of B6 is actually common–is this a connection to the prevalence of depression? Maybe, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Vitamin B6 is found in dairy products, meats, fish, and poultry, nuts and seeds, and many vegetables. Folate, another B-vitamin, is also required for the synthesis of serotonin and also maintains the integrity of our neurons. Folate can be found in lentils, pinto beans, spinach and other dark leafy greens, and kidney beans, among other sources. Finally, Vitamin B12 protects the myelin sheath, the fatty protective covering for our axons, and allow for efficient message relays between the neurons in our brains. You can get B12 from meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, in addition to grains. To maximize your B-vitamin intake, whole-grain breads and cereals would be excellent choices for your daily carbohydrates.

2) Tyrosine and Tryptophan

Tyrosine is an amino acid that is found in dairy products, meats, poultry, and nuts, and is used to produce dopamine. Without enough dopamine, we can end up feeling sluggish, apathetic, depressed, and even have some serious, inexplicable cravings. An essential amino acid, tryptophan tends to promote serotonin production, which makes us happy and content. You can find tryptophan in many meats and fish. You may have noticed we’re talking amino acids here, which ultimately means PROTEIN. If you are vegetarian or vegan, make sure you are combining protein sources so that you ingest all of your essential amino acids each day, the ones your body can’t make without the amino acid building blocks from food. For example, combine rice and beans for a nutritionally complete protein meal.

3) Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Most of the grey matter in our brain is made from DHA, an essential omega-3 fat that is crucial for brain development and maintenance. Healthy fats allow the axons that connect neurons to be insulated with a solid, fatty membrane, which encases the electrical signals. Picture your brain as a network of highways that need adequate maintenance and high-quality material to stay functioning. Without the essential fat used for repairing the myelin sheaths overlaying the axons, the signals get jumbled and sometimes don’t reach their destination. The fat acts as insulation for the electrical signals our brain produces. Demyelination contributes to neurological damage and is a key sign of multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease. Some studies indicate that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help promote emotional balance and positive mood.

In addition to nutrients from food, other activities have shown promising results for maintaining our brain health. Meditation, yoga, weight training, and aerobic exercise has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Try to aim for 30 minutes of exercise each day to reap the benefits. In addition, exercise your brain as well as your body! Sites like Luminosity.com* were created to exercise your brain. In today’s world, where most of us stare at a computer for most of the day, it can be refreshing and even fun to challenge your brain. Hey, an episode of Jeopardy might even do it (but a competitive game of Scrabble would be better! And, yes, I am 90 years old). One final note: our brains are composed of nearly 80% water. That’s plain old H20. So make sure YOUR daily intake of water is adequate to keep your brain hydrated and humming.

To wrap up: so much research is being done right now aiming to show us how we can nourish our brains by mindfully choosing what to eat. This post could not possibly have examined every brain issue and every nutrient that can alleviate signs and symptoms. The goal is to improve, maintain, or even reverse neurological damage in any way that we can, and make sure our neurons keep on communicating with each other efficiently. Dr. James Joseph noted that neuronal death does NOT have to be accelerated in old age. In fact, the foods we eat and the exercise we perform can have a significant effect on our brain health in later years.

Don’t you want your brain to be happy?

(From http://www.sparksite.co.uk/entries/local_democracy_week_october_emotional_health_well-being)

* I was not paid by Luminosity to advertise their site. I just use it myself and really like it!

Sources and Investigations

  1. http://wwwapps.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america.shtml#MajorDepressive
  2. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vitamin-b6/NS_patient-b6
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin#Dysmyelination
  4. http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/good-health-with-b-vitamins-in-your-daily-diet.html
  5. http://www.livestrong.com/article/86350-foods-increase-dopamine-serotonin/
  6. http://womenshealth.about.com/od/fitnessandhealth/a/goodbraingreat.htm
  7. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/ar/archive/aug07/aging0807.htm
  8. http://www.livestrong.com/article/197615-how-do-i-increase-dopamine-in-the-brain/
  9. http://womenshealth.about.com/od/fitnessandhealth/a/goodbraingreat.htm
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