The brain is an extremely complicated organ and it is constantly being studied due to the increase in diseases such as; Alzheimer’s, dementia and also due to the increase in: Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety and depression etc.
It is our main operating system and is responsible for receiving complex inputs from the environment, organizing thoughts, memory, planning, understanding and using language and controlling cognitive functions (1).
Whilst it was originally thought that the food we consumed was just to provide us with energy and the building materials we need, it is now more widely understood that the food we chose to eat has much more of an affect on our physiology than we first thought. What’s more, so does the environment we live in. For example: exercise has shown to have a crucial role in shaping cognitive capacity and our brains evolution (2).
Aerobic fitness has demonstrated to slow down the loss of brain tissue during ageing. People who are more fit have shown to be able to process information quicker, which leads to better cognitive health (2). There are also studies that show exercise is an effective way of helping with major depressive disorder (3).
When we look at food, there are forms that have shown to have positive effects on brain health, whilst others have shown to have negative impacts. There is a great interest in the way food has been modernised, as we are a nation surrounded by low cost foods, which are energy dense but provide us with little nutritional benefits (4). In addition, food processing companies and clever advertising has launched us into a false economy that the foods we eat are fortified with all the right vitamins so if we eat them we are still getting the nutritional benefits. For example ‘low fat’ is much better for our health, even though these versions contain more sugar than their full fat cousins.
The so-called ‘western diet’ that we tend to follow in this country has been linked with worse cognitive function and this is even being observed in children. One study reported that a higher intake of the western diet at aged 14 was associated with worse cognitive performance 3-years later (4).
Diets containing high-trans fats and unhealthy saturated fats have shown to have a negative impact on cognitive function, whereas polyunsaturated fats (omega 3’s) have shown to have a positive impact on brain health. When we look at how much omega-3 to moega-6 we eat, diets higher in omega-3 have shown to lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. It is recommended that you eat fish that are higher in Omega-3 at least 2-3 times per-week and if you don’t eat fish you have other foods that contain Omega-3 such as: walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, egg yolks etc. If you don’t think you are getting enough and can’t add more in through your diet then you may want to speak to a health specialist about supplementing – but don’t prescribe a supplement yourself.
High-carbohydrate diets, especially those containing refined sugar, have been associated with the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia (4). In addition high-sugar diets are associated with increasing hyperactivity in children suffering from ADHD (5).
Dietary Flavonols (phytochemical compounds found in high concentrations found in a variety of plant based foods) have high antioxidant properties. They have demonstrated to support circulation to the brain, cognitive function and reduce learning and memory impairment. Sources include various fruits, Ginko biloba, cocoa and blackcurrants (1&2).
So as you can see there are various aspects of our lives that we can manipulate to help keep our brains healthy. I have recently been reading a great book called ‘Grain Brain’ by Dr David Perlmutter. The book gives a great overview about how certain foods we chose to eat can have an impact on our brain function. If you are looking for a book that you can read easily and then explore more in your own time then this is for you.
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1: Biocare (2017) Staying Sharp with Nutrition. Accessed: 03.09.2017, Available from: https://www.biocare.co.uk/news/staying-sharp-with-nutrition
2: Gomez-Pinilla & Hillman (2013) The influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities. Comr Physiol, 3(1): 403-428.
3: Schuh et al., (2016) Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 77: 42-51.
4: Beiharz et al., (2015) Diet-Induced Cognitive Deficits: The Role of Fat and Sugar, Potential Mechanisms and Nutritional Interventions. Nutrients: 7(8): 6719-6738.
5: Kim & Chang (2011) Correlation between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sugar consumption, quality of diet, and dietary behavior in school children. Nutr Res Pract, 5(3): 236-245.