You are what you eat? How Nutrition may Affect Brain Health

You are what you eat? How Nutrition may Affect Brain Health

Brain Health 101: A Guide

The human brain is the seat of all the primary functions in the body. Weighing just over 3lbs, this organ communicates, processes information, and is responsible for our emotions and intelligence. Because it plays such a large role in our overall function and wellbeing, brain health is extremely important. While a variety of factors can affect our neurological functioning--such as genetics or our environment--there are many ways to support brain health for optimal cognitive performance.

What Is Brain Health, Exactly?

Brain tissue is made up of roughly 1 billion neurons, or nerve cells, that transmit information to other cells, muscles, and glands--as well as 1 trillion other supporting cells. Divided into two hemispheres, each half of the brain controls different systems in the body. This includes language, spatial awareness, eyesight, hearing, hunger, thirst, intelligence, memory, and emotion--to name just a few. (1)

Brain health is the state of the brain, including neural development, function, recovery, and neuroplasticity--the ability of the brain to change and adapt from experiences. When the brain is in good health, a person can function well socially, emotionally, behaviorally, psychologically, and intellectually. This includes making good decisions, performing tasks at work, and interacting well with others. They also can better cope with everyday life situations.

Many factors contribute to brain health, some of which happen before a person is born. Neurological development in the womb and genetics can influence a person’s brain health throughout their life. Events, illnesses, injuries, and other stressors can also impact good brain function. Lastly, aging often results in a decline in cognitive ability as well as neurological diseases. (2)

Common Neurological Disorders

Because the brain controls the nervous system, neurological disorders can result from poor brain health. The nervous system includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerve network throughout the body. It can affect a variety of muscles, including those that control movement, speech, and breathing. Moods, thinking, learning, and emotions can also be affected.

Common neurological disorders include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Epilepsy
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Intellectual Development Disorders
  • Dementia
  • Headaches and Migraines
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Brain Tumors
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

Since these and other neurological conditions can profoundly affect a person’s quality of life, it’s important to support brain health as much as possible. While certain neurological disorders can’t always be prevented, taking care of the brain can help maintain cognitive function and support any treatment plans and rehabilitation efforts prescribed by physicians. (2)

How To Keep The Brain Healthy

Fortunately, maintaining good brain health doesn’t require complex or rigorous mental exercises. There are many simple lifestyle practices, memory exercises, and habits that can boost the brain’s function and keep it in shape. These include taking care of health physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Feeding The Brain

In order to function, the brain needs a steady supply of blood, nutrients, oxygen, and glucose. Therefore, a healthy diet will help deliver what the brain needs. While there is no single magic food that will prevent or cure neurological disease, a balanced diet rich in healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can support brain health.

Researchers have identified certain foods that contain especially beneficial nutrients to support brain health, including omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and B vitamins. These may help slow cognitive decline, improve memory, and maintain overall neurological function. Some examples of healthy brain foods include:

  • Fatty fish. Choose low-mercury sources like salmon, cod, pollack, and canned light tuna. They contain plenty of omega-3 fatty acids. Adding a portion of fish just twice a week can have benefits.
  • Berries. The plant pigment that makes berries so richly colored--called flavonoids--can help improve memory. These include blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Try including two or more servings per week to support brain health.
  • Leafy green vegetables. Greens like spinach, collard, kale, and broccoli contain vitamin K, folate, beta carotene, and lutein. Aside from benefits to the entire body, these nutrients are great for the brain. 
  • Walnuts. These nuts contain an abundant omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA has been shown to lower blood pressure and help protect arteries, which helps brain function and blood flow.
  • Tea and coffee. A dose of caffeine to get the workday started has scientific benefits. Studies show that caffeine can improve mental function and help solidify new memories. (3)
  • Physical Exercise for Brain Health

    Moving the body regularly is important in maintaining vascular health, which is linked to good brain function. One study showed that aerobic exercise improved brain function in adults that were at risk for cognitive impairments. Another study found that every hour of light-intensity physical activity--or walking 7,500 or more steps daily--was associated with a higher total brain volume. This equates to 1.4-2.2 fewer years of brain aging. (4, 5)

    The boost in blood flow from exercise has also been shown to improve memory. One study showed that improvements can be made even in those who already have memory problems. Among the participants--all aged 60 and older--those who practiced a year of aerobic exercise showed a 47% increase in memory function over those who didn’t. It’s recommended to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, such as taking a brisk walk. Adding muscle-strengthening activities twice a week will also support overall health. (6, 7)

    Mental And Emotional Exercise For Brain Health

    Mental exercise is also important to support brain health. These activities can be simple in theory but deliver a cognitive boost to the mind. Playing cards, doing a jigsaw puzzle, learning new vocabulary, picking up a new skill, listening to and playing music, and meditating are all ways to exercise the brain. Actively incorporating these games and tasks into a daily routine can help keep the mind sharp and engaged. (8)

    Poor emotional health can also take a toll on the brain if left unchecked. Stress and anxiety can divert resources away from the brain, impairing the ability to perform everyday tasks. Meditating and mentally engaging with friends and family can help fight off depression, stress, and anxiety. When socializing, the blood circulates to different parts of the brain as it listens and formulates conversation. Keeping the brain emotionally healthy, therefore, can support neurological health. (9)

    Supplements for Brain Health 

    A number of natural ingredients, botanicals, beneficial mushrooms and other supplements are shown to support neurological health, including healthy brain function. Sometimes called “nootropics”, these powerhouse brain ingredients work through diverse mechanisms to promote optimal cognitive health, mood, neurological wellness and more. 

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Q: Can I improve brain health?

    A: Yes. While some neurological disorders are a result of genetics, injuries, or illnesses, overall brain health can still be improved. For example, a study on older people with memory problems showed that a year of aerobic exercise improved memory by 47%. The brain has a remarkable ability to grow, change, and adapt even without concerted effort. Taking the time to actively support brain health can lead to a positive outcome. (7)

    Q: What can improve my brain health?

    A: Eating a healthy diet containing nutrient-rich foods, getting adequate exercise, and engaging in mental exercises and games can all improve cognitive function. Taking time to stay socially connected can alleviate anxiety, stress, and depression, all of which tax the brain’s normal function.

    Q: What foods promote brain health?

    A: While no cure-all superfood will prevent neurological disorders, there are many foods with nutrients that are especially beneficial to the brain. These include berries, walnuts, fatty fish like cod, pollack, and salmon, leafy greens like kale, spinach, and broccoli, and coffee and tea. (3)

    Sources:

    1. How does the brain work? Neuron. 2017;94(5):933. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279302/
    2. Brain health. Who.int. Accessed November 11, 2020. https://www.who.int/health-topics/brain-health
    3. Harvard Health Publishing. Foods linked to better brainpower. Harvard.edu. Accessed November 11, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/foods-linked-to-better-brainpower
    4. Lifestyle and neurocognition in older adults with cognitive impairments: A randomized trial. James A. Blumenthal, Patrick J. Smith, Stephanie Mabe, Alan Hinderliter, Pao-Hwa Lin, Lawrence Liao, Kathleen A. Welsh-Bohmer, Jeffrey N. Browndyke, William E. Kraus, P. Murali Doraiswamy, James R. Burke, Andrew Sherwood. Neurology Jan 2019, 92 (3) e212-e223; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000006784
    5. Yang L, Cao C, Kantor ED, et al. Trends in Sedentary Behavior Among the US Population, 2001-2016. JAMA. 2019;321(16):1587–1597. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.3636
    6. CDC. How much physical activity do adults need? Cdc.gov. Published October 7, 2020. Accessed November 11, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm
    7. UT Southwestern Medical Center. Exercise improves memory, boosts blood flow to brain: Study: 1-year workout program shows benefits for older people at risk of dementia. Science Daily. Published online May 20, 2020. Accessed November 11, 2020. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200520084123.htm
    8. Lindberg S. Brain exercises: 13 ways to boost memory, focus, and mental skills. Healthline.com. Published August 7, 2019. Accessed November 11, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/brain-exercises
    9. Americanbrainsociety.org. Accessed November 11, 2020. https://americanbrainsociety.org/new-year-healthier-brain-10-ways-to-keep-your-brain-sharp/

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