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We may try to fight the effects ageing has on our bodies, but what about our brains? Research suggests that we can increase the odds of maintaining a healthy brain into old age by eating the right foods.

Brain health – the basics

Our brains comprise just two per cent of our body weight, but use more than 20 per cent of the energy we consume. Like other cells in our bodies, those in our brains use glucose as fuel. As our brains can’t store this sugar, they need a fresh supply daily. Sourced from food, it’s delivered to our brain cells, called ‘neurons’, via blood.

Research suggests that over our lifetimes, the quality of our diets affects our brains’ structure and function. In fact, a 2008 study in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience found that omega-3 fats may aid the transmission of information between neurons.

However, a diet high in fructose, which is in fruit, honey, some vegetables, and foods and drinks with added sugar, may over time change the brain’s ability to learn and remember information, according to a 2012 study in The Journal of Physiology.

Diet matters – what deficiencies can do to our brains

Many dietary factors can influence brain health, including our intake of energy overall, nutrients containing energy (protein, carbohydrates and fats), vitamins, minerals and alcohol. Typically, deficiencies of several nutrients, not just one, are behind changes in brain function.

Some nutrient deficiencies can affect chemicals in the brain called ‘neurotransmitters’, which transmit electrical signals between nerve cells, and influence mood, sleep and cognition. For example, deficiencies in the amino acid tryptophan, which is needed to make the neurotransmitter serotonin, can contribute to low mood and aggression. Tryptophan is found in some protein-rich animal-based foods such as meat and milk.

Furthermore, deficiencies or excesses of some vitamins and minerals can harm nerves in our brains and, in turn, affect memory and problem-solving, among other functions of this organ. For example, both deficiencies and excesses of vitamin A are associated with aches or pressure in the head. Vitamin A is found in meat, fish and eggs, and a form of it known as beta-carotene is in orange and green leafy vegetables.

Brain foods

An overall healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and high in fruit and vegetables may improve brain function and lower the risk of dementia, according to Alzheimer’s Australia.

However, some experts believe particular foods also show promise when it comes to brain health:

While these foods may be good for our brains, some are high in energy and fat, so don’t overdo it!

Smart meals for healthy brains

The recipes below are aimed at providing the brain and body with nutrition, and reducing the chance of spikes in blood-glucose levels. As people vary in their responses to foods, these suggestions may not suit everyone. So, experiment to find out what’s best for you. If in doubt, consult your doctor or a dietitian.

Take note

A healthy diet is an important part of maintaining brain health, but other factors also play a role. Some of these, such as your genes, age and family history can’t be controlled. However, you can aim to:

Our brains are no less resistant to the effects of age than the rest of our bodies, but eating well may help keep them healthy. For more information on brain foods, consult your doctor or a dietitian.

Resource: Healthlogix – Australian Corporate Wellness Online.

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