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.
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:
- Berries are full of antioxidants, which are believed to fight cell damage, and may help prevent age-related damage to neurons.
- Salmon is high in omega-3 fats, which may aid brain function and reduce inflammation.
- Nuts and seeds are generally rich in vitamin E, which may help reduce age-related cognitive decline.
- Avocado is a good source of monounsaturated fat, which may support healthy blood flow.
- Wholegrains have a low glycaemic index, so they release glucose into the blood slowly, providing the brain with a steady stream of energy.
- Beans also boast a low glycaemic index.
- Pomegranate juice is packed with antioxidants.
- Fresh tea containing caffeine, which, when used appropriately, may boost memory, focus and mood.
- Dark chocolate is loaded with flavonols, which may act as an antioxidant and improve blood flow to the brain; it also contains natural stimulants such as caffeine.
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.
- Smoothie – blend some blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, apple, banana and walnuts.
- Home-made muesli – combine some rolled oats lightly toasted in a dry pan, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed and apple pieces; serve with low-fat plain yoghurt.
- Omelette and toast – in a frying pan, scatter spinach and mushroom over lightly beaten egg; serve the cooked omelette with wholegrain toast smeared with avocado.
- Vegetable stir-fry – using a small amount of olive oil, stir-fry garlic, black beans, string beans, capsicum, zucchini, broccoli and almonds; serve with brown rice.
- Salmon salad – combine grilled salmon pieces, steamed corn and string beans, lettuce, red cabbage, carrot, tomato, radish and almonds; dress with flaxseed oil and lemon juice.
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:
- do stimulating mental activities
- socialise regularly
- exercise regularly
- limit your alcohol intake
- avoid smoking
- maintain a healthy body weight
- treat high cholesterol, if applicable
- treat type 2 diabetes, if applicable.
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. www.australiancorporatewellness.com.au