Boost Your Brainpower: How Nutrition Can Help!
Top 3 Nutrients for a Bigger and Better Brain
Among the hardest working organs in the body, the brain is active 24/7, even during sleep it has a job to do controlling breathing, heart rate and the senses. All this work means that the brain also requires a constant supply of nutrients to do its job effectively. Despite representing only about 2% of the body weight of an adult human, the brain accounts for about 20% of the calories consumed by the body.1 The impact is even greater in infants where some 87% of their daily caloric intake is used to supply the brain and even children where up to 45% of their daily energy intake is utilized in the brain.2 What’s more, this high metabolic demand for fuel remains remarkably constant despite even wide variations in mental and motor activity.3 The “fuel” that the brain requires comes from the foods that we eat- and what is in that fuel makes a big difference in both the structure and function of the brain as well as how we feel.
In comparison to other primates, humans have not only the largest brain relative to body size but also among the smallest (proportionally speaking) digestive system.4 The ability to provide adequate nutrition to the brain has played an active role in the evolution of humans. For hominids, a shift in the food resource base toward more high-quality foods (including aquatic foods like fish and shellfish) occurred about 2 million years ago was quickly followed by an increase in relative brain size.5 A bigger brain meant more nutrition was needed. Studies have shown that particularly for mammals, brain mass is significantly correlated with basal metabolic rate (BMR) meaning increased relative brain size is often accompanied by increased BMR relative to body mass.6 These studies also revealed that for large-brained mammals, the role of energy costs in maintaining brain size is even more pronounced. This connection has a direct connection to nutrition.
Modern research has been able to offer insight into the role of nutrition on the brain. Newly described influences of dietary factors on neuronal function and synaptic plasticity have revealed some of the vital mechanisms that are responsible for the action of diet on brain health and mental function.7 It may come as a surprise that although food has long been recognized as a means to provide for the energetic needs of the brain as well as support formation of structural components, it is only relatively recently being recognized for its role in mitigating neurological diseases and preventing degeneration of brain function. Nutrients that have been shown to play a vital role in the prevention of neurological disease and combating neurological weakness include:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The brain contains 600 g lipid/kg, with a long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid profile containing approximately equal proportions of arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).5 DHA, along with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are considered long chain fatty acids. As their carbon backbone consists of 22 and 20 carbons respectively. Found at levels 250-300 times higher than EPA, DHA is quantitatively the most important omega-3 when it comes to brain health.8 Long-chain polyunsaturated lipid ratios most similar to those in the human brain are found in high amounts in tropical freshwater fish and shellfish species. Other sources include grass fed beef, eggs, salmon, tuna, oysters, sardines, chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts.
Omega three fats have been shown to impact the brain and brain health by:
Flavonoids are natural phytonutrients found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and other plant parts like bark, leaves, roots, stems, and flowers as well as products made from them like tea and wine. Currently there are about 8000 identified flavonoid compounds that contribute to the colorful pigments of fruits, herbs, vegetables and medicinal plants.9 They are among the most prevalent classes of phytonutrient compounds found in plant foods and plant-derived beverages. Flavonoids are known to have a broad spectrum of beneficial biological activity including acting as an antioxidant and having anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and anti-carcinogenic properties.10 Though flavonoids are found at low concentrations in the brain, it has become evident that flavonoids are able to exert neuroprotective actions (at low concentration) via their interactions with critical neuronal intracellular signaling pathways.11,12
Ways flavonoids have been shown to support brain health include:
Antioxidants can be either man-made (synthetic) or natural substances that can prevent or retard processes resulting in cellular damage. Antioxidants are found in most all plant foods including spices, herbs, nuts, fruits, and vegetables but are particularly abundant in those with deep or bright coloration. Though not an exhaustive list, foods such as berries, artichoke, turmeric, cacao, coffee, walnuts, mint, allspice, and cloves have particularly high antioxidant power. Since nerve cells have few inborn protective mechanisms, this feature is of particular importance to the brain. One of the key means of cellular damage comes from free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species or ROS. These potentially dangerous molecules can be the result of poor diet, environmental exposure, and are even a common outcome of normal cellular metabolic activity. They lead to increased oxidative stress that damages cell membranes, organelles, and DNA as well as impairs the function of cellular networks, tissues, and organs. In the brain, imbalanced metabolism and excess reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation end into a range of disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, aging and many other neural disorders.13
Antioxidants protect brain health by:
Minimize beta-amyloid plaque deposits (associated with Alzheimer’s Disease)
The impactful role of nutrition on brain health is advancing rapidly as modern science allows for more detailed exploration of the interconnections of food, phytonutrients, and the human form. Supplying the body with high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and supports structure and function. Expanding our understanding of the molecular underpinnings surrounding how food impacts cognition, cognitive processes, as well as ultimately the structure and function of the brain tissue itself is paramount in determining the best practices for manipulating the diet to support neurons exposed to damaging factors and to champion mental fitness throughout the lifespan.
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Andrea Pryce, N.D., received her baccalaureate degree from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and is a 2006 graduate of Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. Following completion of her N.D. degree she went into private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has a strong background in biomedical research with significant experience in both bench top and field research. She has worked as a bench top research associate performing genetic oncology assays for a major biomedical research foundation. Additionally, she served as a project coordinator for a homeopathy study co-conducted by the Southwest College Research Institute and the University of Arizona’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. She maintains a research interest in the epigenetics and nutrigenomics particularly as they relate to oncology. In 2009, she moved to Florida and began working at Life Extension in Fort Lauderdale where she was Medical Editor for their monthly magazine. Dr. Pryce joined the faculty at Hawthorn University in April of 2014 and also serves on the faculty of Everglades University. She has recently joined the team at the Integrative Health Institute in Boca Raton, Florida.