SELF HELP RESOURCE - Wellness / Nutrition

19 Apr 2017, 14:54 PM

Did you know that your diet plays a role in cognitive fitness? Like the rest of our body, the brain requires healthy food to fuel up the cells so they perform adequately. Studies have been conducted that show the effects of certain foods on our brain health. Let's take a look.

Omega 3 fatty acids:
The dietary consumption of omega 3 fats and brain health has received a lot of importance in recent years. In particular, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes in the brain. Since the human body cannot synthesize DHA we need to obtain this from the diet.

The bulk of research has focussed on the link between omega 3 fats and heart health but these healthy fats also play a significant role in brain function as well. The fats form neuronal membranes and DHA affects brain plasticity. Omega 3 contains DHA as well as EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) which can be obtained from fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout. Plant sources include soy beans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and flaxseed (and their oils). Pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas) pack a nutritional punch as they are full of zinc which helps with memory and cognitive skills. Zinc, helps the brain in converting tryptophan into serotonin (which helps relieve stress and induces a feeling of relaxation)

Walnuts in particular benefit brain health as they have a high concentration of DHA. Studies have shown that walnuts prevent cognitive decline and improve cognitive performance in school children (The role of dietary fatty acids in children's behaviour and learning. Portwood MM, Nutr Health. 2006; 18(3):233-47.) These nuts also boast a high ORAC score (oxygen radical absorbance capacity), meaning they have a high antioxidant capacity which prevents free radical damage to healthy cells. (Amanda C et al., The beneficial effects of tree nuts on the aging brain, Nutrition and Aging 1 (2012) 55-67 DOI 10.3233/NUA-2012-0007 IOS Press)

They are chemical compounds found in plant based foods and are being studied for their links with molecular and cellular actions against neurological degeneration. Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), found in green tea and curcumin, found in turmeric, have been strongly associated with higher cognitive function, better mood and is protective against various brain diseases. (Gomez-P et al.,. Natural mood foods: The actions of polyphenols against psychiatric and cognitive disorders. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2012;15(3):127-133. doi:10.1179/1476830511Y.0000000035.)

Their link with neuro degenerative diseases such as Alzhiemers and Parkinsons has shown positive results. With drug therapy, 30% of patients fail to respond and 70% do not achieve complete remission. The medical community now advocates natural treatments like polyphenols found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, spices, teas, and wines, due to their powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in the brain.

Reservatol found in berries, grapes and wine helps protect the neurons boosting brain function (Resveratrol stimulates AMP kinase activity in neurons. Dasgupta B et al., Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Apr 24; 104(17):7217-22.)

Antioxidants like Vitamin C and lycopene help by increasing mental sharpness and is protective against age-related brain degeneration including dementia and Alzheimer's. Rich sources of antioxidants include berries like strawberries and blackcurrants, citrus fruits and coloured capsicum. Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene which is protective against free radical damage. These can be used as a base to thicken sauces and curries and can be cooked with a small amount of olive oil to help in their absorption and efficacy.

Vitamin K and Folate
Vitamin K enhances cognitive function and improves brainpower as it is high in glucosinolates. They slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which sends signals to other nerve cells. Low levels are associated with Alzheimer's. (Hasselmo ME. The Role of Acetylcholine in Learning and Memory. Current opinion in neurobiology. 2006;16(6):710-715. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2006.09.002.) Dietary sources of Vitamin K include green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.
Folate or folic acid is a B vitamin and is found in foods like spinach, broccoli, soy beans, orange juice, papaya, avocado, lentils, beans, liver and yeast. Being a water soluble vitamin, it is not stored in the body and its intake through diet is important. A deficiency in folate leads to physiological abnormalities. Its relation to brain function is also important as adequate levels of folate are essential for brain function. Deficiencies can lead to neurological disorders, such as depression and cognitive decline. (Improvement of cognitive functions after cobalamin/folate supplementation in elderly patients with dementia and elevated plasma homocysteine. Nilsson K, Gustafson L, Hultberg B Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2001 Jun; 16(6):609-14.)

Herbs for thought
Gingko bilboa contains a flavanol- quercetin which helps reduce learning and memory impairment (Neuroprotective effects of quercetin and rutin on spatial memory impairment in an 8-arm radial maze task and neuronal death induced by repeated cerebral ischemia in rats. Pu F et al., J Pharmacol Sci. 2007 Aug; 104(4):329-34.) This tree is native to China and has a good potential to treat Alzheimer's disease. The herb works as a blood thinner increasing blood flow to the brain. The brain thrives on oxygen and a slight lack of circulation can hinder its optimal performance. However, herbal treatments are still undergoing research and are not considered as mainstream treatments. People taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen or blood thinners such as warfarin should exercise precaution as gingko bilboa can cause excess bleeding.

Other ways to boost your brain power
• Eat a healthy diet rich in healthy fats, fish, brightly coloured fresh fruits and vegetables
• Cut back and avoid saturated and trans fats.
• Control blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure. Insulin resistance is linked to dementia. Keep your body weight in a healthy range.
• Exercise at least 5 days a week for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Exercise along with a healthy diet, activates brain (hippocampal) proteins associated with energy metabolism and nerve function. Being active also boosts learning and memory.
• Stop smoking, this increases your risk for memory loss


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