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Best Food, Brain Boosters
The brain is like any other organ in the body; in order to be functioning at its best, our brains need a steady supply of high-quality nutrition. What we eat and drink has a direct effect on the health of our brains both in terms of structure and function including cognition, memory, and mood. This is because like any other body part, the brain needs nutrients including protein, fat, carbohydrate, as well as, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Fish is best known as a source of omega-3 fats which the brain craves. Both the long chain fatty acids EPA and DHA are needed to support brain structure and function. Seafood in general is a great source of these superstar nutrients; I always tell clients, if the food came from water it has omega-3 fats. Fortified eggs and supplements also fit the bill when it comes to feeding your brain.
Omega-3s are crucial during early brain development (think 6 months prior to conception right through till age 2 or so), and to maintain brain health throughout life. Studies show that the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA can help to preserve cognition, memory and reduce the risk for brain-related diseases as we age.
Choline is a vitamin-B like nutrient that’s crucial for a healthy brain. It supports mental health and moods because it’s used to make acetylcholine; the neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory. As with several nutrients, most of us are not getting the recommended intake of choline.
Best food sources are egg yolks, liver, fish and seafood, dark green vegetables, soybeans and products made from them. A good quality B complex supplement will also include choline as part of the mix.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Emerging science now shows how lutein and zeaxanthin are equally important for brain health. Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids like beta carotene and lycopene; compounds that give plants their respective colours like the orange in carrots and the red found in tomatoes.
Despite the fact that lutein only makes up about 12% of the total amount of carotenoids in a typical diet, and zeaxanthin less so, nature has chosen to concentrate these yellow pigments in both the macula of the eyes (the eyes are an extension of the brain) and the brain itself.
Both carotenoids are antioxidants that help to ‘rust proof’ your brain and reduce inflammation; both of which have been shown to increase the risk for cognitive decline over time.
Getting more lutein and zeaxanthin is easy. Include dark green vegetables, corn, eggs, and avocados regularly. Cooked food sources of lutein and zeaxanthin such as kale, rapini, broccoli, corn, collard greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, spinach, dandelion and mustard greens, eaten with fat increases the absorption of lutein and zeaxanthin by 10 fold.
A phytonutrient found in the spice turmeric, curcumin is hot in the world of brain health which makes it a great brain booster. Clinical research shows that curcumin positively modifies many aspects of our biochemistry, most importantly is its ability to squash and temper inflammation, turn on disease-fighting genes while turning off disease-promoting genes all the while offering far-reaching cognitive and neuro-protective properties like reducing the risk for dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.
A new form of supplemental magnesium, magnesium L-threonate is derived from a sugar-acid found in plants and is a more bioavailable form of magnesium, so smaller amounts are needed to reap the benefits.
The brain uses magnesium to synthesis neurotransmitters, to help metabolize glucose for energy, and is needed for optimal transmission of electrical impulses in both neurons (brain cells) and throughout the nervous system. Early research supports the use of magnesium L-threonate in maintaining the function of synapses, the spaces between neurons where communication between brain cells occurs.
In studies, older adults saw improvements in learning and with both short and long term memory recall. Research is in the beginning stages but at the very least, magnesium L-threonate can help people get more magnesium in general, a mineral that the majority of Canadians don’t get enough of.
A derivative of the amino acid lysine, carnitine is a pseudo amino acid that is used by cells, including the neurons of the brain, for energy production; it helps cells burn fat as fuel. Small amounts of carnitine are found in protein-rich foods like meats. Acetyl L-carnitine (ALCAR) is a supplemental form that has been shown to benefit the brain because it is absorbed better than regular supplemental carnitine or carnitine from food.
Promising studies have demonstrated ALCAR’s ability to improve standard measures of cognition, concentration and memory. Researchers believe ALCAR benefits the brain by increasing the production of the antioxidant glutathione, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is needed for memory formation and consolidation, while supporting the neurotransmitters noradrenaline and serotonin.
B vitamins have long been known to support healthy moods. In fact, when you look at many of the symptoms of deficiency for several of the B vitamins, they manifest psychologically such as depression, anxiety and psychosis.
B vitamins help with energy production ensuring neurons work properly, and B12 specifically helps to prevent atrophy, or loss of mass, of the brain itself. B vitamins support neurotransmitter production and function and folate helps to lower homocysteine, a pro-inflammatory protein associated with greater risk for dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.
B vitamins are found in a variety of foods; good sources include meats, fish, poultry and eggs, whole grains, both green vegetables and starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, corn and carrots, and pulses (chickpeas, lentils, dried beans and peas).
Doug Cook, RD, MPH is an Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and Dietitian. He uses a science-informed therapeutic approach on food, diet and supplements where appropriate. He is the coauthor of “Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies” (Wiley, 2008), “The Complete Leaky Gut Health & Diet Book” (Robert Rose 2015) and “175 Best Superfood Blender Recipes” (Robert Rose, 2017). You can learn more about Doug by visiting his Facebook page, following him on
Twitter, or by checking out his website: www.dougcookrd.com.