by Olga Ivanov, MS, Nutritionist, RD, CDN, RYT
“We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are.” – Adelle Davis, an American author and foremost nutritionist.
From time immemorial, people around the world were aware that food could affect general health, emotional well-being, mood, and even libido. Nowadays, the scientific community is driven by experimental research, observational studies and data analysis investigating how nutrition influences every aspect of our lives. Although within the last few decades there has been an increase in life expectancy secondary to the medical and pharmaceutical advancements, our brains often times cannot keep up with our longer living bodies. Yet people of young and middle ages become more and more aware of cognitive health, which includes the ability to learn and remember new things, organizing and planning, decision making, and judgment, in order to keep up with our highly demanding modern world.
There are many factors that influence our cognition throughout our life span. Some of them we may not modify, such as heredity or age. However, we do have power to better our lifestyles, habits, and diets so that it will positively affect our physical, emotional and cognitive health.
How can nutrition influence our brain function? Lets talk about our brain. It is a fatty organ that is comprised of nearly 100 billion brain cells - neurons. Our neuron membranes need essential fatty acids (those that come from the diet) in order to keep them flexible. These are the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (FA). Good sources of omega-6 FA are seed and nut oils, such as safflower, grape seed, sunflower, and walnut oils. In addition, these oils have a high smoking point and are good for cooking, rather than olive oil, which when heated turns into carcinogenic (cancer causing) compounds.
Omega-3 FA are found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, herrings, sardines, and cod liver. Seeds such as flax and chia seeds, and walnuts are another rich source of omega-3 FA, especially for vegans and vegetarians. Hence, 2-3 servings of fish per week, a handful of nuts daily over our salad or as a snack, and two tablespoons of seeds in your morning oatmeal, a smoothie, or a yogurt cup will provide you with essential fatty acids that will keep your brain cell membranes fluid and flexible. Moreover, omega-3 FA are well-known precursors for anti-inflammatory agents and today we know that inflammation is at the core of virtually most health-threatening diseases, including neurological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal disorders, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis, just to mention a few.
Free radicals are molecules that oxidize (damage) our DNA, eventually leading to disease and aging, and are inevitable byproducts of cellular metabolism. That is why anti-oxidant foods lately gained their popularity. They are found in green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage family), nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, citrus fruit, berries, and dark chocolate. Therefore, it is essential that we consume these foods daily. It is not clear how these compounds affect cognition, but they certainly reduce the oxidative stress and damage, while protecting our DNA and cellular integrity. Moreover, a diet rich in colorful vegetables will provide your body with essential vitamins and minerals for the formation of myelin, a protein that insulates brain cells (neuron’s axons), so that they can communicate properly forming new networks (learning a new skill). Iodine is another important counter partner in myelin synthesis and is found in sea vegetables. One can incorporate iodine into the diet by adding various seaweeds into soups, salads or as a snack.
On the other hand, the major source of energy for the brain is glucose. However, one should avoid refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta and rice. Even whole wheat breads and pastas should be consumed in moderation. Another way to provide our brain and red blood cells (rely exclusively on glucose for energy) is to incorporate whole grains into the diet by consuming foods such as oatmeal, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, brown rice, and amaranth. These grains are not just good sources of complex carbohydrates that fuel our brain while keeping us full longer, but also provide us with essential amino acids, as well as with vitamins and minerals that are crucial for the neurogenesis (formation of the new neurons).
Health experts recommend a balanced diet that provides healthy nutrients from the real foods you eat and Hippocrates’ famous quote “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” puts it all in perspective.