A healthy diet is not just essential for a healthy physique, it is essential for healthy organ function. Preventing long-term mental health diseases and improving short-term cognitive function can be simultaneously achieved through eating the right foods. While some foods are associated with an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases, others are believed to improve brain function and delay or even prevent the incidence of these diseases. In terms of immediate consequences, proper nutrition is linked to increased focus and productivity. In the same way, inadequate nutrition is linked to fatigue and a decreased ability to concentrate.
One way in which poor nutrition is linked to reduced productivity is through its association with obesity. A common side effect of obesity is insomnia and sleep apnea, which logically reduces daytime mental efficacy. However, even individuals of a healthy weight can suffer the consequences of poor nutrition. As well as irritability being a common side effect of a poor diet, prolonged insufficient nutrient intake has been associated with anxiety and depression. Fuelling your brain will not only help you concentrate, it will help you manage your mood. The main nutrients your brain needs are omega fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D and phytochemicals.
Omega fatty acids are crucial components of cell membranes, including those of your brain cells. With communication in your brain occurring through the transfer of substances across your brain cell membranes, optimum cognition requires adequate omega fatty acid availability. Omegas also reduce inflammation which in turn reduces the risk of disease. Inflammation in the brain may even be a contributing factor in depression. In terms of learning and memorising information, omegas are believed to enhance the cellular processes involved. Important omega-3 fatty acids are Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and an essential omega-6 fatty acid is linoleic acid (LA). Good plant-based sources of omegas include flaxseeds, walnuts, spinach and kale.
B vitamins including B12, B6 and B9 (folate) are also necessary for efficient communication in the brain. These vitamins are required for the production and regulation of a methylation reaction; an essential chemical process required by cells of the brain and nervous system. As vitamin B12 is a crucial component of many nerve cell processes, a B12 deficiency can manifest itself in a variety of ways. In general, a lack of B12 results in inefficient communication between different parts of the brain which over a period of time can cause memory problems and dementia. Only bacteria and archaea are capable of synthesising vitamin B12. The B12-producing microorganisms are found in faeces and in the soil at the roots of plants where they are consumed by grazing animals. When these animals or by-products of these animals are consumed by humans, the B12 is transferred to them. Individuals who do not consume animal products should therefore ensure they consume foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take a dietary supplement. Vitamin B6 and B9 regulate the essential methylation reaction that occurs in cells of the nervous system. Vitamin B9 is particularly important in pregnancy to support the development of the neural tube. Good sources of vitamin B6 include oats, chickpeas, bananas and potatoes. Many foods such as breakfast cereals and pasta are already fortified with vitamin B9, and natural sources include legumes and dark green vegetables.
Vitamin D is involved in the formation and development of neurons as well as being an important element of brain functions such learning and memory. A prolonged deficiency in vitamin D is associated with mood disorders as well as general cognitive problems. For example, low levels of vitamin D are frequently linked to depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). We synthesise vitamin D ourselves when our skin cells absorb sunlight, but it can also be found in some mushrooms, fatty fish and egg yolks. Many products such as breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D. However, if you do not consume these products and your skin cells are not regularly exposed to sunlight you should consider taking a dietary supplement.
Phytochemicals such as flavonoids are plant-based substances that are believed to protect the brain and promote longevity. Flavonoids are involved in a range of cellular processes and can repair damage in brain cells by increasing the concentration of protective antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. With inflammation in the brain being linked with diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, flavonoids may help protect against these diseases. In addition, flavonoids are involved in the formation, maintenance and development of neurons. Therefore, flavonoids are critical for learning and memory and could prevent age-related cognitive decline. Good sources of flavonoids include blueberries, apples, citrus fruits, cocoa, black and green tea and even beer and wine.
In addition to the nutrients mentioned, your brain depends on a sufficient intake of carbohydrates to function. Whilst low-carbohydrate diets are popular for weight loss, they have been shown to impair cognitive function. To fuel your brain and preserve your mental health you need to provide it with both the nutrients and energy it needs to work effectively. Good nutrition and exercise have consistently been proven to be the most beneficial ways to look after your brain and body. Eating regularly without restriction will ensure your brain is constantly provided with glucose. Consuming a wide variety of wholefoods and supplementing when necessary will ensure you are taking in enough essential nutrients. Fortunately, the foods that are healthy for your brain are also healthy for your body as they are rich in a range of nutrients with countless benefits. Take the time to think about your food and reap the benefits in your mind and your body.
+ Words: Yasmin Razzaque
Yasmin Razzaque is a Biochemistry graduate with a keen interest in health and nutrition. She uses her scientific knowledge and ability to critically analyse research to write articles about healthy and sustainable eating and wellbeing.