Take It In: Peak performance of the brain depends on smart fuel choices

Jul 22, 2018 by Carol Bareuther

Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Heart, bones, lungs, kidneys and digestive tract often top the list when it comes to concern over diet and the health of these major body organs. But there’s another, perhaps even more important, organ that deserves good nutritional attention: the brain. You not only are what you eat, but how you think, act and feel is also dependent on your nutrition.

The human brain is an amazing organ. It makes up only 2 percent of the body’s weight, yet uses 20 percent of the energy and oxygen intake. It generates enough electricity to power a low-wattage LED light, and it passes information through its network of neurons at 268 mph – faster than a Formula 1 race car. It’s no wonder that this powerful piece of organic human machinery is susceptible to what we drink and eat.

For example, even mild dehydration can affect memory and attention. Similarly, a 2012-published study showed that low intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, which is common in typical U.S. and U.K. diets, can cause brain shrinkage equal to two years of aging.

Eating enough omega-3 fatty acids can alleviate anxious feelings. Evidence of this came in 2011 when U.S. researchers gave nearly 70 medical students a supplement during exam time. Students who took the omega-3 supplement had a 14 percent decrease in symptoms of anxiety – such as numbness and tingling of the hands or face, sweating not due to being hot or feelings of dread – compared with those who didn’t take this supplement.

A dose of 2.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids were used in this study. You can eat this amount in 2 ounces cooked salmon, or 1-ounce of walnuts (7 nuts), or 1 tablespoon flaxseed or 1 teaspoon of flaxseed oil. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are tuna, herring and sardines; pumpkin seeds; and foods fortified with omega-3s like juices, eggs, milk, soy milk, yogurt and cereals.

Magnesium, found in leafy greens, nuts and whole grains; zinc, in egg yolks, oysters and beef; and B-vitamins like riboflavin and niacin found in avocados and almonds, are also linked to helping relieve anxiety. What’s more, a 2015 study of more than 700 adults published in the journal Psychiatry Research, showed that probiotic foods like pickles and sauerkraut may also prove calming.

Depression is another common mental health issue in which diet can help. Australian researchers, who published their findings last year in the journal BMC Medicine, revealed that adults with depression were significantly better than control group counterparts after a 12-week healthy diet intervention.

The diet focused on 12 key food groups: whole grains, 5–8 servings per day; vegetables, 6 servings per day; fruit, 3 servings per day; dried cooked beans and lentils, 3–4 servings per week; low-fat and unsweetened dairy foods, 2–3 servings per day; raw and unsalted nuts, 1 serving per day; fish, 2 servings per week; lean red meats, 3–4 servings per week; poultry, 2–3 servings per week; eggs, up to 6 servings per week; and olive oil, 3 tablespoons per day.

At the same time, study subjects were asked to reduce intake of ‘extras,’ or foods such as sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast-food, processed meats and sugary drinks. This is definitely a way of eating that is practical, affordable and can help prevent a variety of chronic diseases as well as alleviate depression.

Finally, it’s not only eating, but cooking, that can boost mental health. In fact, U.S. and New Zealand researchers published research in 2016 revealing that the more time spent on creative activities during the day, the less anxiety, depression and mental health issues overall. Creativity, in this study, included something as simple as making a meal. Make that meal with healthful foods and the result is a win-win for mental health.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.


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