We Are What We Eat
The phrase we are what we eat applies to not only to our physical wellbeing but as well as our mental wellbeing. Just as we would eat healthier to lose weight and feel energized, we would eat healthier to stay sharp and feel smarter.
As we age it becomes increasingly more important to look after our mental health just as much as our physical health. The simplest way to do this is to optimize our diet by including some specific brain boosting foods.
Key Factors to Being Smarter
Before we look at some brain boosting foods we have to clarify what does being smarter actually entail. Since there are various types of intelligences (Interpersonal, Linguistic, Musical etc.), being ‘smarter’ is generalized to mean optimization of the brain’s cognitive abilities i.e. information processing, memory, recall, reasoning, problem solving etc.
The 4 main aspects that we will deal with are:
The brain’s ability to store information (encode and decode memory) is directly related to amount of neurons or brain cells that it has. The more neurons the brain has the more mental storage it has.
Key areas to address from diet (i.e. foods that promote neurogenesis and improve memory)
- Neurogenesis – The brain’s ability to give birth to new neurons (brain cells).
- Memory – The storing and retrieval of memory
This refers to the efficiency of communication between the different parts of the brain and its ability to interpret, respond and adapt to new stimuli. The manner at which different parts of the brain communicate with one another is determined by the availability and state of neurotransmitters. Efficient operation of the brain requires neurotransmitters to be available and performing efficiently. Similarly, the more connections (neural pathways) there are in the brain, and the stronger these connections are, the more efficient the communication.
Key areas to address from diet (i.e. foods that enhance mood, and solidify/boost neural pathways)
- Mood and Neurotransmitters – Brain chemical messengers that send signals between the brain and body (i.e. dopamine, serotonin.)
- Neural Pathways – The connections that form the brain’s circuitry.
Your brain needs a stable source of power (or energy) to keep it functioning optimally with mental clarity and attention. Any shortages of power will result in ‘brain fog’ where your cognitive faculties such as attention, recall and information processing is blurred and slowed.
Key areas to address from diet (i.e. foods that improve blood flow to the brain and provide a constant source of energy)
- Blood flow to brain – The flow of nutrients (Vitamin B’s) and energy to the brain for it to function properly
- Glycaemic Index – The rate of release of glucose (the primary energy source) into the blood stream
In order to sustain optimal performance your brain needs to be ‘protected’ from damaging elements such as environmental stresses, natural cognitive decline and inflammation. These factors affect both the neurons themselves and the neural pathways that form the brain’s delicate network systems. Any damage to the system can cause impairment in the brain’s cognitive abilities.
Key areas to address from diet (i.e. foods that protect brain cells and connections from damage and lower the blood pressure of the vessels within the brain)
- Antioxidants (Anti-inflammatories) – Substances that prevent the damage or death of cells, i.e. Vitamins A, C, E etc.
- Lower blood pressure - The pressure within the vessels in the brain must be low otherwise it might cause stroke, dementia or cognitive impairment.
10 Brain Boosting Foods
Possibly the best brain food there is. It is filled with antioxidants called flavonoids, low in G.I, and is packed with Vitamins C and E.
The benefits of blueberries are plentiful including, preventing age-related memory loss, stimulating blood flow to the brain, alter the neural pathways improving concentration, stimulating neurogenesis and even fighting cancer!
Avocados are super rich in almost 20 essential vitamins and minerals, not to mention they are loaded up with healthy monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 fatty acids).
Here are some of the main benefits it provides to the brain: an abundance of antioxidants to protect from free radical damage, vitamin E to improve memory, monounsaturated fats to lower blood pressure and B Vitamin folate to maintain healthy neural pathways and nerve formation.
3. Fish and Fish Oil
Fish such as wild salmon, yellow fin and mackerel, all have an abundance of essential fatty acids known as Omega 3. Omega 3 is like oil for an engine, it is absolutely essential for its smooth operation and maintenance. Given that the brain is about 60% fats it makes sense to eat more good fats to keep healthy and strong. You can always opt for fish oil to supplement your diet with omega 3.
The benefits of omega 3 include: a potent anti-inflammatory, improves memory by protecting neurons and the connective fibers (neural pathways), elevating mood through optimizing neural pathways, reduces blood pressure and maintains overall performance of the brain. Consuming sufficient omega 3 is critical to preventing the onset of mental conditions such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s and other age-related conditions.
4. Tea and Coffee
Yes Tea and Coffee! Teas such as green tea have catechins, a natural flavanol that protects and boosts memory. The magic of catechins in green tea also include keeping your mind sharp and relaxed at the same time, protecting against 'neuro-atrophy' (shrinking brain) and promoting neurogenesis.
On the other hand, coffee can make you smarter by improving moods, memory and increasing alertness and concentration. The caffeine in coffee alters the states of excitatory neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine, making them fire much more efficiently. The result is a more engaged and stimulated nervous system. Just remember not to drink too much (more than 2 cups of coffee a day) or it could have the reverse effect!
Now this is a reason to stock up on chocolate, preferably dark chocolate which is rich in cocoa rather than sugar and milk. Cocoa is rich in the antioxidant flavanol that promotes blood flow to the brain, boosts cognition and protects against free radical damage.
We all know that eggs are high in cholesterol and protein however they also include essential fatty acids and B vitamins that help with memory, providing energy to the brain, protecting against ‘brain atrophy’ (shrinking of the brain). The cholesterol in the egg yolk is also very beneficial in supporting the membranes of neurons and promoting the development of neural circuitry.
7. Nuts and Seeds
Amongst all the nuts and seeds out there, the most beneficial to the brain include, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews and almonds. These specific nuts and seeds all provide nourishment to your nervous system to improve overall cognition and prevent ‘brain fog’. The essential fats (omega 3 and 6) also boosts mood through influencing the neurotransmitters in the brain (serotonin and dopamine), lower blood pressure and protect against damage.
8. Dark Leafy Greens
We all know our greens are good for us but why? Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, romaine, and arugula have an abundance of nutrients and minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamins B, K, C, and E.
These dark leafy greens are extremely beneficial to the brain through its plentiful antioxidants that protect and fortify neural pathways, provide essential nutrients and improve rich blood flow.
9. Whole Grains and Legumes
These include unprocessed brown rice, oats, bran, black beans and chickpeas. The primary benefit of whole grains and legumes are its low G.I factor. This is critical in supplying a constant supply of energy to the brain to maintain optimal performance. Whole grains and lentils are also rich in B vitamins that help to improve memory.
10. Olive Oil
Replace whatever oils you are using with olive oil and your brain (and body) will thank you for it. Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that protect against damaging proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease. The monounsaturated fats in olive oil also dramatically lower blood pressure and promote neural health.
A Smarter Diet
There are numerous other brain boosting foods out there however these are amongst the most common and beneficial foods to add to your diet. Aim to regularly consume some if not all of these foods in your diet to enhance mental well being and in no time your brain will be thanking you for the smart move.
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