The brain is the organ of thinking, learning, memory, emotions, and other functions that we think of as the mind. The brain is also the command post for the central nervous system (CNS), which in turn controls all motion, organ function, and sensation in the body. The brain is only 2% of your body mass but it uses 20% of the body’s energy, so proper fuel is a must.
The brain needs optimal nutrition to function at its best. This is especially important for children, whose brains are learning and growing at a fast rate. For this reason, it’s particularly important for children to eat a good healthy breakfast before heading off to school.
Like most people, you probably want mental clarity, a good memory, and freedom from nervous system problems. If you have young children, you likely want them to learn and function well in school, a place where the brain is continually challenged. So what are some of the most important nutrients for the brain’s best function?
Are you a fathead?
Actually, you are a fathead. Your brain is made up mostly of fat, about 60%. The myelin sheath that protects the nerves is made up of fat. The oils, good and unhealthy, that you take in have a huge effect on brain function.
Coconut oil has been in the news lately. Once reviled as a saturated fat, it has been shown to help delay and alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The membranes on the outside of brain cells control the cell’s workings and also keep out intruders that can disrupt brain function. Fluid oils such as fish oil help create flexible membranes, while solid fats such as lard and margarine (coconut oil is an exception) make membranes that are stiffer and less effective.
Omega-3 oils are especially good for brain development, since the brain and eyes contain the highest concentration of such oils in the body. Fish and flaxseed oil are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
The DHA in fish oil keeps levels of the mood-elevating neurotransmitter serotonin up. People with low levels of DHA tend to be depressed.
The most important oils for brain function include:
- Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as coconut oil
- DHA from seafood or supplements is one of the most important.
- EPA is also an important omega-3 oil; it is found in fish or fish oil capsules.
- Linolenic acid from flax oil, nuts, and green leafy vegetables
- Monounsaturated fat such as extra-virgin olive oil, which contains some antioxidants
These oils are found mostly in seeds, nuts, and fatty fish.
The B vitamins especially are useful for the nervous system. Niacin (vitamin B3) boosts energy production in the mitochondria of the cells, including brain cells, which increases brain efficiency. Folic acid helps to reduce the brain toxin homocysteine. Low vitamin B12, found mostly in animal foods, can contribute to dementia, psychiatric problems, and neurological problems.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant, and actually helps keep the fatty parts of the brain from going rancid, as odd as that sounds. Vitamin E neutralizes free radicals that can damage outer membranes of neurons (nerve cells); these free radicals can impair neurons’ ability to transmit messages accurately. It reduces clogging of blood vessels and maintains their flexibility, allowing the blood vessels to transmit oxygen and glucose to the brain more effectively.
Amino acids, which come from dietary protein, are important in brain function.
- Tryptophan is used to create serotonin, which regulates mood.
- Choline, in egg yolk or available as a supplement, is used to make acetylcholine, which is a vital part of memory.
- Tyrosine, found in high protein foods, helps to make dopamine, which is essential for motor coordination. Too little dopamine is partially responsible for the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
- Aspartic acid protects the central nervous system by getting rid of harmful ammonia from the circulatory system before it can affect the nervous system.
- The amino acid forms glutamine and glutamic acid are brain food and can improve mental clarity and intelligence.
Amino acids are found in protein foods, both animal- and plant-based. They are also available as supplements, but single amino acids shouldn’t be taken unless at the direction of a nutrition-savvy professional such as those at CAM to avoid unbalancing the other amino acids in the body.
The minerals calcium, magnesium, manganese, and boron help in the transmission of messages between nerve cells.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) energizes the mitochondria in brain cells. Sluggish brain cells produce sluggish thinking and recall. CoQ10 also protects nerve cells from damage caused by toxins and aging.
Glucose, a component of sugar, is necessary for brain function. Most of us take in too much sugar – no deficiency there! So, no, a candy bar isn’t brain food, and is more likely to be a brain toxin. But sugars are made from carbohydrates such as grains, and some people follow a very low-carb diet in an attempt to lose weight quickly. Brain function can then suffer.
Brain nutrition and children
Adults can usually repair nutritional damage to the brain by changing their diets, although the damage can take a while to heal. But children’s brains are in a phase of actively learning and growing, and poor childhood nutrition can cause lifetime impairments that can’t always be made up later. Good prenatal nutrition is a must for this reason as well, since the brain is forming during fetal life.
Poor diet, such as fast foods, sodas, and candy, can cause damage in a couple of major ways. These so-called foods are toxic in themselves, plus they take the place of healthy foods and reduce desire for beneficial foods.
Children especially have high metabolisms that have burned off yesterday’s food intake by morning, so without breakfast they’re running on fumes. It’s important, especially for children, to have a good breakfast. And a good breakfast means protein and whole grains, not pancakes with syrup or sugared cereals or a fast-food sandwich. Don’t limit yourself or your children to culturally defined breakfast foods, either. Healthful soups, beans, fish, and vegetables are all great for the day’s first meal.