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I homeschool and have a health ministry for friends, family, and health lovers world-wide. I'm totally into all-natural and avoid chemicals, food additives, etc. even in my cosmetics. I am working toward eating Vegan, Organic, and raw as much as possible (my family too). I'm married, and have two small kids and two grown step kids. Optimal Health - God's Way ".....and the fruit thereof shall be for meat (FOOD), and the leaf for MEDICINE." Ezekiel 47:12 KJV

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nutrition and the Brain: You Are What You Eat

Nutrition and the Brain: You Are What You Eat

by: Christa Studzinski, PhD
Wednesday, Dec, 01st

Remember when your grandmother used to say “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”? Turns out that she was right. Not only does a healthy diet keep the doctor away – it can also make you smarter.

It may seem hard to believe that what we eat can have such a large impact on our brain. However, there are strong links between what we eat and how well our brain works. Nutrients found in certain foods can actually make you smarter, while others can actually hurt your brain.


Antioxidants are a broad category of nutrients that act as scavengers of toxic molecules known collectively as oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an unavoidable side effect of our metabolism and, if left unchecked, can damage our proteins, cell walls and ultimately kill our cells. This is why antioxidants are so good for us – they neutralize oxidative stress before it can do damage to our brain and body.

Although the brain makes up only 2% of our body weight, it accounts for 25% of our metabolic needs. In other words, a quarter of our metabolism is occurring in our brain! If oxidative stress is an unavoidable side effect of metabolism and can kill our cells, it becomes obvious why our brain needs antioxidants in order to remain healthy and strong.

There are several different antioxidants that can have a positive effect on our mental function. In the table below are some of the most relevant ones to brain function.

Antioxidant Food Sources
Flavonoids (type of polyphenol) Virtually all fruits and vegetables, green tea, cocoa, and red wine
Curcumin (type of polyphenol) Turmeric (a key ingredient in curry powder)
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) Most fruits and vegetables
Vitamin E (α-tocopherol) Fortified cereals, seed products, nut products, green leafy vegetables
Lipoic Acid Meat and green leafy vegetables
Coenzyme Q10 Meat, fish, soybean oil
There have been countless studies on the benefits of antioxidants. There is evidence that antioxidants can help delay or minimize the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS (Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis). They can even help delay the dreaded memory lapses that we lovingly refer to as “senior moments”.

Although adding just one or two antioxidant-rich foods to your diet can have benefits, it appears that a shotgun approach may be better than a targeted one. The more variety you can get, the better the impact on your brain. This is mostly because different antioxidants are found in different foods and prefer to neutralize different types of oxidative stress.

Finally, the best part about increasing your antioxidant intake is that it’s never too late. You can see improvements even once you’ve started to experience memory lapses. What’s even more exciting is that combining antioxidants with exercise (both physical and mental) can improve your memory even more dramatically. So when you’re eating your extra antioxidants, don’t forget to exercise your brain by solving crossword puzzles, reading a novel or even just balancing the checkbook!

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA for short), are a very important component of the brain. Our body cannot make omega-3s, and therefore it’s vital that we get them from our foods. Good sources of DHA include salmon, tuna and cold-water oily fish. Good sources of other omega-3s are foods made with flax and chia.

DHA is a major component of our brain cell walls and makes them springy and flexible. It can contract or expand to let things get in and out of our brain cells, so that they can communicate with one another without breaking.

In humans, DHA plays a very important role in mental function during all stages of life. Babies who are fed a formula rich in DHA, or have mothers who eat a diet rich in DHA have better mental development than babies who don’t get enough DHA from their diet. Similarly, in the elderly, DHA can help preserve mental function and delay the onset of memory loss. Finally, people who eat a diet rich in DHA are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Saturated and Trans Fats

Saturated and trans fats are found in fried, processed and packaged foods, butter, margarine, lard, and fatty meats. Compared to omega-3 fatty acids, saturated fats and trans fats are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of springy and flexible cell walls, these fats make them rigid and inflexible. This makes it rather difficult for your brain cells to communicate with each other. Think of it as trying to talk to your friend through a brick wall – it’s not going to happen unless you break a hole through the wall. Then you’re left with a gaping space that takes a really long time to seal up again and leaves you vulnerable to cold weather, rain and intruders.

Scientists have extensively studied the effects of a high trans fat and/or saturated fat diet, a diet some even refer to as BAD (the Bad American Diet). The evidence is overwhelming – it impairs your memory, increases oxidative stress (which, if you remember from above, ultimately kills your brain cells), increases inflammation and makes you more susceptible to developing diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Don’t forget these types of fat are also a major cause of obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Knowing this, why would you choose to put these fats into your body?

The impact that diet has on our whole body – from our brain to our toes – is truly amazing. Simple changes can make a huge impact on our overall quality of life, even in the later stages of life. When it comes to improving your mental function, antioxidants, omega-3s and variety (in what you eat and what you do) truly is the spice of life.

About this Author
Christa Studzinski, PhD, is a scientist at the Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include how diet and lifestyle changes can prevent or treat chronic diseases.

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