Listening to music — or noise-canceling headphones — can ease patients' anxiety. More >
Food for Thought: What the Ultimate Organ Needs to Stay Healthy
We may spend a lot of time thinking about the health of our hearts, bones, skin, and even our intestines — with good cause. They are critical to our general health and wellbeing. But how often do you think about how to nourish our body's most important organ — the human brain? The brain is the seat of our consciousness. It governs our capacity to think, learn, reason, and remember; it’s also the control center for virtually every other bodily process that we have. And, not surprisingly, it’s an organ that requires excellent nutrition to function at top capacity.
Most of us probably spend more time thinking about whether our food contains enough fiber for our GI tracts than we do about whether we’re getting enough B vitamins for our brain cells.
Keeping the brain healthy and well-nourished is a task that should be high on our to-do list. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that what we do for the brain now can have a big impact on how it functions in the years – and decades – to come. Eating well in the present, along with other healthy lifestyle choices we make today, can keep the brain hopping along well now and stave off age-related problems in the future, like cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
When you feel mentally sluggish, foggy, unable to concentrate, and just plain tired, there is a good chance that what you have or haven't eaten is to blame. It is all too easy to be deficient in some of the nutrients the brain needs to work at top capacity, especially if we are dieting, or under stress, or eating on the go. These deficiencies can affect us mentally, leading to a number of cognitive problems and even to states like anxiety and depression.
So it's a good idea to become familiar with the brain-friendly nutrition provided by omega-3 fatty acids, the B family of vitamins, vitamin D, and the now-famous phytochemicals, which are plant-derived compounds that often act as antioxidants. These compounds provide a laundry list of health benefits to the body and brain.(1) In particular, we’ll discuss two types of phytochemical. One is the flavonoid family, which includes compounds found in berries and fruits. The other is a compound you may not have heard of – curcumin, which is found in a common Indian spice and offers major protection to the aging brain.
The Omegas' Brain-Boosting Powers
The healthy fats, omega-3s and omega-6s, are excellent – and necessary – for brain health. Fatty acids play a big part in cardiovascular health. What many people don’t know is that they also play several essential roles in brain function.
The two chief omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and an essential omega-6 is linoleic acid (LA). Omega fatty acids are essential building blocks for the cell membrane of brain cells.(2) They can affect the permeability of the cell membrane at the synapse, the point where brain cells – or neurons – interact with one another and exchange neurotransmitters. The synapse is the heart of neural communication, and, very likely, human thought. When omega-3s and -6s enhance permeability at the synapse (so that compounds are more easily transferred from brain cell to brain cell), they can have a big effect on cognition.(2)
Lightening MoodGordon Parker, MD, PhD, is the executive director of the Black Dog Institute in Australia, a research center that studies and treats exclusively mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. Dr. Parker’s research focuses on how omega fatty acids affect our mental health and how their deficiency may lead to mood disorders. Omega-3 fatty acids help the brain communicate using the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, powerful players in the regulation of mood. (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac are common antidepressants and work by helping keep serotonin more available to the brain and nervous system.)
Another way omega-3s may act in the brain is to enhance the production of bone-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which, through a cascade of events, ultimately stimulates the cell processes that are central in learning and memory.(2) Finally, omegas seem to reduce inflammation in the brain – just as they do in the rest of the body, which Dr. Parker says is especially important since brain inflammation has been linked to depression.
So what happens if your diet does not contain enough omega-3 fats? Since the body is not very good at manufacturing the chief omega, DHA, it’s possible to become deficient in this compound. On the more severe end of the spectrum, DHA-deficiency is associated with disorders like depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, and schizophrenia.(4)(5)(6)(7) It can also lead to fatigue and problems with memory.(3)
Dr. Parker also found that "when rodents are deprived of dietary omega-3s we see reduced synapse formation, impaired learning ability, and increased aggressive, depressive and anxious behaviours." Omegas also seem to ward off the cognitive decline that often comes with age.(8)(9) Whether they also protects against more severe forms of dementia like Alzheimer’s is still debatable, but research continues to be done in this area.
Luckily, once we’re aware of the importance of the omegas, it’s fairly easy to consume them in the diet or by taking supplements. Omegas are found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, which Dr. Parker says we should eat at least two servings of per week.