Many of us are aware of the impact of our food choices on our bodies. These same choices impact our brain health, also. A favorite statement in Dr. Lisa Mosconi’s book Brain Food emphasizes this point, “In spite of what our minds tell us when presented with a brownie what our brains actually crave is the multitude of nutrients present in natural, biologically active foods.”
Key elements for brain (and body) health include:
Water – Water is nutritious. Without water, we do not survive. Our brains are made up of nearly eighty percent water. Water is involved in every chemical reaction in our brain. It is that balance of water and other elements that allow us to think and perform efficiently. The water carries oxygen to our brain cells which gives us the energy to function. Water supports the transfer of messages from one cell to another in our brains.
So, how much water do we need? Most of us need eight, eight-ounce glasses a day. If we start with a glass first thing in the morning we will take advantage of the fact that water helps us think faster. Starting the day with water will get our day off to a quick start. Always drink water before you start with our coffee. Coffee is not a substitute for water, in fact, the caffeine in coffee is actively dehydrating you as you consume it. The health of your brain depends on your consumption of adequate water.
Fat – The fat in our brains constitutes about 11 percent of the human brain. If you have heard that it is a higher percentage, those statistics have excluded water from the calculations. Good fats (mostly Omega 3’s) for your diet would include flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, wheat germ, fish oils, salmon, and oats to name a few. Most of these are not common to our Standard American Diet (SAD). If you are interested in developing appropriate fat consumption, look into the relationship between Omega 3, 6 and 9 fats in our diets. There is increasing evidence that we need to have a balance of 2:1 rather than the prior emphasis on Omega 6’s. An excellent discussion is found in Max Lugaver’s book Genius Foods.
Executive function relies on the healthy functioning of our neurotransmitters. Lugavere notes that recent research suggests that it may be affected by an imbalance between the Omega 6 and Omega 3 consumption. He notes that ADHD, an executive function problem, has sown in some studies to be improved with supplements of Omega 3.
Neurotransmitters – Serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – These neurotransmitters, the messengers in our brains, are created from only one source, our food. Sources for these include:
Serotonin is dependent upon tryptophan, an essential amino acid (when it is essential it means it can’t be produced in the body and has to be ingested from our food sources). Sources include: pumkin seeds, wheat bread, edamame, whole milk, yogurt- whole/plain, and prunes. Serotonin is associated with our moods because it segnals our brain to feel relaxed and happy.
Dopamine is important in brain function because it impacts our attention skills, motivation, and problem-solving skills – major executive function support! Dopamine is created by breaking down the amino acid Tyrosine which has to be produced from another amino acid phenylalanine (which is an essential acid- yes, it has to come from food!). Sources that support dopamine production include: chicken, pork, prawn, parmesan, cheddar, salmon, kidney beans, almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, whole milk and plain yogurt, and many others.
Glutamate and GABA have an interesting relationship in our brains. Glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter in our bodies. There is a lot of glutamate in our brains. At the same time, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in our nervous system is in GABA. Glutamate is used in our brains to produce GABA. So, our ability to take an action, stop from doing it, and to form long term memories are dependent on the amino acid glutamate.
Glutamate is a non-essencial acid (yes, now you recognize that it doesn’t have to come from a food source, the brain is capable of sourcing it on its own.) Glutamate is formed when the brain metabolizes the sugar glucose. Just when we are thinking we need to reduce our sugar intake – we find that our brain needs it to function effectively! But, don’t change directions yet. Our body may need fat and sugar for energy, but the brain is very exclusive and only accept glucose sugar.
Glucose is the most efficient sugar to provide energy. It quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier and feeds our brain cells. It is consumed so quickly there is no time for storage, so it needs to be replaced frequently – from our diet.
We think of sugar sources as candy, baked goods, or pasta but these carbohydrates are not good sources of glucose. They are actually sources of sucrose which is not supportive to our brain function. Some glucose sources include beets, dried apricots, grapes, honey, maple syrup, and dates.
A favorite description of the amount of glucose you need for a day in our brain was in Mosconi’s book “For example, 3 tablespoons of raw honey will give your brain all the glucose it needs for the day. As a comparison, you’d need to eat 16 pounds of chocolate chip cookies to acheive the same goal.”
Joan M. Smith, Ed. D.
Dr. Smith’s work is accredited for Continuing Education Credit in the state of California. She is the author of You Don’t have to be Dyslexic, Learning Victories, 7 Brain Rules for Learning, The Calming Kitchen, and Mega Ways to Develop Executive Function Skills.