Five Nutrients for Brain Health
The first few times you forget where you put your keys, can’t remember a word mid-sentence, or the name of that actor, you might not think much of it. Maybe it’s just a bad day or you didn’t get enough sleep last night or you are distracted by work, the kids, the phone. Over time, you start to notice a pattern. You find yourself walking around the house looking for something, but now can’t remember what it is. Then, your daughter tells you those glasses you are searching for are on your head. You start thinking, “Didn’t I used to be smarter than this?” From there, it’s easy to think you’re on the one-way highway to forgetville. But, the news is good. It’s National Brain Injury Awareness month and Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness shared how to protect our minds and memories today and down the road.
While we used to think the brain was cut in stone, so to speak. That we lost 10,000 brain cells a day and there was nothing we can do about. Now we know that is not the case. In fact, 66% of brain aging and memory is totally within our control if we follow the 4 habits associated with a Beautiful Mind: 1) Eat right, 2) Stay physically healthy, 3) Stay socially engaged, and 4) Keep your mind active, always learning new things.
1. Omega-3 DHA: A wealth of research is accumulating on a fat commonly found in fish, called omega-3 DHA, and brain function. DHA accounts for 97% of the omega-3 fats in the brain. It is the critical omega-3 for normal brain development and function throughout life, from infancy to the senior years, and might lower Alzheimer’s risk by up to 60%. The problem is that even for those of us who love salmon, it is difficult to get the two to three recommended servings of fatty fish each week, which explains why 75% of the population consumes no DHA on a given day. Fatty fish get their DHA by eating DHA-rich algae. You can get that same DHA in foods that are fortified with algal-based DHA. Be careful, some foods are fortified with omega 3s, but it is the wrong one. The omega-3 ALA in walnuts, flax, and soy, is good for your heart, but won’t give you the “brain” boost that you get only from DHA.
2. Antioxidants: The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue, which exposes it to a huge daily dose of oxygen fragments called oxidants or free radicals. Free radicals are trouble makers, attacking, damaging, and destroying every brain cell in sight. The wear and tear after decades of free-radical attacks is thought to contribute to the gradual loss of memory and thinking associated with aging. Colorful produce is the very best source of these antioxidants, with not only vitamin C, but also 1,000s of phytochemicals, most of which are antioxidants. The research overwhelmingly shows that the more color-rich produce you eat, the better you think. Folks who eat the most broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, and other deep-colored produce, maintain the highest blood levels of antioxidants. They also score highest on memory tests, exhibit the best judgement and reasoning, maintain a youthful ability to learn new tasks, and react quickly. Other real foods, like nuts, are good sources of antioxidants like vitamin E, too. You should limit intake of foods high in saturated fat for your brain’s sake, but when it comes to vegetables - the more you eat, the better. Aim for 9 servings a day for starters. That recommendation is not as unreasonable as it might sound. All you need do is: 1) Include two fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and one at every snack. 2) Double a serving size of any bright-colored vegetable and you have two servings!
Also consider supplements. A recent study on seniors with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease found that those who supplemented with 2,000 Units of vitamin E showed a slowed progression of the disease!
3. Lutein: We’ve know for sometime that the substance, lutein, found in dark green leafies like spinach and kale, is critical for protecting the eyes from damage that leads to cataracts and macular degeneration, the two main causes of vision loss.
4. Vitamin D: Up until recently, vitamin D’s only job was to help prevent bone loss associated with diseases like osteoporosis and rickets. That’s because vitamin D is critical for the absorption of calcium and also ensuring the mineral gets deposited into bones. Without enough vitamin D, people develop osteoporosis even when their calcium intake is good. Vitamin D also reduces the incidence of falls by up to 60% in seniors. And, it boosts mood, including depression and Winter Blues, even Seasonal Affective Disorder. Low intake of vitamin D, which is common in up to 90% of Americans is association with reduced brain cell function, while optimal intake is associated with better aging in general and improved specifically. Optimal intake is even associated with improved memory in people with other neurological disorders, like Parkinsons and possibly Alzheimers. Look for foods fortified with vitamin D, such as nonfat milk or soymilk. Also, make sure your multi has this vitamin.
5. B vitamins: It's no coincidence that the word brain starts with the letter B. From vitamins B1, B2, B6, and B12 to folic acid and niacin, these nutrients speed nerve transmission by maintaining the insulating sheath around nerve cells, they convert energy to a useable form for the brain, and they regulate the nerve chemicals that allow brain cells to communicate. Poor dietary intake of any B vitamin literally starves the brain for energy and leads to confusion, irritability, and impaired thinking, concentration, memory, reaction time, and mental clarity. Although most of the studies have been done on older people, the same effects should be expected in younger adults with similar marginal nutrient intakes. You don't need to wash down Brewer's yeast smoothies to nourish your brain. Just include several servings daily of B-vitamin-rich foods, including nonfat milk and yogurt, wheat germ, bananas, seafood, whole grains, and green peas.
3. I bet you’re going to tell us that exercise matters, too.
Yes. Vigorous activity not only builds muscles and clears arteries, it builds brain tissue, especially the portion of the brain associated with memory, the hippocampus. You can’t sit on your duff your whole life and expect to be sharp as a tack in your senior years! You must exercise. The good news is - that effort will repay you a thousand-fold with better physical AND mental health throughout life!