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Learn about the impact of food or nutrients on brain function, cognition, and mental performance
The right foods will help you boost brain and mental health while growing new brain cells, creating new connections, and improving your problem-solving and memory functions.
There have been extraordinary discoveries about neuroplasticity over the last few decades. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize and create new connections, behaviors, and even new neurons in response to new experience. This offers valuable insight for addressing learning, memory, and mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Nutrition & Mental Performance through Neuroplasticity
The brain uses nutrients to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein that’s essential to the central nervous system. Low levels of BDNF have been associated with poor learning, performance, and increased depression. Some research suggests that BDNF could support neuroplasticity and is reported to increase insulin sensitivity —and promote better blood sugar control.
Enhancing BDNF is key to help your brain form new cells. Two of the most important BDNF enhancers are exercise and the specific omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
In order to begin working on neuroplasticity, you must have a solid foundation. The brain is a very metabolically active organ accounting for a high percentage of the total resting metabolic rate, which means that your brain needs a lot of energy to work properly and create neurotransmitters —chemicals that send signals through the nervous system.
Follow these three steps below to protect and rewire your brain
STEP 1) FIX YOUR GUT
There is a close connection between abnormal gut flora and abnormal brain development, and just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut —including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain and is linked to mood.
Learn how to fix your gut in 5 steps, an article published at The International Society of Sports Nutrition. Also, here you will find an article about the benefits of bone broth to your gut.
STEP 2) DECREASE INFLAMMATION AND EXCESSIVE AMOUNTS OF TOXINS
A permeable (abnormal) gut can encourage more inflammation in the body. But in addition to fixing your gut, there are dietary substances called polyphenols that perform neuroprotective actions, such as reducing toxins to neurons, suppressing neuroinflammation, and promoting neuroplasticity.
Here are some anti-Inflammatory & antioxidant polyphenol-rich foods for the brain:
- Spices, such as turmeric + black pepper
- Drinks, such as green tea and coffee
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Fruits, such as citrus and organic berries (açaí is an awesome choice)
- Herbs, such as organic oregano and parsley
- Vegetables, such as organic dark green leafy vegetables and cruciferous ones
- Nuts, such as raw Brazil nuts and walnuts
- Seeds, such as unsalted sunflower and flaxseeds (grind flaxseeds immediately before consumption)
STEP 3) PROVIDE NUTRIENTS FOR BRAIN FUNCTION
3.1) Energy for brain cells
The human brain is a highly metabolically active tissue that depends on a constant supply of glucose (carbohydrate) to meet its energy needs. Your brain doesn't need a lot of carbohydrate foods, though.
Many studies have examined the positive effects of a carbohydrate mouth rinse on performance, which may have been mediated through direct communication between receptors in the mouth and the brain.
In addition, too much blood sugar may eventually cause resistance to insulin in the brain. One of the earliest sign of dementia is a decrease in the ability of the brain to use glucose efficiently. Alzheimer's disease is also known as type 3 diabetes.
While glucose is the obligatory fuel, ketone bodies can also be used by the brain when glucose supply is inadequate. Medium chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil, is a food source for ketone bodies.
- Choose low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates which release glucose slowly into the blood, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day.
- Choose medium-to-high GI carbohydrates for mouth rinsing during / post intense workout. Learn what to consider for your post-workout snacks.
3.2) Hydration Status
Dehydration appears to result in a transient opening of the blood–brain barrier, and this may have implications for the stability of the brain environment during exercise. Dehydration also causes headaches, confusion or false hunger.
Drink plenty of liquids:
Learn how to make healthy drinks here.
- Filtered water (read about water safety here)
- Natural coconut water
- Homemade broths and soups
- Unsweetened vegetable juices / smoothies
- Non-caffeinated teas
3.3) Omega 3 - DHA
Approximately 60 % of your brain is composed of fats —25 % of which is DHA. DHA is considered essential because your body cannot produce it. In this 2013 RCT double-blind study, DHA supplementation improved memory in healthy, young adults whose habitual diets were low in DHA.
Get DHA from:
- Sea plants (seaweed, algae)
- Fermented foods, such as fermented organic soy foods
- Fresh or canned sardines in olive oil or water
- Wild-caught salmon, Alaskan
- Organic egg yolks
- Extra-virgin cod liver oil and other fish oils
- Grass-fed beef
3.4) B Vitamins
Folate, choline, and vitamins B12 and B6 play specific roles in the synthesis of DNA or neurotransmitters. Some also play key roles in the metabolism of the potentially toxic amino acid homocysteine, increased levels of which may contribute to a range of neurodegenerative disorders. Also, there is evidence that CoQ10, Acetyl-L-carnitine, and
Alpha-lipoic-acid all have protective effects in the brain while working in synergy with B1, B2, B3, B5, B7 to promote adequate energy production.
You will find choline, folate, and B12 in:
- Organic egg yolks
- Grass-fed beef and liver
- Organic dark leafy green and cruciferous vegetables
- Wild-caught, fatty fish
- Nutritional yeast
3.5) Vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium
These nutrients are powerful antioxidants, and vitamin C is the brain’s most prevalent one. Vitamin C is also required for synthesis of a neurotransmitter.
Get your vitamin C from:
- Camu Camu and Acerola (Brazilian superfoods)
- Organic bell pepper
- Organic parsley
- Other citrus fruits
- Organic broccoli
3.6) Vitamin D
This vitamin/hormone plays a fundamental role in brain health. The vitamin D receptor is expressed in brain tissue, and is important for normal brain development and function. Vitamin D deficiency may impair cognitive abilities.
Sources of vitamin D:
- Sun is irreplaceable when it comes to the body's ability to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D.
- Wild-caught, fatty fish
- Extra-virgin cod liver oil
- Organic egg yolk
- Shiitake mushroom
|Other important nutrients for brain function
Zinc is important for proper neurotransmitter function. Get it from: organic beef and sesame seeds.
Calcium is important for brain signaling. Some sources: organic tofu and sesame seeds.
Iron is involved in forming neurotransmitters and certain brain cells, as well as carrying oxygen. Eat beef liver or organic soybeans + a vitamin C source.
Magnesium is required for more than 300 metabolic reactions in the body, many being important for normal brain function. Some sources: unsalted pumpkin seeds and organic spinach.
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. Low tryptophan seems to trigger depressive symptoms in some people. Some sources: organic dairy and spirulina.
Tyrosine appears to prevent the substantial decline in cognitive performance and mood. Eat organic soybeans and organic beef.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR BOOSTING MENTAL PERFORMANCE
NUTRITION TO INFLUENCE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM FATIGUE
Nutritional interventions can be used not only to influence cognition but also to prolong exercise performance or postpone fatigue. Supplementation of BCAA has been proposed as a possible strategy to limit the development of central fatigue.
Read my article on BCAAs that is published at The International Society of Sports Nutrition.
THE POWER OF HERBS
Sage has long had a reputation for improving memory and concentration. Also, rosemary helps protect the brain from neurodegeneration.
IMPROVE YOUR BLOOD FLOW
Proper brain blood supply is necessary to deliver oxygen and nutrients for proper cognitive function. Foods high in nitrates, citrulline, and arginine are an essential part of a healthy diet that increases nitric oxide within your body. Nitric oxide works dilating your blood vessels and boosting blood flow to the brain.
THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF CAFFEINE
Caffeine has unequivocal beneficial effects on vigilance and cognition. But, in some individuals (find your genetic marker for coffee metabolism with our DNA test), caffeine can produce several side effects, such as tachycardia, nervousness, gut symptoms, and increased risk of developing heart disease. These side effects can be minimized by using low doses of caffeine while still conferring performance benefits. Coffee, tea, cocoa, and guaraná are great options.
Processed, sugary and refined foods or foods that are high in sodium, additives and vegetable oils will do more harm than good for your brain. Also, alcohol is a nervous system depressant.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EXERCISE
Exercise influences brain health through several mechanisms that promote neuroplasticity and increased blood flow. Physical activity reduces mental disorders, improves cognitive function, and decreases progression of the mental aging process.
CALORIE RESTRICTION & INTERMITTENT FASTING
Calorie-restriction/fasting increases neuroplasticity while promoting neuron growth, decreasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, and improving cognitive function.
HEALTHY SLEEP HABITS
Sleep is also known to promote neuroplasticity while enhancing your memories. Having healthy sleep habits is often referred to as having good sleep hygiene.
TAKE SUPPLEMENTS WITH CAUTION
Please take supplements only under the supervision of your registered dietitian! Read this article: Are your supplements safe?
Now you have a guide to help you boost your mental health and performance. Ask your dietitian to help you implement all of these tips!